One thing I love about reading in 1918 is the unearned feeling of prescience I get when I come across up-and-coming young writers. Like Dorothy Parker of Vanity Fair, who turned twenty-five in August 1918. Take it from me, she’s going be huge!
This post was going to be about Parker’s theater criticism at the magazine, a job she took over in April 1918 because her predecessor, P.G. Wodehouse, was busy managing his own successful musical comedy career.* But I went back and read everything Parker wrote for the magazine before that, and once you start quoting Dorothy Parker it’s hard to stop. I hit my self-imposed word count limit before she even started the theater gig, so this will be Part 1 of 2.
Parker was born into a prosperous New York family (her maiden name was Rothschild, although they weren’t those Rothschilds), but she lost her mother, father, and stepmother by the time she was twenty. The family’s money evaporated, and she supported herself as a dancing school pianist, living in a Manhattan boarding house. She first came to the attention of Vanity Fair editor Frank Crowninshield when she submitted a poem called “Any Porch,” which was published in the magazine’s September 1915 issue. It recounts snippets of conversation supposedly overheard at a Connecticut hotel. Here are a few:
“I’m reading that new thing of Locke’s–
So whimsical, isn’t he? Yes—”
“My dear, have you seen those new smocks?
They’re nightgowns—no more and no less.”…
“My husband says, often, ‘Elise,
You feel things too deeply, you do—’”
“Yes, forty a month, if you please,
Oh, servants impose on me, too.”
“The war’s such a frightful affair,
I know for a fact, that in France—”
“I love Mrs. Castle’s bobbed hair;
They say that he taught her to dance.”
T.S. Eliot’s own renderings of the chitchat of upper-crust women in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “Portrait of a Lady” were published at almost exactly the same time as “Any Porch” appeared. There’s a distinct resemblance—Elise who feels things too deeply, in particular, could have appeared in an Eliot poem.
Crowninshield took a liking to Parker, and she was hired to write captions at Vogue, Vanity Fair’s sister publication..(She later claimed that she and her friend and colleague Robert Benchley used to go out with the 6’7” Crowninshield at lunchtime to protect him from hectoring by a group of midgets who were appearing in a show at the Hippodrome.) Parker’s most famous Vogue caption is “There was a little girl who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good, she was very good, and when she was bad she wore this divine nightdress of rose-colored mousseline de soie, with frothy Valenciennes lace.” What most accounts don’t tell you is that this caption was spotted and quashed at the last minute. Vogue editor Edna Chase was not amused.
Parker’s next poem in Vanity Fair was a four-line stanza in the June 1916 issue called “A Musical Comedy Thought”:
My heart is fairly melting at the thought of Julian Eltinge:
His vice versa, Vesta Tilley, too.
Our language is so dexterous, let us call them ambi-sexterous,–
Why hasn’t this occurred before to you?
When I looked into this guess-you-had-to-be-there trifle, I learned that Julian Eltinge was an actor who played female parts and had a habit of beating up people he thought were questioning his sexuality. He wasn’t known to have lovers of either sex, but actress Ruth Gordon called him “as virile as anyone virile” in a 1969 New York Times article, so that settles that. Vesta Tilley was a British male impersonator whose husband was knighted and became a Conservative MP.
In August 1916, Vanity Fair published Parker’s poem “Women: A Hate Song.” It ran under the pseudonym Henriette Rousseau, supposedly because Crowninshield feared controversy. In it, Parker skewered various feminine archetypes—domestic, fragile, know-it-all, cheerful, etc. Here’s the opening:
I hate Women.
They get on my Nerves.
There are the Domestic ones.
They are the worst.
Every moment is packed with Happiness.
They breathe deeply
And walk with large strides, eternally hurrying home
To see about dinner.
They are the kind
Who say, with a tender smile, “Money’s not everything.”
They are the ones always confronting me with dresses,
Saying, “I made this myself.”
They read Woman’s pages and try out the recipes.
Oh, how I hate that kind of women.
Fine, I hate them too, but controversial? Europe was at war. Didn’t people have more important things to worry about?
In October 1916, Parker (under her own name, Dorothy Rothschild) published her first Vanity Fair article, “Why I Haven’t Married: Sketches of My Seven Deadly Suitors.” My reaction was, “Um, because you just turned twenty-three?” The median age of marriage for women in the United States was twenty-one, though, so she was a little behind.
First there was Ralph, the domesticated man, from whom Parker fled when
I had a startlingly clear vision of the future. I seemed to see us—Ralph and me—settled down in an own-your-own bungalow in a twenty-minute suburb. I saw myself surrounded by a horde of wraps and sofa pillows. I saw us gathered around the lamp of a winter evening, reading aloud from “Hiawatha.” I saw myself a member of the Society Opposed to Woman Suffrage.
Then there was Maximilian, the socialist.
He was an artist and had long nervous hands and a trick of impatiently tossing his hair out of his eyes. He capitalized the A in art. Together we plumbed the depths of Greenwich Village, seldom coming above Fourteenth Street for air. We dined in those how-can-they-do-it-for-fifty-cents table d’hôtes, where Maximilian and his little group of serious thinkers were wont to gather about dank bottles of sinister claret and flourish marked copies of “The Masses.”
Wait! This is my dream day as a time traveler to 1918! I can see how Maximilian isn’t what you’d look for in a life partner, though.
On to Jim—Of Broadway, with whom life seems to be one long cabaret, all well and good until someone asks him his opinion of Baudelaire, and he says, “I really can’t say. I’ve never seen him get a good sweat-out in practice.” Then there are Cyril, the fastidious socialite; Lorenzo, the life of the party, and Bob, Son of Battle.
The seventh and final beau is Paul, the Vanished Dream.
I cannot dwell on Paul, the best one. I have not yet fully recovered from him. He was the Ideal Husband—an English-tailored Greek God, just masterful enough to be entertaining, just wicked enough to be exciting, just clever enough to be a good audience. But, oh, he failed me! In a moment of absent-mindedness, he went and married a blonde and rounded person whose walk in life was the runway at the Winter Garden.** I am just beginning to recuperate.
The first six suitors seem made up, but Parker’s portrayal of Paul has the ring of truth—you can see the hurt behind the flippant words. But he sounds just horrible! Count your blessings, Dorothy, I said. You dodged a bullet.
Except she didn’t. Paul was Edwin Pond Parker II, a handsome stockbroker from a socially prominent family. And he didn’t marry a chorus girl. In 1917, he married Dorothy Rothschild. Not long after the marriage, he joined the army. He went to Europe as an alcoholic and returned as an alcoholic and a morphine addict. He and Dorothy soon separated, and they divorced in 1928.
As I said, I’ll get to Parker’s theater criticism in a future post. Here’s a teaser, from her April 1918 review of Wodehouse’s show, Oh, Lady! Lady!!:
I like the way the action slides casually into the songs without any of the usual “Just think, Harry is coming home again! I wonder if he’ll remember that little song we used to sing together? It went something like this.”…And oh, how I do like Jerome Kern’s music—those nice, soft, polite little tunes that always make me wish I’d been a better girl.
Twenty-four years old, but already unmistakably Dorothy Parker.
*This is the third time I’ve come across a 1918 person who was involved in theater on both the criticism and the production sides. The others were Hearst critic Alan Dale, who wrote The Madonna of the Future, and Jack Grien, critic for the British Sunday Times, who produced the Maud Allan dance performance of Salome. Both of these plays were hugely controversial. Maybe they were bored from sitting through so many bad shows and wanted to shake things up.
**The Winter Garden theater had a runway extending out into the audience, presumably populated by chorus girls.