Wednesday, July 18, 2007

A chance to follow in Dottie's footsteps

If you live in New York, well, you're lucky because you're living in New York. You're also lucky, though because you can take part in the Dorothy Parker Society's monthly walking tour of the former residences, workplaces and yes, speakeasies, frequented in the 1920s by the darkly acerbic poet and short story writer.

For those unfamiliar with Dorothy Parker, may I suggest deeply and with a fan girl's fervor, that you seek her work out immediately? Her poetry, which made her famous in the early 1920s, suffers a bit from the passage of time, coming off in some instances as a slight rehash of Edna St. Vincent Millay and honestly, the world really needed only one Edna St. Vincent Millay, if that. That's not to say there aren't poetic gems in the Parker oeuvre. My personal favorite, "Resume," offers a casually dark run-down of repeated suicide attempts:

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

Parker's real gifts, however, were as a critic and as a fiction author. Her criticism was filled with blistering, razor-sharp diatribes against less-than-stellar plays and books. Of Katherine Hepburn, she once said her performance "runs the gamut of emotions from A to B."

It was Parker's short stories which offered her the chance to show heart and emotion. her most famous story, "Big Blonde," is unflinching in its depiction of a secretary who alls for a married man and ultimately endures the emotional fall-out of an abortion. Pretty edgy stuff for 1929.

My favorite story, though, is a snap shot of unrequited love called "Just a Little One." Told in the form of a monologue, the story is simply about a woman sitting in a speakeasy with her male friend, nicknamed Fred. As they drink more and more, the woman's jealousy over the man's girlfriend grows and gets uglier until she ends up embarrassing herself, all but revealing the romantic feelings she might not even realize she has. This story may or may not be about Parker and her own unconsummated affection for her closest friend, legendary humorist Robert Benchley. It's a story that achieves universality with its specificity.

Almost as fascinating as Parker's writing is her own life, detailed in Marion Meade's biography, What Fresh Hell Is This? If you want to read a book about a brilliantly flawed and endlessly flawed woman with a cruel strike ten miles wide, you should check out this book. You can't help but feel sorry for this woman while simultaneously admiring the hell out of her.

So is all this enough to convince you to go on the walking tour? if you live in New York or are visiting any time soon, you have to try it at least once -- and then tell me all about it because I've never gone on the tour myself. Just looking at the website description makes me salivate -- so many glimpses of history, so many gems of the 1920s -- the best decade of them all, in my sad little opinion -- and best of all, it starts and ends at the Algonquin Hotel where Parker lunched almost everyday and made literary geek history as a member of the Algonquin Round Table, aka the Vicious Circe. If you want to visit with the ghosts of the men and women who changed 20th century theatre, fiction and humor including Parker, Benchley, George S. Kaufman, Marc Connelly and myriad other luminaries, this just might be the tour for you.


Anonymous said...

What a coincidence! Austin's old-time radio re-creation troupe, the Violet Crown Radio Players, are performing Parker's "Big Blonde" on July 26, at 7 p.m. at the Harry Ransom Center (The University of Texas campus, in Austin, TX).

Details at:

Austin, TX

Kevin said...

Nice post. Similarly, I posted about the walking tour over at my blog, Mere Words.