July 2014

Ellen Meister

features

An Interview with Marion Meade

Dorothy Parker -- an audacious literary humorist whose work still resonates as freshly today as it did in the 1920s -- has proven a difficult subject for biographers, as almost the entire paper trail of her life was destroyed upon her death in 1967.

Enter Marion Meade, a veteran journalist with a vibrant voice and uncommon curiosity who approaches her subjects with a scholar's dedication to meticulous research. The result has been a treasure trove of Dorothy Parker material, including Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell is This?, regarded as the most complete biography on Parker, as well as the newest edition of The Portable Dorothy Parker, which Meade edited.

Now Meade delivers two new ebooks for Dorothy Parker fans. The Last Days of Dorothy Parker: The Extraordinary Lives of Dorothy Parker and Lillian Hellman and How Death Can Be Hell on Friendship and Alpine Giggle Week: How Dorothy Parker Set Out to Write the Great American Novel and Ended Up in a TB Colony Atop an Alpine Peak. I was fortunate enough to read both of these just before release, and consider them invaluable gems. I'm delighted that Marion Meade agreed to an e-mail interview, responding with colorful insights.

I want to start at the beginning because you've written so much about Dorothy Parker, and even edited the popular collection of her work, The Portable Dorothy Parker. What drove you to Dorothy Parker in the first place?

Nora Ephron recalled that growing up all she wanted was to go to New York and be the legendary Dorothy Parker. So did a lot of us. When I was in high school in the 1950s, Parker was one the country's most popular writers. My girlfriends and I owned The Portable Dorothy Parker; we memorized favorite verses and recited humorous stories like "The Waltz" for drama classes. Of particular inspiration to me -- because I planned to be a writer -- was the picture of a sophisticated woman writer, living in New York City, exchanging witty repartee with the big boys at exotic spots like the Algonquin Hotel. This was the life for me. Of course it was a Pollyanna dream. I didn't know the first thing about Parker's real life -- her struggles with depression and alcohol -- nor did I discover the truth until thirty years later, when I got a book contract and began researching her life. Disappointment is not the word: I was horrified. The woman was a big, big mess who, I was shocked to learn, actually did try suicide on several occasions. So much for clever verse about razors being sharp.

What mystifies me today is why Nora Ephron wanted to be Parker. Her parents were friends of Parker's in the thirties, so she must have had some inkling of the truth.

I understand you played a key role in the delivery of Dorothy Parker's remains to a final resting place, because until you came along, no one seemed to know that her ashes had been all but forgotten, left in the back of a filing cabinet at a Wall Street law firm. Can you talk about your involvement in that?

My involvement was accidental. Discovering Parker's remains was a sidebar to the everyday business of researching a biography, which largely amounts to finding new material about a subject. While working on her life, I spoke to an attorney whose firm at one time had represented both her and Hellman. During our phone conversation I mentioned plans to visit Parker's grave; Paul O'Dwyer told me that her ashes were stored in his office, in a cabinet just behind his desk. "I'm looking at her," he said cheerily. In fact, they had been there for almost fifteen years and before that at a Westchester crematorium.

My goodness, I thought, should I offer to bury her? But this didn't prove necessary. Twenty-one years after her death, Parker was buried in Baltimore, in a special memorial garden on the grounds of the NAACP's headquarters. Finally.

Initially the fault was decidedly Hellman's, who neglected to claim the ashes and also refused to pay the storage bill. Of course there were other friends who might have stepped in, or at least made a fuss, had they been aware of the true situation. It seems that everybody presumed Hellman had taken care of the burial. As time went on, Parker's whereabouts were forgotten. Sadly, everybody failed her.

People might assume that Parker and Hellman were drawn together because they were both women writers in a world dominated by men. But Dorothy Parker never felt much allegiance toward the women writers of her generation. So, what do you think drew these two together? What was the basis of their friendship?

One of my aims in writing The Last Days of Dorothy Parker was to look at the thirty-year relationship between two accomplished writers, something of an extreme rarity to begin with. It's further noteworthy when the writers are gutsy women. And even more surprising yet, when one of the women, a self-proclaimed feminist, liked members of her own sex and the other one wasn't especially keen on females. Parker, for example, was close to Ruth Hale, one of the founders of The Lucy Stone League, which encouraged women to keep their birth names after marriage. Of course Hellman had numerous women friends but generally she preferred the company of men. In the 1970s, embraced by the women's movement, she found the notion of sisterhood a bit much.

I should mention, as Hellman did, that the women had little in common. There was an eleven-year difference in their ages. What's more, they were not the same kind of writer and led different sorts of lives. Initially what brought them together were shared political views -- pro-socialism, anti-fascism -- and participation in Communist Party causes, which led to their blacklisting during the McCarthy witch hunts. Above and beyond politics, the basis of their improbable friendship was perfectly simple: they liked each other.

In addition to a study of female friendship, I also wanted to show how a biographer goes about her job. Sometimes it's relatively straightforward, mostly a matter of consulting archives, as when a subject's papers are nicely arranged in file folders at university libraries. The difficulty in Parker's case was there were no papers and everything she owned had disappeared. An attorney representing her estate in 1980 warned me that I would find absolutely nothing, "not a stick of furniture, not a chair or a stool, not a scrap of paper." My search for her worldly goods would lead to some odd people.

By the time the two women met, Hellman was already involved with author Dashiell Hammett. Parker clearly revered Hammett, whom she called "as American as a sawed-off shotgun," yet according to Hellman, he disliked her so intensely he wouldn't even stay in the same room as her. Can you speculate as to why this man, who clearly had a fondness for strong women, found Dorothy Parker so objectionable?

I once believed this to be true, relying on the word of Hellman, but I've been corrected. Several years ago, Hammett's daughter Jo Marshall told me that her father got along with Parker just fine. "What troubled him was her bad habit of making comments behind people's backs, but of course she had been doing that for fifty years." It was Lillian, she added, "who spread the story that he disliked Parker but it was not true." Exactly why Hellman wanted people to believe this about Parker and Hammett is not clear. I'm also not sure why she went on to give him a head-to-toe makeover after his death. Certainly he was a flawed man, really abusive, especially to women. She wished to clean up his act, I suppose, even if it meant turning him into a fake saint.

Politically, Parker and Hammett held similar beliefs. In the 1930s, he joined the Communist Party, and she may have, too, even though there is no proof of it. No matter, the two of them shared kindred priorities. They attended the same public and private meetings and lectures, socially and professionally moved in the same radical circles. There is a photo of them sitting together companionably, applauding a speaker at some Hollywood political event. A cigarette dangles from Dash's mouth; Dottie sports a stylish hat and a pretty impressive manicure.

Toward the end of his life, when Hammett was terminally ill and spending the summer with Hellman on Martha's Vineyard, Parker was invited to be a houseguest. Relegated to sleeping at a nearby guesthouse, she saw little or nothing of Dash. But under the circumstances this is not entirely surprising and she probably didn't take it personally. He was a sick man not up to socializing with much of anybody.

Dorothy Parker never met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., yet she left him the rights to all her work, stipulating that in the event of his death they would transfer to the NAACP. Many people, including Hellman (who was the executor of Parker's estate), seemed to think this came out of left field. Can you talk about Dorothy Parker's connection to civil rights?

Parker was radicalized in 1927, when she fought to save the lives of convicted anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. Marching in the Boston protests, getting arrested, visiting the two men in their prison on the night of the execution, she was devastated over the deaths. During the Depression, she was an activist for a variety of left-wing causes, whether it was unionizing Hollywood screenwriters, supporting the Communist Party, or lugging a suitcase of groceries into war torn Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. In the Sixties, during the civil rights protests, she ached to do something. In her younger days, she might have been on a bus with the Freedom Riders. As an ailing elderly woman, she did what she could, and that was to leave everything she owned to Martin Luther King, Jr.

She never knew King personally. She didn't have to.

More often than not, Parker is remembered for wisecracks she never said, or as a happy go lucky binger of dry martinis. I think it's safe to say that she would have found this reputation distasteful. Let's keep in mind that she was a brilliant writer -- and the only American author to bequeath her estate to a black civil rights leader.

Do you think Hellman expected to be left something in Parker's will? How did she feel and react when she discovered that everything went to King?

Parker had agreed that Lillian was to be her executor. It was an obvious choice, not only because of their close relationship, but also because Hellman was a hard-nosed businesswoman, and Parker knew it. Apparently Hellman also expected to inherit the copyrights. So when Parker's will revealed that the profits from her writing would go to King, Hellman could not help feeling betrayed and furious. Perhaps she misunderstood the exact agreement, but it is also possible that Parker changed her mind at some point. If so, she did not share the decision with Hellman, who would go on about it to her friends and swear that the will must have been drawn up while Dottie was drunk. Her anger intensified over Parker's choice of legatee. It seems that she was not particularly impressed by King, who reminded her of preachers heard as a child growing up in the South, and she despised the NAACP as old-fashioned and ineffectual.

Many readers know that the veracity of Hellman's bestselling memoirs has been called into question. Most notably, the ostensibly autobiographical Julia, which was made into a movie starring Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave, was probably not Hellman's story at all, but a fictionalized version of someone else's real life event. Writer Mary McCarthy famously said that "every word [Hellman] writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'" Reading The Last Days of Dorothy Parker, an even more disturbing portrait of Lillian Hellman emerges. What is the takeaway on Lillian Hellman from all this? Would an armchair psychologist open the DSM to the page on Borderline Personality Disorder and make a diagnosis?

Most writers are nuts. Some are a bit more cracked than others. Probably Hellman splashes down on the wilder shores of crazy. To my knowledge, she has never been officially diagnosed as bipolar or borderline, which means nothing, because a proper psychiatric assessment would likely be a doozy. In her defense, she is not much different from unstable writers like Fitzgerald or Faulkner, whose mental health evaluations also would make for juicy reading. To her credit she did not shoot herself (Hemingway), or go berserk and stab a spouse (Mailer), or threaten a girlfriend with a pistol (Fitzgerald), or drive anyone into a madhouse (Fitzgerald again). Controlling her temper was a big problem, however. Her tendency to go ballistic -- anger management problems, we'd now say -- was well known. But her main fault was world-class lying. "Do not believe a word Hellman says on any subject," Martha Gellhorn advised me. "She is perhaps deranged." Perhaps. Besides the whoppers, she could be pretty rotten in other ways. For me, the worst was failing to make sure her dear friend got buried.

In The Last Days of Dorothy Parker, it was not my intention to cast stones at Hellman. Enough people have dumped on her. Like every one of us, she could be very kind and very nasty. Like every one of us, she did whatever she believed necessary to get her through life's situations. Her admirers were legion, her generosity first class, and disentangling her life from her work underscores her dazzling talent as a dramatist. My responsibility was to write down her actions, whatever they were. She was a fascinating subject, actually.

Despite her prodigious talent for dialogue, character, and mining emotional truth, not to mention the O. Henry she won for "Big Blonde," Parker is taken less seriously than some of her contemporaries, including Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Is this due to subject matter or sexism? Or are those two impossible to separate? Do you think it would be different if she had written a novel?

Mrs. Parker is our only female literary humorist. She wrote verse, short fiction, dramas, essays, criticism, song lyrics, and screenplays, a range of talent unequalled by any other American writer. She tried to write a novel twice but couldn't do it.

Her Swiss letter published as Alpine Giggle Week explains why. Superficially it appears to be a patchwork of hilarious laments about how horrific her life has been, her usual shtick where Mrs. Parker is standing on the deck of the Titanic with a smile on her face. Fun aside, the reason it's different from her other letters and why it's important to publish -- and why it required an introduction longer than the letter -- involves her place in literary history. In the age of the Great American Novel, she was acutely aware of needing to produce a serious full-length work -- not those dinky "short things" (her words). Earlier she had begun a novel but gave up. Then, in 1929, another opportunity arose when Viking Press offered a contract for Sonnets in Suicide, or the Life of John Knox. She thought a second novel would be easier but it wasn't. When forced to admit defeat, she became profoundly depressed and attempted to end her life.

Despite the failure, she continued to write short fiction for a time, even published two more books of poetry. But a while later, she changed professions and went to Hollywood, where she made a lot of dough as a screenwriter. It was work that she never pretended to enjoy or respect.

Thank you for mentioning the darkly hilarious novelette-length letter just published as Alpine Giggle Week (an ebook from Penguin). How and when was this letter found?

The divine Mrs. Parker flew over my house one night and dropped it down the chimney. Why not? This was only fair, considering the number of years I've spent slaving over her life (and ignoring my own) with precious little to show for it. I only wish she had done right by me a long time ago.

Without revealing any trade secrets, I can tell you biographers have methods of finding stuff. Sometimes strange things float to us with no effort on our part. People love to tell you what they know about your subjects, or what they think they know, because often they're hopelessly wrong. People love to share goods they've collected -- signed first editions, letters, photographs, wallets, all manner of artifacts that might relate to literary history, items that I suspect eventually pop up on eBay. In this accidental way, I came by a copy of Parker's Swiss letter at a time when I had no use for it. After publishing her biography, I never expected to write about her again and was on to my next book. Meaning to read the letter later, I remember filing it. That must have been around 1992. Then in the fall of 2012, I was cleaning a cabinet and there it was.

All these years later, Dorothy Parker's writing still seems fresh, witty, and audacious. Why do you think she continues to feel so relevant to modern readers?

Normally, newspaper columnist Franklin Pierce Adams was no slouch when it came to reporting what's what and why. But even he seemed at a loss to analyze the special appeal of Parker, with whom he had a long history. (He'd published her verse before World War I.) F.P.A. could only call her an original, a "limited edition." "More lasting than brass is the monument she has built," he wrote almost seventy-five years ago. Nothing has changed since then.

Ellen Meister is a novelist, essayist, editor and creative writing instructor. Her most recent novels are Farewell, Dorothy Parker and The Other Life. She runs a popular Dorothy Parker page on Facebook.