Dorothy Parker. Does anyone born after 1970 even know the name? Maybe not, but at 4’11” she was larger than life. Writer, screenwriter, wit, poet, founding member of the Algonquin Round Table, and gin lover extraordinaire. She continues to haunt us. If Molly Ivins’ quick wit makes you smile or you cringe at Maureen Dowd’s acid putdowns, Dorothy Parker is in your wheelhouse. The Portable Dorothy Parker, originally published in 1944, is one of three in the Portable Series, along with volumes devoted to the Bible and Shakespeare that has remained in continuous print since first published.
Dorothy’s precocious wit was in evidence early in her childhood. The daughter of a Jewish father and Scottish Protestant mother, she attended the Convent of the Blessed Sacrament elementary school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side until asked to leave for characterizing the Immaculate Conception as “spontaneous combustion.”
Her quick witted take on people and events continued up until her death. When asked about an epitaph, she suggested “Excuse my dust,” and in the end (no pun intended) her dust had an interesting “life” of its own.
Four years after the overdose death of Alan Campbell, the husband she married twice, she died of a heart attack thought to have been brought on by her devotion to gin. When the Parker estate was probated, the surprise beneficiary was Dr. Martin Luther King. Ms Parker, who had no children, was an admirer of Dr. King’s and when he was murdered less than a year after her death the estate passed to the NAACP.
Her ashes were a different matter. They remained unclaimed at the crematorium for three years then were given to her New York lawyer who kept them in a filing cabinet for 17 more. Eventually, they were sent to NAACP headquarters in Baltimore and a small garden memorial erected in her memory.
But… as with so many things in her life (and death) that was not the end of the story. In 2020, the NAACP moved its headquarters to Washington, and the question of her ashes was raised again. Eventually, relatives asked that they be returned to the family. On her birthday last year (August 22, 2020) she was buried in the family plot at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
And yet… she continues to hold our attention. My friend, Delia Cabe wrote a short history of the Algonquin Round Table in her fabulous book Storied Bars of New York: Where Literary Luminaries Go to Drink (Countrymen Press, 2017), complete with the recipe for the Algonquin’s Blue Bar tribute drink,
The Dorothy Parker.
2-3 ounces of gin
½ ounce St. Germain
½ ounce fresh lemon juice
Honey to taste
Fresh basil leaves
Allen Katz, general manager of the New York Distilling Company and creator of The Dorothy Parker recipe, added an interesting postscript to Ms. Parker’s burial at Woodlawn. In 2011, Mr. Katz, a longtime fan of Ms. Parker’s, named the distillery’s gin after her, and when Parker relatives were raising money for the headstone, he added a limited-edition Dorothy Parker Gin with all sales donated to the project. It sold out in less than a day.
The burial at Woodlawn was completed on her birthday in 2020, but the unveiling of her headstone, intended for her birthday this year, was postponed one day because of Hurricane Henri. Not surprisingly, she was born during a hurricane too.
The final event was attended by a cadre of Parker aficionados who sipped gin and recited verses of her poetry. The headstone, in addition to her dates, included the last verse of her poem “Epitaph for a Darling Lady.”
Leave for her a red young rose,
Go your way and save your pity;
She is happy, for she knows
That her dust is very pretty