Dorothy Parker: The Story Behind The Witty Woman

October 26, 2022

Dorothy Parker, the critic, poet, and short story writer who was noted for her sharp wit, however, as is often noted of witty people, had a childhood that was pretty far from happy. She described herself as “a plain disagreeable child with stringy hair and a yen to write poetry.” She was born two months premature in 1893 in New Jersey, and by the time she was five, her mother had died. Her father remarried, but Parker despised her stepmother. Before his death in 1913, he had been a successful garment manufacturer, but the business was failing by the time he died. With both her parents dead, she was left to support herself, first as a pianist in a dancing school, and then in the world of New York magazine publishing.

Circa 1948: American writer Dorothy Parker reviews a draft copy of a manuscript. (Photo by New York Times Co./Getty Images)/colorized

She got her break with a poem, “Any Porch,” which she sent to Frank Crowninshield, the editor at Vanity Fair. She was first hired as the caption writer at Vogue, but she became a staff writer for Vanity Fair, and eventually became the drama critic for Vanity Fair. However, she lost her job in 1920 because she made a wisecrack about the actress Billie Burke (the wife of one of the magazine’s advertisers).

Her Life Continued To Be Tumultuous

Parker with her second husband. Source: (Pinterest/colorized).

This did not stop her from finding success though, as she published around 300 poems in the 1920s, and one of her volumes of poetry became a bestseller in 1926. She was also publishing short stories in The New Yorker, the magazine she helped to shape from its inception in 1925. Additionally, she became part of an informal literary luncheon club at the Algonquin Hotel that was eventually known as The Round Table. She married her first husband, Edwin Pond Parker II, in 1917. He was a Wall Street stockbroker, alcoholic, and morphine addict, and they divorced in 1928 (he later died of a drug overdose). She too self-medicated, but she would joke that she was a drinker with a writing problem. She did not have control of her finances, and twice, she attempted suicide.

She Was Blacklisted

Alan Campbell, her second husband, was 11 years younger and bisexual. They too divorced, though they would later remarry. She and Campbell moved to Hollywood, where they co-wrote the screenplay for A Star is Born (1937) with Robert Carson. Like her first husband, Campbell would die of an overdose. She fought for social justice, and also fought fascism; her activities led to her being suspected of being a communist. After the accusation and being blacklisted, she returned to New York and wrote book reviews for Esquire.