Day Seven: Dorothy Parker Copyright Trial Wraps Up

The Dorothy Parker Copyright Trial ended today. It lasted seven days; the final day was devoted to concluding the video deposition of Randall Calhoun. The monotonous testimony considered the line of questions that took up most of yesterday afternoon, defining what “poems” and “poetry” mean to scholars.

Calhoun, an assistant professor of English from Ball State University, had another three hours of his deposition played in court. Calhoun, who bears a passing resemblance to Adam West, saw the questions put to him become a little more difficult, as he flopped around and tried to explain his contradictory statements to the attorneys.

The cross-examination today was begun by Thomas Kjellberg, of Cowan, Liebowitz & Latman, a trial attorney representing Penguin Books. He grilled Calhoun on intricate interpretations of the schematics of poetry. Calhoun continued to be as wily as ever, contradicting himself and forgetting what he had previously told the attorneys, written, or testified about. In a remark he made, Calhoun related the craziest tale I’ve ever come across in my nine years of running this Web site. “There’s a rumor,” Calhoun said, “That I think it’s a fact, that Lillian Hellman went to Parker’s apartment and found her dead and collected anything she could find there. And there’s a rumor going around that someplace in Switzerland, there’s a whole bunch of Dashiell Hammett/Dorothy Parker papers that are lost.” Wow! Somehow this was not mentioned in the 5,000-word article Marion Meade wrote for Bookforum last year about the Hellman-Parker relationship. Later, Calhoun said the FBI murdered Marilyn Monroe.

Kjellberg tried to pin Calhoun down on the big issue that was raised yesterday, about when are Parker pieces poems, and when are they not. Since Calhoun, author of Dorothy Parker: A Bio-Bibliography, seems to be the No. 1 scholar in the trial, his words would weigh heavily on the case. Kjellberg read a statement Calhoun had previously given: “…the definition of poetry is general and vague. Whether an item should be deemed to constitute poetry is inherently a personal, subjective determination but is informed by and depends upon an individual’s personal background, education, taste and judgment I believe that certain items are not poetry, are not actually poems.”

This same statement by Calhoun was raised before, and it prompted Kjellberg to ask, “When you said that, were you referring to the more objective classification, or were you talking about what you’ve sort of characterized as the subjective, whether something is poetic to you?” This follows what Calhoun had said earlier, and was played for the court yesterday; Calhoun said he believed the Quentin Tarantino film Pulp Fiction and James Dickey’s novel Deliverance were both poetic. Kjellberg asked him, “Would it be accurate to say that when you said “the definition of poetry is general and vague,” you meant poetry in some more subjective sense, poetry in terms of what moves the individual reader or strikes an individual as poetic?” Calhoun said he agreed with the statement. He also agreed with pretty much everything that Kjellberg asked. Calhoun had said earlier that what Silverstein classified as poems, were not poems in his opinion. This debate lasted quite awhile.

Calhoun said, “a poem is one thing, but poetry is art… but a poem isn’t necessarily a work of art. Poetry is a work of art.” He went on like this to Kjellberg, who raised the issue again of how Silverstein and Calhoun differed on the question of poetry. The Bio-Bibliography does not classify as poems some of what Silverstein called poems in his book, Not Much Fun.

“News Item” made about its fifth appearance in the trial. Like a bad penny, it keeps turning up. Today it was Kjellberg’s turn to read, “Men seldom make passes/At girls who wear glasses.” He then asked Calhoun if “News Item” is doggerel. Calhoun said no. “That in itself,” Calhoun went on to say, “just by itself, would be called a couplet because the last two lines rhyme. A couplet can be doggerel, but it doesn’t have to be. A lot of authors will use couplets for doggerel verse. But doggerel is kind of like a poem, versus poetry. Something may be doggerel or it may not.” Earlier, Silverstein had stated that “News Item” was “a wisecrack” and not a poem.

The deposition continued in this fashion until Calhoun was asked the million-dollar question: which Parker pieces were “poems” or “poetry.” Calhoun was read a list of titles, and was asked his opinion of them. Time and again, he said the pieces were poems or prose — or neither. Sometimes they were called “squibs” – which was never really clear to me. Calhoun was shown issues of the old Life humor magazine; the publication Parker contributed numerous pieces to in the early Twenties.

Calhoun came across as confused and utterly waylaid by Kjellberg’s questions, at one point saying to the attorney, “I don’t know what you want me to say. Tell me what you want.” To which Kjellberg replied, “Just the truth.” The next section of the testimony felt like a car spinning its wheels in deep mud. Calhoun attempts to classify free verse and poems, going back on his earlier statements. The questions go over Parker’s famous “Hate Verses” at length. He is asked about Silverstein’s “Complete Chronology” that appears at the end of Not Much Fun; the same question was asked of many of the other witnesses during the past seven days. Calhoun says he would assume that this list is all of the poems of Dorothy Parker, if he was a reader.

Silverstein’s lead counsel, Mark Rabinowitz, of Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg, asked the next questions of Calhoun. The two went back to using the terms “poems” and “poetry” as interchangeable. Rabinowitz asked, “How do you explain to me how in both of these affidavits the words “poetry” and “poems” are used interchangeably and sometimes in the same sentence, referring to the same subject?” To which Calhoun replied, “I was asked for my scholarly opinion, not a popular opinion. I have two vocabularies, one that I would use for that, and I was hoping that would be the scholarly vocabulary you wanted. I knew what I meant when I made the distinction between poetry and a poem. As was pointed out before, some of them were not used correctly.”

The two disagreed over the two affidavits, going over the replies that Calhoun had made earlier. They talked about the scholarship of Silverstein, which Calhoun seemed to be mildly dismissive of. Calhoun was asked to clarify more of his earlier statements, which he seemed to have a hard time recalling. Calhoun said that one of Parker’s funniest pieces in Not Much Fun, which came from a letter she wrote to her close friend, Robert Benchley, should be called a poem. However, he did not include it in his book, because he couldn’t find a copy, and only read about it in Marion Meade’s bio, What Fresh Hell is This? That is also where Silverstein first saw it, and prompted him to locate the 5-page letter in a Boston’s Mugar Library. Meade’s bio was
entered into evidence earlier, and referred to often.

Rabinowitz said, “Every single one of your misstatements or your mistakes have in fact changed what was otherwise on the record in favor of Penguin’s position, haven’t they?” Calhoun said he “had no idea” about that, and Rabinowitz continued, “Have you ever expressed in writing your intention to write four volumes compiling the works of Dorothy Parker prior to your affidavit that Mr. Kjellberg had you sign? Have you ever expressed that before… my point is, you, in fact, told me were you looking to retire. And that you were not looking to make your academic career anymore; that that was in the past?” Calhoun replied that he had written to the NAACP around 1985 expressing this interest, however, he denied Penguin Books had promised that they would publish his new collections of Parker material, if he ever compiled them, in exchange for favorable testimony in this case.

Kjellberg took over a brief line of questions, working on the definition of poems. Calhoun stated that poems on a page, how they are formatted and set off, from margin to margin or indented, can help clarify them as poems – or not. This went on for a good 20 minutes, with Calhoun looking at how Parker pieces were presented in old Life magazines to determine if they were, indeed, poems or not. After listening to Calhoun say, “There’s a huge difference between a poem on the page. Sometimes there are even decorations around it as opposed to prose on a page. These “Hate Verses” they don’t look like prose when they are written,” it helped me make up my mind: the man is making this up. He seems backed into a corner, and trapped by his previous statements. He was, in a sense, saying that how Parker pieces appeared in magazines, set down by typography, would determine their worth as poems or prose. It was Rabinowitz who pointed out that Calhoun was not being clear about this point at all, and compared the original sources from the 1920s with the books from 1995 and 1999.

The end of Randall Calhoun was anti-climatic. The TV screen just flickered off and he was gone. It is shocking to me that in all of higher education, academia, colleges and universities coast to coast, that the very best expert to be found on Dorothy Parker was this man. I have to kick myself, because I once crashed a literary society gathering composed almost entirely of college professors, and I rolled my eyes. However, any one of them would have jumped at the chance to be deposed in a trial like this if they could talk about their author for six straight hours.

However, somehow I don’t think this is the last we’ll see or hear from Calhoun.

After the testimony, Judge Keenan just had a few activities left. Both sides submitted more material to him. This included charts prepared that compared poems in the two books and Calhoun’s book, with item-by-item page numbers. The plaintiff’s attorney submitted a summary of figures, to try and figure out estimated damages. The defense objected to this. Richard Dannay, Penguin’s lead attorney, made a motion to dismiss the whole case. The judge denied the motion, but told him his rights are preserved. The defense said they were sending the judge 30-plus books. They also entered into the official record the 2006 edition of the Deluxe Edition of the Portable Dorothy Parker. I’d know that sweet Seth cover anyplace.

The judge set Oct. 9, 2007, 2:30 p.m. for oral arguments. So the end is not in sight, yet, for this to be over or to the next stage. Then the judge addressed the courtroom. He said he knew he was “tart” at the beginning of the trial (he really laid the smackdown on the attorneys the first minute he took the bench last week). But he made no apologies. Judge Keenan, speaking to the room, said his wife is a retired schoolteacher. One thing he learned from her, he said, was that on the first day of class “if you are tough with students at the beginning of the school year, they are good the rest of the year.” He complimented both sides on behaving and getting along. He said it made for a better trial.

I will miss the stunning view of Manhattan from Courtroom 20C of the Daniel Patrick Moynihan U.S. Courthouse. All week, I was the lone spectator in the gallery almost the entire trial. From my front-row seat I could clearly see out the large windows all the way to Times Square, where Dorothy Parker once walked.

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