Age cannot wither her . . .: On the centenary of Dorothy Parker's birth, Reggie Nadelson applauds the wit and talent of a thoroughly modern woman

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The Independent Online
OF DASHIELL HAMMETT Dorothy Parker said, 'he was as American as a sawn-off shotgun'. Of Parker, you could have said, 'she was as American as a minature pearl-handled revolver and about as ladylike'.

The writer, known for her barbed wit, especially in her column, The Constant Reader, could aim and fire and she rarely missed. It was the Jazz Age when she was all the rage; she was the quintessential New Yorker - hip, cool, tongue-in-cheek, at least when she wasn't sticking it out at her drearier contemporaries. In reviewing A A Milne, she wrote: 'And it is that word 'hummy', my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader Fwowed up.'

Whenever British intellectuals accuse Americans of a failure of irony, as they regularly do, I just smile and think of Dorothy Parker. Irony was her stock in trade. She wrote verse, reviews, screenplays and, most of all, the glittering, bitter stories - Big Blonde, Horsie, The Telephone Call. She published mainly in the New Yorker, whose style she helped shape - officially, as a writer, and unofficially as head girl at the legendary Algonquin Hotel Round Table.

In the New York of the Twenties she was queen bee, top doll to a lot of guys who sat around drinking, trading wisecracks and terrible puns ('Hiawatha nice girl till I met you'), Madonna to their chorus line, Peter Pan to their Darlings. (She would have loathed Peter Pan]) It was the jazz age. America was changing from rural to urban: as it gaped at New York's pranksters, Parker was a modern woman, a tiny, thrilling freak in her hat. It's astonishing no one has made a musical with Parker as Dorothy and the Algonquin as Oz.

Dorothy Parker lived until she was 73. She died in 1967, a frail old drunk, alone 'with a raspy little concierge of a dog in a hotel room in Manhattan,' wrote Brendan Gill, a colleague at the New Yorker. 'She was one of the wittiest people in the world and one of the saddest.' It was this tension that made her best work, the short stories especially, transcendent.

There was something arch and malicious about little Mrs Parker as she styled herself, but she also had a quality that reminded future generations of women of something they were after: she did what she wanted; she said what she thought; she worked very hard and was very, very good. After she was dead, she made a comeback.

When the Sixties and Seventies discovered the Twenties as a kindred period, all kinds of writers would be compared to her - Nora Ephron, Fran Leibowitz - but if they had the wit, they never had the pain, or the emotion. Mrs Parker herself might have been amused that in at least one edition of anthologies of great writers, only Shakespeare, The World Bible and Dorothy Parker have been continuously in print.

Yesterday, Dorothy Parker would have been 100. Because she has become so synonymous with the modern woman, it is hard to imagine that she was actually born a Victorian.

Her mother was Scottish, her father a Jewish garment manufacturer and she grew up in New York City. Her mother died when she was young; her father's second wife apparently treated her miserably. She grew up wary, self-protective. When the critic Edmund Wilson told her a former lover had died, she said, 'I don't see what else he could have done.' It was vintage Parker.

She first made her mark with her verse.

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

It was seen as tough stuff - then. She was the bard of the hard-living Twenties, when girls who believed 'anything goes' could end up cynical, and she had a lot of lousy love affairs. It was partly thanks to Dorothy Parker that the country believed people in New York City spent most of their time drinking, sniffing cocaine and having casual sex - that, or sitting around at the Algonquin being frighteningly smart. It still does.

The Round Table had a genius for perpetuating its own myth: generations of writers have accorded its members the status of literary godlets. The current denizens of the new New Yorker have made their office canteen at the Royalton Hotel just opposite the Algonquin. And although most of us might yearn for the way it was then, back when women were witty and men were soused, I'd say the level of talent these days is pretty much on a par, one way or another.

Having married and divorced Edwin Pond Parker II, Dorothy went to Europe where she met Hemingway and Fitzgerald, then returned to New York. She subsequently married Alan Campbell, a bisexual actor-writer who, like her, was half Jewish, half Scottish. They spent time in Hollywood where Parker wrote screenplays, made tons of money and was a passionate left-wing activist.

The reviews she wrote for the New Yorker are dazzling, droll and vicious: ' 'Daddy, what's an optimist?' said Pat to Mike while they were walking down the street together one day. 'One who thought that Margot Asquith wasn't going to write anymore,' replied the absent-minded professor, as he wound up the cat and put the clock out.'

Dorothy Parker went on writing on and off into the Fifties and Sixties, and if she ended up a little like a figure in one of her own tales, it didn't matter. She never let herself off the hook.

'People ought to be one of two things, young or old,' Parker wrote. 'No, what's the use of fooling? People ought to be one of two things, young or dead.' But my own favourite of all her lines goes like this: 'Men don't make passes. At girls who wear glasses.'

(Photograph omitted)