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Photo: Vandamm Studio.
Dorothy Parker in the backyard of her family’s residence in New York City, 1924.

Dorothy Parker, one of the founders of the literary powerhouse called the Algonquin Round Table, was outrageous enough to infuriate the powerful and funny enough to end up in poetry collections for children. (She was in one I used with sixth graders when I was a teacher.)

In this article from the Public Domain Review, Jonathan Goldman explains how getting fired from Vanity Fair launched Parker on the independent career that made her an icon.

“Dorothy Parker lost her job as Vanity Fair theater critic on January 11, 1920, in the tea room of the Plaza Hotel. Parker must have known there was trouble brewing as she sat down across from editor Frank Crowninshield. She had been in hot water for months. Her latest column had been a particularly biting one.

“Reviewing The Son-Daughter, Parker contended that David Belasco’s new play followed his old one, East Is West, ‘almost exactly,’ which Belasco made known he considered grounds for a libel suit. A couple paragraphs later, writing about the new Somerset Maugham play Caesar’s Wife, Parker zinged actress Billie Burke for performing ‘as if she were giving an impersonation of Eva Tanguay. The comparison to a risqué vaudevillian enraged Florenz Ziegfeld, one of Vanity Fair’s most reliable advertisers, who happened to be Burke’s producer — and husband.

“Ziegfeld and Belasco both took their umbrage to publisher Condé Nast. … Nast passed the buck to Crowninshield, who met Parker at the Plaza and fired her from the job she had held for two years.

Parker promptly ordered the most expensive dessert on the menu and left.

“In the days that followed, Parker’s cronies who hung out in the Rose Room of the Algonquin Hotel made the firing and its fallout at Vanity Fair into a media scandal. Parker herself would never again hold a desk job or draw a regular salary, finding success instead as a freelance critic, author of brilliant and acclaimed verse, short fiction, essays, plays, and film scripts. The incident changed her career and stature, and its response helped forge the legend of what would eventually be called the Algonquin Round Table.

“Parker may have learned from her parents the tendency to not quite accept the rules. She was … a child of once-forbidden love between Eliza Annie Marston, daughter of British burghers, and Jacob Henry Rothschild, child of Jewish immigrants, who married over the opposition of Marston’s parents. …

“Dorothy’s was not an idyllic childhood. Her mother died when she was five. When she was eighteen, the Titanic sank, taking with it a favored uncle, Martin Rothschild; Parker may have accompanied her distraught father to the docks to greet the shipwreck’s survivors and learn that her uncle was not among them. Henry Rothschild, devastated, fell ill and died less than a year later.

“Needing income beyond her father’s legacy, Parker found a job playing piano at one of many dance schools, which were faddish in the mid-1910s. But she wanted to earn money by writing. She went about it the old, hard way, sending in cold submissions of poetry until her number was called. In 1914 Vanity Fair accepted her poem ‘Any Porch,’ which satirized chitchat of society women …

I don’t want the vote for myself,
But women with property, dear …

“The editor, Crowninshield, was sufficiently impressed. In 1915 he hired her for Vogue, another magazine owned by Nast, to do editorial work and write captions for illustrations of women’s garments. …

“During her two years at Vogue, Parker worked under Edna Woolman Chase, a legend. … Though thrilled when she landed the job, Parker could only follow the leader for so long, and was soon plaguing Chase with unprintable captions, meant to challenge the Vogue sensibility. One nightgown, she suggested, could be worn as a sexual enticement: ‘When she was good she was very very good, and when she was bad she wore this divine nightdress…’ Such insinuation was a no-no for Vogue readers of 1916. The caption made it through several editorial stages before its twist on the ‘girl with the curl’ nursery rhyme was recognized.

“Crowninshield relieved Chase of her problem employee in 1918, bringing Parker over to the editorial staff at Vanity Fair and offering her the theater critic job that would change her career. …

“Parker loved being a theater critic, but she loved less and less Nast and Crowninshield’s attitudes toward the staff. In this, as in many things, she was supported (and egged on) by her two new colleagues at Vanity Fair, Robert Benchley and Robert Sherwood. …

Caesar’s Wife had its opening night in November 1919. … Parker’s review is not completely unkind until its conclusion: ‘Miss Burke, in her role of the young wife, looks charmingly youthful. She is at her best in her more serious moments; in her desire to convey the youthfulness of the character she plays her lighter scenes as if giving an impersonation of Eva Tanguay.’ This was in fact a toned-down revision; in her first draft, Parker had written that Burke ‘threw herself around the stage as if giving an impersonation of exotic dancer Eva Tanguay.’ …

“Eva Tanguay’s name was a byword for indecorum, eroticism, and unbridled physicality. … It also subtly invoked the dynamics of the Burke-Ziegfeld marriage and served as a swipe at patriarchal control. When Parker refers to the ‘young wife,’ and twice reiterates the ‘youthful’ qualities of the role, she loops in the public history of Ziegfeld’s relationships with younger women. …

“Ziegfeld and his women stayed in her sights. In her June 1920 column for Ainslee’s, Parker wrote warmly of Ziegfeld’s Frolics … but skewered the singing of Lillian Lorraine — the longtime Ziegfeld paramour who had been instrumental to Ziegfeld’s divorce. … Commenting sardonically on the show’s female chorus, she wrote: ‘Where the Ziegfeld girls come from will always be one of the world’s great mysteries.’ ”

She may have maddened people, but Parker sure is fun to read. More here.

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