Editor’s note: On August 22, 1992, 300 people showed up at West End Park in Long Branch to see celebrities such as New York Daily News gossip columnist Liz Smith, famed biographer Margaret Meade, a former New York City Council president, and an Assistant Postmaster, at an event where a new postage stamp bearing the likeness of literary virtuoso Dorothy Parker was unveiled. Yet Dorothy Parker’s complex nature was such that Meade, who authored a biography on Parker, said of the matter, “I think she would have been falling down in hysterical laugher…that they would now be honoring her with a commemorative stamp is just very, very funny.” This event typifies the extent to which residents of Monmouth County embrace Dorothy Parker as one of us, but in fact, for the most part, she had nothing but disdain for her birthplace. Noted historian Randall Gabrielan provides this insightful view into the complicated life of Dorothy Parker, and her ambivalence about New Jersey.
By Randall Gabrielan
Family lore claims that Eliza Annie Rothschild did not plan to give birth at her summer home, but she and her husband J. Henry were constrained by a storm from returning to their New York year-round residence. Thus, Dorothy, who would spend her life marching to her own beat, made her arrival at Long Branch on August 22, 1893. As a consequence, this quintessential New Yorker would hold life-long antipathy at her New Jersey nativity, but these personal feelings would not bar Long Branch from celebrating her as one of its most distinguished citizens.
Parker, educated at private schools, showed an early writing talent that brought her a staff writing position at Vanity Fair from 1917-1920. She was the New Yorker’s leading book critic from 1927 – 1931. She also undertook freelance work, specializing in criticism, verse and the short story. Parker was known for her satirical, biting humor that regularly crossed the line of caustic. For example, “When a woman told her, ‘I really can’t come to your party, I can’t bear fools,’ Mrs. Parker answered, ‘That’s strange, your mother could.’”
Parker was closely identified with the Algonquin Round Table, a gathering at the eponymous New York hotel at 59 West 44th Street of the sharp, clever and witty, literary luminaries that included Franklin P. Adams, Robert Benchley, Heywood Broun, Edna Ferber George S. Kaufman, Robert F. Sherwood and Harold Ross, the founder of the New Yorker. They met regularly for bibulous luncheons to exchange their latest barbs, witticisms and bon mots.
While Dorothy became established under her birth name, after a 1917 marriage to Edwin Pond Parker II, she not only adopted her husband’s name, but retained it following their 1922 separation and eventual divorce. Although her life at that time took a turn to depression and alcoholism, the 1920s saw much of her best work. Parker married her second husband in 1934, Alan Campbell, an actor eleven years younger than she. They departed for Hollywood to pursue screenwriting, a move that diminished her output.
Parker’s two great loves were her dogs and martinis, not necessarily in that order. Her devotion to her canine companions demanded notice as she took then everywhere regularly flouting “no animal” constraints. Most familiar with Parker have a favorite aphorism or quote. The martini lover may be partial to: “I’d like to have a martini/Two at the very most/At three I’m under the table/At four I’m under the host.”
Parker, depressed and besotted by drink, made multiple suicide attempts. While hospitalized for alcoholism, her reply to her doctor who cautioned she would be dead in a month if she did not stop drinking, was, “Promises, promises.” She died June 7, 1967 leaving no known survivors. She left her modest estate, including copyrights, to Martin Luther King with instructions that its assets be conveyed to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Parker, although not known to have been active in civil rights matters in her later life, had long-been an advocate of liberal causes.
The renascence of interest in Parker in recent years includes the organization of a Dorothy Parker Society. Honors arrived with a commemorative postage stamp in the Literary Arts series which postal service custom suggests be introduced in the subject’s native place. The August 22, 1992 First Day of Issue ceremonies were held in West End Park, a few hundred yards north of her birth site.
Despite Dorothy Parker’s accidental tie to the Jersey Shore, she and her Long Branch site of birth, the 732 Ocean Avenue, West End family summer home, are celebrated on the Friends of Libraries USA Literary Landmarks Register. Parker is one of America’s celebrated women writers of her generation.
Modern multiple residential dwellings occupy the Parker birthplace site, although passers-by are enlightened of her origins there by a post with a plaque that commemorates the site’s historical significance.
About the Author:
Randall Gabrielan began his second career as a local historian during the 1980s while engaged as an insurance broker, a spell during which he wrote articles, delivered his first talks, mounted museum exhibitions and began a long tenure as president of the Middletown Township Historical Society. In the 1990s, Gabrielan published the first of his many books, titles primarily on Monmouth County subjects, but also elsewhere in New Jersey and New York City. In 2000, he began a thirteen-year run as executive director of the Monmouth County Historical Commission, a body he now serves as vice-chair. Gabrielan and his wife, Carol Stout, live in Middletown.
Acocella, Joan. (1993). “After the Laughs,” a Fine Centennial Biographical Look Back. The New Yorker, August 16, 1993.
Winokur, John, Ed. (1934). The Portable Curmudgeon, Penguin Books, New York, N.Y., 1987.
Dorothy Parker Wed in October. (1934). The New York Times, June 16, 1934, P. 13.
Whitman, Alden. (1968). Dorothy Parker, Short-Story Writer, Poet, Critic, Sardonic Humorist and Literary Wit, Dies at Age 73. The New York Times, June 8, 1967, P. 1.
Kaplan, Morris. (1967). Dorothy Parker’s Will Leaves Estate of $10,000 to Dr. King. The New York Times, June 27, 1967, P. 22.
Brown, George. (1992). Local Event will Mark Dorothy Parker Issue. Asbury Park Press, August 2, 1992, P. D6.
Ames, Alexander. (1992). A Stamp with a Biting Taste. Asbury Park Press, August 23, 1992, P. 1.
Featured image: Composite image, stylized photograph of Dorothy Parker coverted to appear like an oil painting, cropped, courtesy Dorothy Parker Society; photograph of commemorative marker at Parker birthplace in West End, photo credit: Randall Gabrielan, used with permission. Composite by John R. Barrows.
Image: Writer Dorothy Parker and husband, actor/author Alan Campbell. Acme Newspictures, Inc., No. 280402. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Composite image illustrating commemorative stamps issued in honor of Dorothy Parker. Cropped image of newspaper story, Asbury Park Press; image of postcard with Parker stamps, courtesy Randall Gabrielan, used with permission. Composite image: John R. Barrows.