By Hugo Millard
Wit has been a constant aspect of our society, immortalised by the likes of Alexander Pope and Oscar Wilde, and is just as important today as it was two or three hundred years ago. More recently, the role of social wit fell to the New York-based poet, playwright, satirist, and critic Dorothy Parker (née Rothschild), who acted as a cutting conscience for the twentieth century, through a long career starting from the sale of her first poem to Vanity Fair in 1914 to her death in 1967. She wrote two essay collections, five anthologies of short stories, six collections of poetry, two plays, and eight screenplays.
A cutting conscience for the twentieth century
Parker, known for her sharp words and stinging wit, famously quipped ‘I wake up in the morning and brush my teeth, and then I sharpen my tongue’. She quickly rose to acclaim in America, publishing poetry and social commentary in many of the Condé Nash magazines as well as other popular publications such as The New Yorker. However, despite the popularity of her witty criticism, Vanity Fair found it necessary to fire her in 1920 after her comments had offended one too many powerful producers.
She similarly established herself as an important and feared figure in the literary world of the early 20th century by co-founding the infamous ‘Algonquin Round Table’ with Robert Benchley and Robert E. Sherwood, identifying themselves as a significant presence in American society. ‘The Vicious Circle’, as they called themselves, comprised many actors, writers, reviewers, and other big names of the age, all meeting daily for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel. Nothing and no one was off-limits or could escape their clever quips. For example, on hearing of the death of the thirtieth American president Calvin Coolidge, Parker’s now-famous response was ‘How could they tell?’
An important and feared figure in the literary world of the the early 20th century
Parker enjoyed a long and relatively successful career in Hollywood as a script-writer, winning two Academy Awards for her work. Most notably, and recognisably to the modern-day audience, she wrote the original script for the 1937 film ‘A Star is Born’, recently reimagined starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper.
However, though Parker’s success in both poetry and film were hallmarks of her career, it is her involvement with socialist politics in the early, at a time when the American government was cracking down on left-wing sentiments, which truly marks her out. One of her most notable achievements was the founding of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League in 1936, which the FBI thought was a front for the Communist Party, eventually growing to over four-thousand strong in members. As well as this, Parker also served as chair for the Spanish Refugee Appeal, a charitable branch of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, during her time in Hollywood.
These connections eventually saw her blacklisted in Hollywood, and her career in the film industry was abruptly curtailed. Exclusion from Hollywood couldn’t suppress the talent and voice of Parker though, and she re-emerged into the writing scene, though returning to the magazines and society of her early life instead of continuing her screenplays.
The Oscar Wilde of the 20th century
The pure wit expressed throughout her various poems and epigrams unquestionably remains a thought-provoking joy to read, and Parker deserves her place as the Oscar Wilde of the 20th century: ‘I hate writing, I love having written’. Ranging from short four line poems, such as ‘Post-Graduate’, to collections of longer poems, such as her more subversive ‘Hymns of Hate’ covering everything from Actors to Reformers, Parker’s writing provides something for everybody and allows engagement with her writing whether you’re a poetry buff or a complete newbie.
Photograph by StrnGrl via Flickr