Ever since that morning in high school English class during my sophomore year when I was first exposed to Dorothy Parker, I have been in love with her words. “Ah, what an easy, peaceful time was mine, until I fell in with Swifty, here. I didn’t know what trouble was, before I got drawn into this danse macabre.”
I didn’t even know what danse macabre meant at that point, but thank goodness for footnotes in textbooks to explain, making the jokes in Parker’s The Waltz (first published in The New Yorker in 1933) even funnier and causing me to laugh out loud while my classmates looked around wondering what was going on.
I’ve been writing since fourth grade when we were hustled up the steps into the gymnasium and sequestered in a back classroom where a tall woman with very dark hair entered and explained that we were now taking a course called Creative Writing. I wasn’t particularly good at poetry, but I liked the technicality of haiku. What I loved best, however, was writing the story prompts the teacher provided.
“You’re a tomato about to be sliced,” she said, or “A flower about to be picked.” I was so thankful to have this class for three years, and aside from a few snippets here and there, my grammar school classroom memories center around Creative Writing classes with Mrs. Hampton.
Aside from term and academic papers, I didn’t have time to write much else until I was a grownup, but I never forgot Mrs. Parker’s wit and withering commentary. I’d find other writers with similar bite such as Florence King and Molly Ivins, but Dorothy Parker remains my favorite.
“What fresh hell is this?” “This wasn’t just plain terrible, this was fancy terrible. This was terrible with raisins in it.” “The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.” She was known for all of these and more, and I can only aspire to come up with such laughter-inducing statements, which have lived for decades beyond Mrs. Parker’s death.
I recently read Ellen Meister’s Farewell, Dorothy Parker, a novel about a New York film critic named Violet Epps who communicates better in writing than in person. She encounters Parker’s ghost after visiting the Algonquin Hotel where the writer drank with other notables in her day, and Mrs. Parker is just as robust and scathing in spirit form in current day New York as she was in life.
Mrs. Parker was one of the famous wits of the Algonquin Round Table in an era before television, Internet, endless news cycles and printed material for every imaginable subject pushed clear thinking from our heads. She was one of the few, the clever, the truly intelligent, though I wonder how she would manage in our world where we’re subjected to the competition of constant prattling opinions, inaccuracy and outright mendacity delivered without flair by too many people whose cleverness is all in their heads. There seems to be a lack of word choice missing from today’s general punditry and critiquing whether or not the reports are accurate or far-fetched. Lie to me if you must, insult an anticipated book or film, or make some comment about a movie star’s dress at the Emmys, but do so with intelligence and dexterity I’ll remember for many years.
I was once told of a young relative who’d been caught lying to her grandmother about who was at fault for cutting to shreds a few yards of new material. “I don’t know what happened. Those scissors just flew into my hand!” The kid may have been a liar, but her explanation made me laugh. She was punished, and I would have punished her, too, but I maintain to this day that her sentence would have been lighter because she’d entertained me.
If you’re feeling nostalgic for clever writing and sharp delivery, I recommend getting reacquainted with Dorothy Parker.
© 2016 by Patrick Brown
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