EP 028: I Have Not Shot Her Yet

EP 028: I HAVE NOT SHOT HER YET Historycal: Words that Shaped the World

What was John Peter Toohey thinking when he first called the Algonquin Round Table to order? And what did it take to crack an invite? Today we're talking about Dorothy Parker, her place among the literary elite, and the time she tried to train a turtle. 

Dorothy Parker was born Dorothy Rothschild in 1893, and she’s best remembered as an American poet, writer, critic, satirist and, as some sources claim, a conversationalist. Which basically just means that she dared to express her opinions at a time when most women weren’t aware that they were allowed to have any. Parker’s father was Jewish, and her mother was Protestant, so for no reason whatsoever she was sent to a Catholic school. This wasn’t, in hindsight, the best parental decision they might have made, but by this time, according to many accounts, her father had become quite abusive, and by all accounts her mother had become quite deceased. There are some mixed views as to how long the battle of wills between Parker and the school continued – some suggest she had left by the time she was 14, and others that she made it all the way to 18 – but she herself admitted that she was asked to leave on at least one occasion for renaming the Immaculate Conception the “spontaneous combustion.” One imagines that this was not an isolated event.

This kind of quick witted verbal play was what she become known for – far more so than for her actual work itself. Her writing is filled with a kind of double-edged dark irony, simultaneously poking fun at what she considered to be the social foibles of the time, but also at herself, and the bizarre temerity of the human condition. She sold her first poem in 1914, but it wasn’t until 1918 that her career really took off, when she took a post with Vanity Fair, filling in for PG Wodehouse, another giant of literary humour, who, in the past 19 or so years, had produced a staggering 18 novels, 3 collections of short stories, 16 plays, 1 film, and a wife, and was having a lie down.

At Vanity Fair she became known for what literary scholars like to politely call ‘caustic wit’, but it was also here that she met writers Robert Benchley and Robert E. Sherwood. The trio were among the founders of the Algonquin Round Table, a literary society, for wont of a better word, that sounds far loftier than it really was. Basically, a big group of literary thinkers met for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel every day for the better part of a decade, where they engaged in what can really only be called verbal cage fighting. The best of the barbs was duly scribbled down on napkins and disseminated to an eager public via the members’ various publications. The whole thing actually started as a practical joke. John Peter Toohey, a theatrical agent, was cross with The New York Times drama critic Alexander Woollcott, because Woollcott had refused point blank to plug one of Toohey’s clients in his column. In revenge, he organized a lunch at the Hotel with a number of friends, ostensibly to welcome Woollcott back from World War I, but actually to insult him soundly every time he opened his mouth. All the other invitees were, of course, in on the joke, but Woollcott was a surprisingly good sport, and everyone enjoyed the whole thing so much that Toohey suggested they do it again. Fortunately, Woollcott was forgiven, and – one presumes – allowed to relinquish the spotlight. As time passed, a number of games were added to the agenda, and it was during one of these that Dorothy Parker coined the famous “You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think.”

Although the club was much revered at the time, Dorothy Parker remembered it with a kind of melancholic and cynical self-deprecation, which was quite characteristic of the way she viewed much of her own work:

These were no giants. Think who was writing in those days—Lardner, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Hemingway. Those were the real giants. The Round Table was just a lot of people telling jokes and telling each other how good they were. Just a bunch of loudmouths showing off, saving their gags for days, waiting for a chance to spring them… There was no truth in anything they said. It was the terrible day of the wisecrack, so there didn’t have to be any truth…

Parker’s sharp, dark humour wasn’t just a stylistic choice – it was an extension of the complicated interplay between intellect and depression, joy and heartbreak, which plagued her for most of her life. As one of her biographers noted, she seemed completely incapable of ever falling in love with men who would – or could – love her back, and was prone to long periods of alcoholism and depression. 

Her poetry and essays are wonderful, and we’ll come back to them on the podcast another day, but the place one really gets to see a glimpse of the woman underneath the literary figure is in her letters, so that’s where we’re going to start.

This one was written to Seward Collins in 1927. Dorothy Parker, after a whirlwind tour through Europe, and an even more tempestuous affair with Collins himself, found herself hospitalised for exhaustion. (The record is mum as to whether the dalliance or the distance had proved most detrimental). Either way, the two were obviously on good enough terms to exchange letters, because Parker was soon pulling her hair out with boredom, and whiling away the time on her correspondence.

The Presbyterian Hospital

In the City of New York (she writes)

May 5, I think

Dear Seward, honest, what with music lessons and four attacks of measles and all that expense of having my teeth straightened, I was brought up more carefully than to write letters in pencil. But I asked the nurse for some ink—just asked her in a nice way—and she left the room and hasn’t been heard of from that day to this. So that, my dears, is how I met Major (later General) Grant.

Maybe only the trusties are allowed to play with ink.

I am practically bursting with health, and the medical world, hitherto white with suspense, is entertaining high hopes—I love that locution—you can just see the high hopes, all dressed up, being taken to the Hippodrome and then to Maillard’s for tea. Or maybe you can’t—the hell with it.

This is my favourite kind of hospital and everybody is very brisk and sterilized and kind and nice. But they are always sticking thermometers into you or turning lights on you or instructing you in occupational therapy (rug-making—there’s a fascinating pursuit!) and you don’t get a chance to gather any news for letter-writing.

Of course, if I thought you would listen, I could tell you about the cunning little tot of four who ran up and down the corridor all day long; and I think, from the way he sounded, he had his little horse-shoes on—some well-wisher had given him a bunch of keys to play with, and he jingled them as he ran, and just as he came to my door, the manly little fellow would drop them and when I got so I knew just when to expect the crash, he’d fool me and run by two or even three times without letting them go. Well, they took him up and operated on his shoulder, and they don’t think he will ever be able to use his right arm again. So that will stop that god damn nonsense.

And then there is the nurse who tells me she is afraid she is an incorrigible flirt, but somehow she just can’t help it. She also pronounces “picturesque” picture-skew, and “unique” un-i-kew, and it is amazing how often she manages to introduce these words into her conversation, leading the laughter herself. Also, when she leaves the room, she says “see you anon.” I have not shot her yet. Maybe Monday.

And, above all, there is the kindhearted if ineffectual gentleman across the hall, where he lies among his gallstones, who sent me in a turtle to play with. Honest. Sent me in a turtle to play with. I am teaching it two-handed bridge. And as soon as I get really big and strong, I am going to race it to the end of the room and back.

I should love to see Daisy, but it seems that there is some narrow-minded prejudice against bringing dogs into hospitals. And anyway, I wouldn’t trust these bastards of doctors. She would probably leave here with a guinea-pig’s thyroid in her. Helen says she is magnificent—she has been plucked and her girlish waist-line has returned. I thought the dear devoted little beast might eat her heart out in my absence, and you know she shouldn’t have meat. But she is playful as a puppy, and has nine new toys—three balls and six assorted plush animals. She insists on taking the entire collection to bed with her, and, as she sleeps on Helen’s bed, Helen is looking a little haggard these days.

At my tearful request, Helen said to her “Dorothy sends her love.”

“Who?” she said.

I am enclosing a little thing sent by some unknown friend. Oh, well.

And here is a poem of a literary nature. It is called Despair in Chelsea.

Osbert Sitwell

Is unable to have a satisfactory evacuation.

His brother, Sacheverel,

Doubts if he ever’ll.

This is beyond doubt the dullest letter since George Moore wrote “Esther Water.” But I will write you decent ones as soon as any news breaks. And after my death, Mr. Conkwright-Shreiner can put them in a book—the big stiff.

But in the meantime, I should love to hear how you are and whatever. And if in your travels, you meet any deserving family that wants to read “Mr. Fortune’s Maggot,” I have six copies.

Love,

Dorothy

I promised my mother on her deathbed I would never write a postscript, but I had to save the wow for the finish. I have lost twenty-two pounds.

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