Saturday, March 25, 2006

Dottie and Lillie, Lillie and Dottie

Arts & Letters Daily points us all to a good long article on this subject. Here's a citation and some extracts:


[Despite the difference in their ages,] theirs was an old-fashioned female friendship, characterized by Victorian good manners. It was respectful. It was civilized. Never, Hellman remembered, did they exchange an unpleasant word: "I enjoyed her more than I have ever enjoyed any other woman." As the years passed, Hellman and Parker became legends.

A gifted writer of well-made plays, Hellman [was] to some, ... America's Ibsen. Parker, meanwhile, was everybody's darling, her reputation as one of the country's foremost wits resting on a mountain of poetry, short stories, criticism, and screenplays, along with her quotable one-liners from the Algonquin Round Table days. Both women were Hollywood hotshots earning as much as twenty-five hundred dollars a week, a plush salary in the depths of the Depression. Those were the sweet years of Beverly Hills mansions, country houses in the rolling hills of Pennsylvania, shiny Packard convertibles and Picassos and Utrillos.

They also shared leftist political views. In the '30s, for example, they helped organize the Screen Writers Guild, joined the Communist Party, and protested Fascism through their impassioned support of the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War, all in all making intense, dangerous commitments that eventually resulted in blacklisting and gigantic troubles with the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy period.

[Dottie remained highly quotable. After her husband died in 1963.] a silly woman began gushing over [his] death and asking what she could get for her. "Get me a new husband," Parker croaked. That was a "disgusting remark," the woman replied. "Sorry," said Dottie. "Then run down to the corner and get me a ham and cheese on rye and tell them to hold the mayo."

Having collaborated with Arnaud d'Usseau on The Ladies of the Corridor, a pre–woman's liberation drama set in a hotel where dogs are preposterously pampered, she knew something about women marooned with nothing to do but sink into empty old age. Some years earlier, she had told a friend, the writer Quentin Reynolds, that somebody ought to build a chute connecting the Volney [her hotel, full of old widows and their dogs] with Frank Campbell's funeral home, a few blocks away on Madison Avenue. Now, a tottery seventy-one, her jokes had grown creepier—and funnier. The hotel's tiny elevator couldn't possibly accommodate a corpse, she insisted. And it would not surprise her, she said, to learn that the deceased were removed, along with the trash, in the service elevator.

[As Dottie aged,] Hellman [was not always] such a "faithful friend," she later admitted. When she did swoop in for a visit, Dottie would pretend to greet her cheerfully: "Oh, Lilly, come in quick. I want to laugh again."

[After her death] Parker's will was read. It was no surprise that she appointed Hellman as literary executor—a shrewd, high-energy businesswoman, she was the obvious choice to oversee the estate.

Her entire estate, including any copyrights and royalties from her writings, was left to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man she had never met but admired tremendously. In the event of King's death, it was to go to the NAACP. King was puzzled. He had no idea who Parker was.

[Lillie,] in a gloves-off mood, didn't mince words with playwright Howard Teichmann: "That goddamn bitch Dorothy Parker. . . . You won't believe what she's done. I paid her hotel bill at the Volney for years, kept her in booze, paid for her suicide attempts—all on the promise that when she died, she would leave me the rights to her writing. . . . But what did she do? She left them directly to the NAACP. Damn her!"

That those statements were inaccurate misses the point: Hellman felt that Parker owed her something.

[Hellman blocked all efforts at a Parker biography, telling all acquainances not to cooperate.] She feared that an intrepid biographer digging through Parker's life might expose her own deceptions, and that was something she could not risk. For a while she triumphed—as she nearly always did. But eventually the fabrications were caught by her own biographers.

[Lillie never disposed of Dottie's ashes.] Parker was finally laid to rest twenty-one years, seven months, and thirteen days after her death. Her friends were unable to attend because nearly all of them were dead.

The saga of Dottie and Lilly may be sad, but it's almost comical, too. Probably the first to smile about it would be Parker herself. She always imagined the hereafter as paradise, a sort of luxury hotel with hot and cold running dogs. Little did she imagine that settling permanently would require a Homeric journey of twenty-one years. More galling, her real-life coda—afterlife in a tin can—doomed her to spend fifteen of those years hanging around Wall Street, the symbol of everything she hated, followed by eternal rest in Baltimore, another place not to her taste, a short distance from a parking lot (Parker didn't drive). One of her oh-let's-kill-ourselves verses (aptly titled "Coda") concludes with the polite request: "Kindly direct me to hell."

She should have been a lot more careful about what she asked for.


Marion Meade is the author of Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This? (Villard, 1987) and editor of the most recent edition of The Portable Dorothy Parker (Penguin, 2006).

Dottie with Groucbo and the other Marx Brothers

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