Read an Excerpt
It couldn't be worse.
Twenty-six, and she was losing her job. Vanity Fair's editor in chief broke the news in the grandeur of the Tea Court at the Plaza Hotel, beneath the Tiffany glass dome, amid the Caen stone and Breche violet marble, the Baccarat crystal and gold-encrusted china, the handwoven Savonnerie rugs. He had to fire her, Frank Crowninshield said, because his former theater critic was planning to return to the magazine and of course he needed his old job back. She said she didn't know that. He hoped she would work at home and do little pieces in her spare time. She said she really couldn't. She had no idea how to change a typewriter ribbon.
Vanity Fair had no cause to fire her, thought Dorothy Parker. And so what if every producer on Broadway hated her. It was Sunday afternoon on Central Park South, the carriage horses dozed standing up at the curbs, the leafless trees across the street were dark against the dusky sky. When Dottie emerged from the hotel, she went straight home, round Columbus Circle, up Broadway, back to the Upper West Side, where she grew up. From an early age she knew a thing or two about misfortune: a dead mother (E. coli), a dead stepmother (stroke), and a brother who vanished without a trace (amnesia, homicide, possibly pique). And not only them but her uncle Martin Rothschild, a first-class passenger on the unsinkable Titanic--Martin the family martyr. Sometimes it seemed as if her whole life had been spent waiting for something terrible to happen. Even so, to be canned over tea and scones, with the accompaniment of harp and violin, was the absolutely worst. She had spent four yearswith the Conde Nast publishing company, her first and only real job.
Her husband was waiting when she walked into the apartment. Edwin Pond Parker II, scion of Congregational clergymen and once a Wall Street broker, had served during the war in the muddy trenches of France as an ambulance driver. His van hurtled into a bomb crater, and Eddie spent two days buried with the dead and the wounded before being rescued. Handsome, blond, a Connecticut thoroughbred, he had appeared to be an ideal husband before the war. Since the armistice, he'd been devoting himself, almost full-time, to alcohol and morphine.
Not surprisingly, Eddie had little practical advice to offer, and so for counsel and comfort she turned to her best friend. Robert Benchley was the managing editor of Vanity Fair, and while everybody called him Bob or Rob, she never did. With her impeccable manners, she addressed him, ladylike, as "Mr. Benchley" (or "Fred," or in times of very bad trouble "Dear Fred"), and he in return called her "Mrs. Parker." The day he walked into the office for the first time, Dottie knew that she and Bob Benchley were kindred spirits sharing a similar sense of humor. For example, he subscribed to The Casket, an undertakers' magazine that published everything you always wanted to know about subjects such as embalming ("sometimes in the fresh body of a robust suicide the descending colon may be contracted to the thickness of the thumb"). Dottie had never known anyone who thought it necessary to be well informed about embalming. Immediately she ordered her own subscription. Each month she leafed through the Casket ads for hearses and giggled over the humor column (From Grave to Gay). Then she clipped the most interesting anatomic plates to hang above her desk. Over the months her office friendship with Mr. Benchley had deepened steadily (and platonically, despite gossip to the contrary), until now they were practically inseparable.
In the early evening of January 11, Bob left his home in Scarsdale and hurried into town on the seven o'clock train. It was easy to see that Crownie shared none of the responsibility for dismissing Dottie, since he was little more than a hired hand in the Conde Nast empire (Vanity Fair, Vogue, House and Garden). The man behind her firing was Nast himself. Recently he had denied her a raise and squawked about several pieces, but she'd never given it a second thought. By every reasonable standard, she had done nothing wrong. Unfortunately, the publisher had never figured out that the duty of a critic was to determine what is of high artistic quality--and what isn't. After several hours spent loudly damning Nast for stupidity--the man ought to be horsewhipped, at the least--both of them fell back on personal principles. She knew everything bad happened to her. He always believed the greatest sin was disloyalty. And so the next morning he went to the office and quit.
With evident glee, the New York papers reported the upheavals in Nast's staff--a third editor, Robert Sherwood, also quit--and took the side of the editors. F.P.A. (ne Franklin Pierce Adams), the city's most widely read columnist, wrote in the New York Tribune, "R. Benchley tells me he hath resigned his position with 'Vanity Fair' because they had discharged Mistress Dorothy Parker; which I am sorry for." The New York Times also ran a sympathetic account under the byline of its theater critic, Alexander Woollcott. (Woollcott held court at the Algonquin Round Table, a group of friends--a dozen or so humorists, journalists, and playwrights, including Dottie and Bob--who regularly lunched together at the Algonquin Hotel--the "Gonk"--on West Forty-fourth.) That week the walkout remained Topic A over publishing luncheon tables.
At Vanity Fair, Frank Crowninshield continued to shake his head. When Bob submitted his resignation, Crownie concluded that he had lost his mind. Bob's wife, Gertrude, stuck in Scarsdale with their two boys, thought so, too. But to Dottie his willingness to walk away from his job would forever be treasured as "the greatest act of friendship" she could imagine.
Dottie sold her first poem to Vanity Fair in 1914, before the war, when learning the tango and the turkey trot was the biggest thing on some people's minds. Her verse had appeared earlier in F.P.A.'s Conning Tower column, but this was her first publication for money (the sum of twelve dollars). She felt so tremendously confident that she presented herself at the offices of the new Conde Nast magazine, on West Forty-fourth Street, to apply for a writing job. At that time she was playing piano at a dance school and thinking about a new line of work, but, to be on the safe side, she told Frank Crowninshield that she was an orphan, an exaggeration.
The tall, silver-haired editor would always remember his first glimpse of Dorothy Rothschild: dainty manners, well turned out in a smart suit and bowed black patent pumps, drenched in perfume, brandishing a verbal switchblade. No openings were available, but Crownie, with his gift for spotting talent, directed her to Vogue, where for ten dollars a week she was indentured, writing captions for drawings of underwear ("Brevity is the soul of lingerie"). Vogue was a fossilized place, manned by lizardy-skinned Victorians wearing lorgnettes. But the job was a good deal better than slaving at the dance studio and living with her sister's family. In a fit of mischief, she once tried to sneak past the proofreaders a caption suggesting that a peekaboo mousseline de soie nightdress would be perfect for a night of debauchery. She was bored, barely managing to stay out of trouble, when Crownie rescued her from peonage in the undies department. In the autumn of 1917 he engineered her transfer to Vanity Fair, where she was assigned to write features and comic verse. It took only a few months before she replaced the English humorist P. G. Wodehouse as theater critic.
To Dottie, who had always loved the stage, the chance to become New York's only woman drama critic was incredible good luck, the first she'd ever known. But she soon discovered a tiny worm in the apple: Vanity Fair prided itself on being a magazine of no opinion, and she had nothing but opinions. Nevertheless, she tried her best to please by adopting the attitude that her job was to be a sort of weather forecaster. Faced with mediocre shows, she dutifully proceeded to issue regular gale warnings along with solid information theatergoers needed to know: bring knitting, sneak out for "a brisk walk around the Reservoir," go home, or, a favorite of hers, no need to show up at all. Unlike other critics, who confined their reviews to plot and performance, Dottie complained about the locations of her seats, smacked producers for low taste, and pilloried chorus lines for looking motherly. She one time reviewed the performance of a woman seated next to her who'd been searching for a lost glove. Not surprisingly, her columns pleased quite a lot of readers as much as they enraged an awful lot of producers.
In the January issue Dottie was critical of a comedy by Somerset Maugham. She thought that the leading lady, Billie Burke, had overacted badly and compared her performance to that of a well-known vaudeville dancer famous for wild gyrations. After objections from Crowninshield, Dottie toned down the review of Caesar's Wife and mildly observed that Burke, at thirty-five, was too old to play an ingenue--and her impersonation of Eva Tanguay ("The I Don't Care Girl") also seemed ill-advised.
Billie Burke happened to be the wife of Florenz Ziegfeld, not only a powerful Broadway producer but also an important Vanity Fair advertiser. Affronted, Ziegfeld made a fuss about Mrs. Parker, and within days Conde Nast fired his wiseacre critic.
During their remaining weeks at the magazine, Dottie and Bob made a point of expressing their disdain for Nast. They pinned on red discharge chevrons and marched around the office in a conspicuous display of scorn, even hung a sign in the lobby of the building requesting Contributions for Miss Billie Burke. As soon as Dottie left, the same week that Prohibition began, the company hastened to cancel her Casket subscription and rip down her anatomic art, but could do little about the odor of her favorite perfume, Coty's Chypre, which must have seeped into the upholstered antique chairs. Around the watercooler, secretaries in high-heeled morocco slippers gossiped that the whole office could stand fumigating. What's more, Mrs. Parker had asked to be punished for daring to write something quite vulgar about Billie Burke's having "thick ankles." But Mr. Nast insisted that was not dramatic criticism and ordered it cut. And that was the real story on her dismissal.
By February, Dottie and Bob had begun to share a tiny office in the Metropolitan Opera building at Broadway and Thirty-ninth. Actually, it was not an office but a corner of a corridor that had been glassed off, so cramped that "an inch smaller and it would have been adultery," she joked. There was room for two scuffed tables, three chairs (one for visitors), two typewriters, and a hat rack. They laughed about maybe getting their door lettered Utica Drop Forge and Tool Co., Robert Benchley President--Dorothy Parker President. Luckily, she began receiving freelance assignments from magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post. Getting fired, she guessed, wasn't the end of the world after all. It might even be for the best. Still, she doubted if she would ever again feel quite so foolishly happy as she had at Vanity Fair.
That winter, weeks after leaving the magazine, Dottie and one of her friends bumped into Conde Nast in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel. Nast, as congenial as he could be, had the gall to tell her that he would be going on a cruise shortly and wished she could join him.
Dottie gave the publisher her brightest smile. If only she could, she replied very politely.
As soon as he had walked on, she turned to Bunny Wilson. "Oh, God," she whispered. "Make that ship sink."
The typewriter was a featherlight shiny black Corona No. 3 portable, a real beauty whose carriage folded trimly over the keyboard. It even came with a special leather carrying case. Regrettably, Edna St. Vincent Millay could not afford the pedigreed Corona, because she was a poet and poetry didn't pay. Vincent loved beautiful things but never had money, which was why her own typewriter was an ugly workhorse with a lumbering carriage and sticky keys.
This particular Corona, as it happened, was not for sale. The machine belonged to one of Vincent's beaus, actually to his employer, and had come to her notice by accident one day while she was visiting James Lawyer at the office of the American Red Cross. A decorated war hero who had seen action in France, Jim was a construction engineer who lived in Washington and had to make periodic business trips to New York. At first he was grateful just to have company for the evening. But then he fell in love with Vincent, and she with him, and they began talking about marriage. Only one thing stood in the way: his wife.
During Jim's visits they mainly spent their time in out-of-the-way hotels, and when he went back to Washington, he wrote passionate letters. Although he was devoted to his wife--a fantastic woman, he said--he could not help loving Vincent too and had begun thinking about divorcing Louise. He told Vincent that there was "nothing I wouldn't do for you, My Darling."
A few weeks into the affair the Corona somehow found its way from the American Red Cross to a dilapidated house on West Nineteenth Street, near the waterfront, where Vincent was living with her mother and two sisters. Having mastered the touch system, she was an excellent typist who could play the machine like Paderewski. Her sister Norma marveled at the sight of Vincie's fingers "going like hell" across the keyboard. Never had Norma known anybody to type so fast. The sudden appearance of an expensive typewriter was a bit strange, but nobody in the family questioned Vincent very closely--miracles had a way of happening around big sister.
Vincent was the oldest of three daughters of an insurance agent and an ambitious mother, who divorced when she was eight. She grew up in the coastal villages of eastern Maine, a land of brief summers and endless winters, and spent her childhood writing poems, which were published in a children's magazine, St. Nicholas. When she was twenty, she wrote a long narrative poem in which an adolescent girl finds herself being raped by Eternity and begins screaming. The sins of the world are crushing her ("Ah, awful weight! Infinity / Pressed down upon the finite Me!"). Begging God to revive her, she suddenly springs up from the ground, miraculously reborn. Cora Millay found "Renascence" deeply moving and urged her daughter to submit the poem in a competition for a literary anthology, The Lyric Year. Despite Vincent's conviction that she would win first prize, all she received was honorable mention. It was enormously disappointing, but there were a number of poets who noticed the poem and began to champion "Renascence," insisting it was much better than the winners.
From the Hardcover edition.