On Not Drinking for Dorothy Parker

by | Oct 6, 2020 | CNF, Issue Seventeen

Most people remember Dorothy Parker for “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.”
     One of the lines that I remember her by is “All those writers who write about their childhood…if I wrote about mine you wouldn’t sit in the same room with me.”

     It was at my second college when I finally read one or two Dorothy Parker poems in my Women’s Literature class. No idea who she was. I had gone to Catholic school, so I only knew about the rhythm method and how to get drunk in the restroom during lunch.
     I didn’t know if I liked Dorothy Parker (I didn’t know what I liked), but I did recognize that the “Men seldom make passes…” poem wasn’t a poem I was used to reading.
     Except for one Stephen Crane poem that I wrote a ten-page paper about in high school, I usually didn’t understand poetry. Did that mean I wasn’t a “real” writer? Or literature wasn’t where I was supposed to be? These were my first generation college student questions that I couldn’t ask in 1991. I would go to class to doubt myself and never speak. Then spend all night writing papers that got some minimal praise but also question marks.
     To be honest, I only took an interest in Parker’s writing after watching Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle. I was infatuated with the glamour and cigarettes and booze and laughter around tables and dining in hotels and suicide attempts and failed marriages and words I didn’t understand. In the hospital after one of the attempted suicides, an unrequited love ties up her bandaged wrists with ribbons. It was one of my first introductions into writers can be/ are often fucked up. I felt more belonging with that film than I had ever felt in my Women’s Literature class.

     Maybe there is something too surface-y about Parker’s poems and short stories. Brevity is the soul of advertising copy; a writer has to go further.
     Yet, maybe she feared not being witty, not being the ingénue, the macabre darling of the party. Instead of criticizing her for not being Hemingway, the old misogynistic gruff, people should accept her as she is, the poet who is poetess-ing as fast as she can to keep up with the manly shoulders hunched at their typewriters. She is trying to send us a message between what’s said and unsaid. We keep reading her because we are de-coding her messages. Every decade someone tells us she’s not one of the greats. Every decade someone reads her work for the first time.

     Mrs. Parker, this past August on your birthday, they moved your ashes from Baltimore to Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx to be buried next to your parents.
     Next to your mother who died when you were young. One of the losses that you likely never recovered from and were afraid to write about. Or at least write about directly.
     But your father and your stepmother were emotionally, physically abusive. How do we know this? Biographies, interviews, quotes? That’s what I first read about you, and it has stayed even if one biographer has shifted the narrative to an “affectionate” childhood; even if the language of online sources is “accused her father of” and by some accounts.
     No one wants to bring any of this up as they bury you in the plot that your father had purchased. The dutiful father making sure you have a home in your afterlife.
     Yet, you died in that residential hotel with only your dog next to you. You left all of your money to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. For years, your ashes listened to the conversations of lawyers. Your parents long dead, but no other family claimed you. For years.
     No one brings up the deep estrangement in your story.
     Or the aloneness that led to the alcoholism (let’s call that what it is) that led to the codependency (let’s also call that what it is) from marriage to marriage or bed to bed you were the whore that could be led to culture and made to think, no shame, sex was part of who you were (all the unknown and unwritten revelations between release and self-awareness and addiction) but we can’t talk about that either.
     Mrs. Parker, everyone is pleased that you’re back in New York. They are drinking gin. It’s like honoring Sid Vicious by doing heroin.
     Everyone wants The Algonquin. No one wants The Volney.
     There are other ways to survive childhood, Mrs. Parker.
     Even if The Round Table only wants the high notes.
     I hope you’re surrounded with flowers and vines and bramble. You don’t have to speak to anyone that you don’t want to. Not Melville, not your father, not even your mother. You don’t have to be witty or go to any parties, you can be as anti-social as you’d like, you can be sober as uninteresting as that sounds, and it can be difficult, lonely in a way that you haven’t experienced before, but you can also tell the stories of what it was like growing up in a house where you didn’t feel love where love was purchased where love meant you were seen not heard or sent away unseen unheard. They say you’re home, that you wanted to be with your family. But families don’t need to reconcile, Mrs. Parker, and if you don’t want to be there, then you don’t need to be there. Get on the first train into the city. Leave behind the scotch, the inaccessible men, the quips. Take your notebook and pen and everything unspoken. No one else decides where you call home.

Read more CNF | Issue Seventeen

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