Tag Archives: poetry

Young Dorothy Parker at Vanity Fair

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.

Frank Crowninshield, Edna Chase, Condé Nast, Dorothy Parker, and Robert Benchley, 1919 (Robert Sherwood)

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?

Other Hate Songs followed—on, among other things, men, relatives, actresses, and slackers (the era’s term for men who avoided joining the army).

“Men: A Hate Song,” illustration by Dorothy Ferriss

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.

Dorothy Parker and Edwin Pond Parker II, date unknown

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.

Morris Gest, P. G. Wodehouse, Guy Bolton, F. Ray Comstock and Jerome Kern, ca. 1917

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.

Sheet music for a song from “Oh Lady! Lady!!”, 1918

*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.

The Uncrowned King of Bohemia: The fascinating story of a not-so-great poet

Illustration by Adelaide Hanscom Leeson, “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,” 1905, with George Sterling as model

There I was, thinking I was all done with bad mother poems, when I discovered the worst one of all, by George Sterling–in the same issue of The Bookman, as it happens, as I found hitherto bad-mother-poem champion Anna Hempstead Branch.

Until a few months before, The Bookman had been running a series called “The Masque of Poets.” I came in in the middle, couldn’t make much sense of it, and filed it away under Incomprehensible 1918 Things. But the “Masque’s” editor, Best American Short Stories founder Edward O’Brien*, had published a book based on it, and there was a review by Bookman poetry critic Jessie Rittenhouse.**

The gimmick in “The Masque of the Poets”: each month, The Bookman ran a few poems by famous writers, published anonymously. This wasn’t much of a gimmick, as Rittenhouse pointed out—it would have been more fun, she said, to have a contest where people guessed the poets’ identities. On the whole, she was lukewarm about “The Masque,” reckoning that the poets hadn’t submitted their best work. There were some pleasant surprises, though. Like George Sterling’s poem “The First Food,” which she called “poignant and intimate.”

Portrait photograph of George Sterling by Arnold Genthe, 1904

I was skeptical. The 49-year-old Miss Rittenhouse was a big deal on the poetry scene—secretary of the Poetry Society of America and former poetry editor of the New York Times Book Review—but, poetry-wise, she was stuck in 1865.

Here’s “The First Food.” Judge for yourself.

Mother, in some sad evening long ago,
From thy young breast my groping lips were taken,
Their hunger stilled, so soon again to waken,
But nevermore that holy food to know.

Ah! nevermore! for all the child might crave!
Ah! nevermore! through years unkind and dreary!
Often of other fare my lips are weary,
Unwearied once of what thy bosom gave.

(Poor wordless mouth that could not speak thy name!
At what unhappy revels has it eaten
The viands that no memory can sweeten, —
The banquet found eternally the same!)

Then fell a shadow first on thee and me,
And tendrils broke that held us two how dearly!
Once infinitely thine, then hourly, yearly,
Less thine, as less the worthy thine to be.

(O mouth that yet should kiss the mouth of Sin!
Were lies so sweet, now bitter to remember?
Slow sinks the flame unfaithful to an ember;
New beauty fades and passion’s wine is thin.)

How poor an end of that solicitude
And all the love I had not from another!
Peace to thine unforgetting heart, O Mother,
Who gavest the dear and unremembered food!

I know—creepy, right?

I was all set to file this away for use as Worst Poem of the Month when I decided to look into Sterling’s life to see whether by any chance he killed his father and married his mother. He didn’t, but his actual story is almost as weird.

Mary Austin, Jack London, George Sterling, and Jimmie Hooper (Arnold Genthe, ca. 1902-07)

Sterling was born in 1869 in Sag Harbor, Long Island, the first of nine children of a doctor who tried to get him to become a priest—which, as we will see, would have been a very bad fit. He followed his uncle to California, worked in real estate for a while, made a name for himself locally with a book of poetry published in 1903, and moved to the sleepy town of Carmel-by-the-Sea in 1905. Sterling quickly put Carmel on the map as a center of literary, artistic, and Bohemian life, earning himself the sobriquet “The Uncrowned King of Bohemia.” An exodus from San Francisco following the 1906 earthquake increased the town’s popularity.

Sterling was no exception to the rule that all the people we’ve ever heard of from back then were friends with each other. He was the protégé of The Devil’s Dictionary author Ambrose Bierce, who followed him to Carmel, and his best friend was Jack London***. Writers Upton Sinclair, Gelett Burgess, Sinclair Lewis, Robinson Jeffers, and Mary Austin and photographer Arnold Genthe were among those who came to Carmel for temporary or permanent stays. (Okay, I’d never heard of the last two.)

Cosmopolitan, September 1907

Cosmopolitan published Sterling’s poem “A Wine of Wizardry” in 1907, and Bierce proclaimed him the heir to Keats, Coleridge, and Rossetti. Many others begged to differ. There was apparently a low bar for controversy in 1907, because this one was huge. Meanwhile, things were getting pretty wild in Carmel. There were, or so rumor had it, nude beach parties, free love (gay and straight), wife-swapping, and opium dens.

Nora May French (Arnold Genthe, ca. 1907)

Then the tragedies began. In November 1907, Nora May French, a glamorous young poet who was staying with Sterling and his wife, committed suicide by drinking cyanide that she had obtained on the pretext that she needed to polish some silver. News accounts varied as to whether French had been sleeping in the same room as Sterling’s wife. (Sterling was away.) This, and tales of French’s nymphomaniac ways, increased Sterlings notoriety. Others in the circle also met sad ends. London died following a morphine overdose in 1906 (accidental, apparently, but there were rumors of suicide), and Bierce disappeared in Mexico in 1914.

Caroline “Carrie” Rand Sterling, George Sterling’s wife, date unknown

Sterling began drinking heavily. His wife filed for divorce in 1913, citing non-support, idleness, and dissipation. In August 1918, she too committed suicide by taking cyanide. Sterling began carrying around a vial of cyanide himself, saying, “A prison becomes a home if you have the key.” He finally took a lethal dose in November 1926, while H.L. Mencken was visiting him in San Francisco. (Yes, the Uncrowned King of Bohemia was friends with the Sage of Baltimore too. A volume of their correspondence was published in 2001.)

But let’s not leave Sterling on this sad note. He and his crowd had a lot of good times. Like when they were pounding abalone to tenderize it. This was the only time that it was permissible to sing the Abalone Song, which was composed mostly by Sterling, with contributions by London, Lewis, Bierce, Burgess, and others. There were many versions. This one is from Carl Sandburg’s 1927 folk song anthology The American Songbag:

From “The American Songbag” by Carl Sandburg, 1927

*Edward O’Brien had recently started a new feature in The Bookman called “War Echoes.” It generated a lot of mail, and the nearest post office in South Yarmouth, Massachusetts, was two miles away, so he asked the postal service to open a new post office closer to his house. And they did!

**The Bookman was incestuous like that. Rittenhouse’s first book of poetry had been reviewed in the previous issue—lukewarmly, which must have stung.

***Sterling was portrayed in two London novels that I never heard of, Martin Eden and Valley of the Moon.

Oh snap! The modernists’ cringe-inducing criticism

The writers who were reviewed in the modernist journals of 1918 are all long dead. But, when I read what T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and their fellow critics had to say about them, I can’t help cringing on their behalf.

Take this review, in the March 1918 edition of The Egoist, of a collection called Georgian Poetry, 1916-1917. The reviewer, who calls himself Apteryx but is really T.S. Eliot, sums up the work of five contributors as follows:

Mr. Graves has a hale and hearty daintiness. Mr. Gibson asks, “we, how shall we…” etc. Messrs. Baring and Asquith, in war poems, both employ the word “oriflamme.” Mr. Drinkwater says, “Hist!”

Robert Graves (First World War Poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford)

These few sentences give us a good sense of what’s in the poems. Under the circumstances, though, this criticism seems a bit cruel. Robert Graves, who would go on to fame as a poet, novelist, and memoirist, was a 23-year-old soldier in 1918. “David and Goliath,” written in memory of his friend David Thomas, is a reversal of the Bible story, ending:

‘I’m hit! I’m killed!’ young David cries.
Throws blindly forward, chokes…and dies.
And look, spike-helmeted, grey, grim,
Goliath straddles over him.

Maurice Baring, Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, Herbert Asquith (the son of the Prime Minister), and John Drinkwater were older, in their thirties or forties, but they were all in uniform except Gibson, who tried to enlist but was turned down because of ill health.

Alan Seeger

Even dying in the war didn’t spare a writer from The Egoist’s sharp scrutiny. The December 1917 issue included an unsigned review of a book of poems by Alan Seeger, who had joined the French Foreign Legion and died in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Seeger, best known now for the poem “I Have a Rendezvous with Death,” was a Harvard classmate of T.S. Eliot, who may have written the review.* According to the Egoist,

Seeger’s poems are not unworthy of the attention they have attracted. The book has not much to offer to the small public which wants nothing twice over, but it has a good deal to give to the public which will take what it likes in any amount.

The Egoist was dismissive toward popular novelists. In a discussion in the February 1918 issue of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, reprinted from an Italian publication and apparently translated by Joyce himself, Diego Angeli says:

To tell the truth, English fiction seemed lately to have gone astray amid the sentimental niceties of Miss Beatrice Harraden, the police-aided plottiness of Sir Conan Doyle, the stupidities of Miss Corelli or, at best, the philosophical and social disquisitions of Mrs. Humphrey Ward.**

Across the Atlantic, The Dial, which wasn’t a modernist journal but had modernist sympathies,*** shared The Egoist’s contempt for popular novelists. You don’t really have to read further in B.I. Kinne’s review of Hugh Walpole’s The Green Mirror than the title: “If This Be Literature Give Me Death.” If you do, you’ll read that

Mr. Walpole’s most irritating fault is his adherence to the court reporter’s method of observing and recording. This is the fault of many of the contemporary novelists. It is their belief, apparently, that the mere writing down of lists of things, whether dishes of food, toilet articles on the heroine’s dressing-table, books and objects d’art on the drawing-room tables, or the furnishings of a room, constitutes vivid literature.

Hugh Walpole, 1915 (The Independent)

The modernist critics reserve their most scathing criticism for literary luminaries. In an article in the January 1918 Egoist on Henry James (whom he admired), Eliot writes that G.K. Chesterton’s “brain swarms with ideas; I see no evidence that it thinks.” Ezra Pound, also writing admiringly about James in the same issue, says of recent writing that

we may throw out the whole [H.G.] Wells-[Arnold] Bennett period, for what interest can we take in instruments which must of nature miss two-thirds of the vibrations in any conceivable situation.

The modernists’ criticism may be harsh, but, unlike H.L. Mencken’s, it doesn’t seem mean-spirited. Eliot and Pound and the other modernist critics took their work with tremendous seriousness. They thought that the ossified literary world of their time had to die, and that it was their job to kill it. They didn’t just rip into bad writing; they explained how it exemplified what was wrong with the literature of the day. And they had a vision of what should come in its place: modernist writing by the likes of Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, and of course themselves.

This wasn’t exactly trench warfare, but it had its risks. Eliot reported in the March 1918 Egoist that the October 1917 issue of the American modernist journal The Little Review had been declared obscene and seized by the post office, the offending item being a story by Wyndham Lewis. The journal’s legal complaint against the post office had failed.****

The March 1918 issue of the Egoist contained the following announcement:

 That is, no printer in England would touch it. But it was scheduled to be serialized in the Little Review as well.

Bigger battles lay ahead.

*He was also folk singer Pete Seeger’s uncle.

**See! I told you!

***It later became a modernist journal, and was the first place “The Waste Land” was published in the United States.

****The story was called “Cantleman’s Spring-Mate.” Naturally, I immediately tracked it down. Summary: a young man about to go to war sees animals rutting all around, joins in the action with a village girl, and feels that he has defeated death. (Except that makes the story sounds life-affirming, which it’s not. It’s modernist!)