A Conversation with Dorothy Parker: What she has to say about making history
Years ago, when I was first researching New York in the 1920s and the 1930s, I took a tour of the famed Algonquin Hotel in New York City. I was introduced to a group of movers and shakers of the era, the Round Table and the Vicious Circle members. This group of creative and influential people frequented the Algonquin to entertain themselves with wise cracks, criticize the inferior, do business, and inevitably make history. Some of the original members included Dorothy Parker, poet and drama critic; Franklin P. Adams (FPA), New York Tribune and New York World columnist; Robert Benchley, Editor at Vanity Fair and Life; Harpo Marx, actor, comedian, card player; and Jane Grant and Harold Ross, co-founders of The New Yorker.
That day has stuck firm in my memory. In the summer heat, a small group of us toured around the Theater District and saw the buildings where The New Yorker, Vogue and Vanity Fair began their illustrious history, the Actors Chapel, the Ziegfeld Theater, and much more. Inspiration was stirring from walking in the footsteps of famous history makers. I love the Art Deco era, the years smack dab in the middle of the interwar years, with the iron bookends of World War I and World War II. I have researched this era for years and have found the gritty wit, the colorful bounds in fashion and women's rights, the undeniable gumption, and the unrestrained innovation absolutely tantalizing.
But that day, I discovered that what creates resolve and fortitude in some, creates melancholic torpor in others. Here’s the thing, I love history and learning and connecting with other eras. But I have run into a few people who are the epitome of the character Paul played by Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris (although Paul learns his lesson, some never do...). There are people who idealize and idolize the past. Someone said to me that day, “History is where my heart is, the present is sour and lost, history is where I escape – they were the real history makers.” And it did not set well with me.
After the tour, we came back hot and weary to the cool and refreshing Algonquin for lunch at the very Round Table where those history-makers sat. I reclined in my leather chair in a rather woebegone state as I tried to converge the two opposing states of mind: euphoric inspiration that had my mental wheels turning excitedly and the Eeyore mentality next to me that insisted the Art Deco era was where everything was accomplished and savored.
I sat there listening to the group and listening to my own mind tinker about with these thoughts. I sat directly across from the vibrant 2002 painting of the original Round Table members by Natalie Ascencios. All the players in that fascinating painting are looking about at their world consumed with their own thoughts. Several are looking right at the viewer making one think for the briefest of moments that perhaps we are the ones in the painting. From my seat, Dorothy Parker was looking directly at me. And it was as if we had a most compelling conversation.
“Why, hello. What do you think about that chatter that history was made only in our era? You look troubled. What's your story morning glory?”
I sat back and took a sip of my wine. “Well… I guess that idea bothers me. It makes me feel like you all knew exactly what you were doing, history was in the making, and we are living in a lesser time. A pointless time.”
“Darling, we had no idea what we were doing. The New Yorker almost went under twice within the first year! We didn't know it would become an icon. But we thought to ourselves, what the hell! If we don't try something new, who will? You keep working. You keep creating because that's when you feel most alive. My poetry and short stories did well, but all my plays were something of a flop. However, I knew working and trying was better than doing what... Nothing?”
“Yeah, sister. You think your era is sour? In the Twenties, we just finished a war the likes of which the world had never seen before. Utter despair, untold bloodshed, a win in the end for us, but was it really a win? So many deaths, so much confusion, so many lives and marriages mutilated... You have the luxury to look at our era with the 20/20 hindsight of the future. We only had today. One only ever has today. And today was a shit hole. So we drank. We wrote. We danced. We made flamboyantly tragic mistakes. We were strong and yet remarkably brittle at the same time. We grasped at straws to find happiness. Well actually, I grasped at my drink. And my lovers. And they let me down... But what the hell. That's what I get for putting all my eggs in one bastard.”
I looked around at the glistening wine glasses, the neatly folded napkins, the palms and pillars of the cool room... I sipped my crisp white wine as I examined every colorful inch of the Ascencios painting including the upside down cat, Matilda, coming out of FPA's pipe. I thought about the voices that stopped themselves from making history because they believed someone else had already done it. I took a thoughtful bite of my steak sandwich and ruminated on Dorothy's “words.”
I looked at Dorothy. With a smirk and a cocked eyebrow, I looked at the group individually and in its entirety. The Round Table members… They were this graceful, cocky, comical, tragic, glorious group. I looked into Dorothy's gleaming eyes, her casual stance with her arm resting on the back of the chair next to her, the saucy hat perched on top of her insouciant head...
She said, “Go ahead, darling. Make history. We did.I dare you.”
*I highly recommend the tours offered by the President of the Dorothy Parker Association, Kevin Fitzpatrick. I also found his 2005 book Dorothy Parker's New Yorkinformative, entertaining and edifying. www.dorothyparker.com