Sunday, July 09, 2006

Dorothy Parker and Fair Hope

July 9

I was aware of Dorothy Parker when I went down to the Fairhope High auditorium to hear a local young actor on his way to the big time read some poems and monologues. The actor was Clayton Corzatte, then working at the fledgling Cleveland Playhouse, and later to work in New York with Ellis Rabb and the Phoenix Theatre company.

Back to the 1950's in Fairhope, me as a teenager, in total rapt attention to Clayton reading, among other things, the works of Dorothy Parker. I'm not just being nostalgic when I remember his performance. He read such works as "The Waltz" and "Just a Little One" as a woman, and he was convincing and downright brilliantly funny as well. I had never seen a man playing a woman -- and it wasn't a drag show. He did this without benefit of costumes or props. He simply became a woman. He even performed the agony of "The Telephone Call," about a woman obsessed with getting that all-important call (that is not going to come) from a man who has loved and left her.

I think all women can relate to Dorothy Parker. Women as sophisticated and accomplished as Nora Ephron and Linda Ellerbe have laid claim to wanting to be as good as Mrs. Parker. There is even a Wyatt Cooper connection which his son Anderson may not even know about -- Mr. Cooper found Mrs. Parker living alone in a hotel in the 1960's, old and somewhat lonely, and befriended her. Of course she was quite taken with him, and his admiration meant a lot to her. He even sent her copies of Women's Wear Daily, thinking she would enjoy its coverage of society -- but she saw it as fawning over the rich rather than lampooning it as she and her friends had so enjoyed doing in the 1920's.

Born Dorothy Rothschild in 1893, she had grown up in New York. Her father had been in the garment industry. In 1916 she took an editorial position on Vogue Magazine , and within a year was promoted to a far better post on Vanity Fair. She became its drama critic. Here, in a review she was able to take aim at moving targets; she wrote of young Katharine Hepburn, "She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B." For a forgettable play, she came up with a priceless one-line review, "The House Beautiful is the play lousy."

One thing her generation of writers were famous for was drinking. With some publishing cronies she frequented all the watering holes of Manhattan (even when doing so was illegal). They loved the speakeasies, and they all went over to Neysa McMein's loft where she held what was known as a salon every Wednesday to wax wise and get smashed all afternoon and night.

According to her version of the story, one afternoon she, humorist Robert Benchley and playwright Robert E. Sherwood were walking down Sixth Avenue in the neighborhood of the Hippodrome when a swarm of midgets -- performers appearing at that huge coliseum -- tried to gang up on them. (Parker was about 5' tall, Benchley medium height, and Sherwood extremely tall, gangly and languid. Parker claimed it was Sherwood they were after.) The ambush drove the three into the first bar they found, which happened to be in the Algonquin, a pleasant if unremarkable old hotel.

Thus, the Algonquin became a haunt for the smart literati set in Manhattan of that day -- led by the above trio and including George S. Kaufman, Alexander Woollcott, Edna Ferber, Harpo Marx (he could talk), and Tallulah Bankhead, among others. They were known for their acerbic barbs and heartless wit, and as time went on, their regular gatherings at the Algonquin, awash in a sea of alcohol, came to supplant some of their theatrical and literary careers. They were known as "The Vicious Circle," or "The Algonquin Round Table," and the round table became its own reason for being. Eventually the management of the Algonquin recognized them as an attraction, and provided the group with an actual round table.

Some members of the Round Table had a Fairhope connection. Heywood Broun and his wife Nancy Hale had a son they wanted to find the right kind of Progressive boarding school for so they shipped him to various such places around the country. He was probably in Junior High (7th or 8th grade) when they sent him to board at Marietta Johnson's school in Fairhope. Not much is remembered about the young Heywood Hale Broun except that he slept a lot -- and was allowed to. He does not note this in his autobiography, so he probably was not alert enough to have made much out of the experience.

I would like to share a few of Mrs. Parker's poems here, for some of you who may not know her work and for those who do but don't give them much thought. I want to change that. Buy her collected works in paperback, and think about the lady who never knew how good she was.

Unfortunate Coincidence

By the time you swear you're his,
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Infinite, undying --
Lady, make a note of this:
One of you is lying.


Four be the things I am wiser to know:
Idleness, sorrow, a friend and a foe.

Four be the things I'd been better without:
Love, curiosity, freckles and doubt.

Three be the things I shall never attain:
Envy, content, and sufficient champagne.

Three be the things I shall have till I die:
Laughter and hope and a sock in the eye.


Oh, life if a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea.
And love is a thing that can never go wrong,
And I am Marie of Roumania.

By the way, that last one is ironical. Really ironical. Linda Ellerbe once hung a sign on her office door, "Marie of Roumania." I wonder how many got it.


birdwatcher said...

There seems to be quite a sublte line between cynicism and irony; I sometimes think Mrs. Parker et al swerved a bit towards cynicism. No problem! It can pervade one's view... especially in these times.We need more pity.

Finding Fair Hope said...

True, birdwatcher, Mrs. Parker could break your heart with her attempts at being funny -- a clever woman steeped in anger that she didn't know what to do with, so she tried to laugh. Most of her attempts at irony came out as hardbitten cynicism, as you say. I think there was a lot of talent there, in spite her efforts to make light of herself. A very interesting 20th Century woman. BTW, I'm glad to see you back! Did you notice I reposted the library piece?

Anonymous said...

My favorite Parker quote is "What fresh hell is this?". Enjoyed this blog AND the poems and will seek to find out more about her than the little I do know.

Finding Fair Hope said...

It's my understanding that Mrs. Parker used that line to answer her telephone! No banal "Hello?" for that lady. Welcome to my world, Anonymous. I've seen a few by your name before...wonder if you're related to the Anonymouses who've been here.