A Conversation with Stuart Y. Silverstein

Not Much Fun: The Lost Poems of Dorothy Parker
Not Much Fun: The Lost Poems of Dorothy Parker
No collection of Dorothy Parker books is complete without owning Not Much Fun: The Lost Poems of Dorothy Parker, which first came out in 1996. Published by Scribner to much acclaim, it presented for the first time more than 100 poems and bits of verse that Mrs. Parker did not collect in her lifetime. Due to the diligence and sleuthing of armchair literary detective Stuart Y. Silverstein, an attorney and bibliophile based in Los Angeles, Not Much Fun brought to light scores of gems that fans of Mrs. Parker may not have been exposed to.

In a 1999 interview with the Dorothy Parker Society, Silverstein said, “I had read that there were some uncollected poems, but to see them, particularly in such a natural, topical setting, had a strange effect. I started to compile them.”

Silverstein basked in the glory of compiling such an essential volume for a few short years, until a legal maelstrom erupted. Silverstein learned that Penguin Classics issued Complete Poems, a Dorothy Parker collection that just happened to include every one of the pieces that he discovered for Not Much Fun. Incensed, he sued Penguin in federal court; Penguin was forced to pull the book from stores in 2001. The case went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear it. Silverstein lost the case. (A nearly complete account of the legal twists and turns the case took is presented here). In April 2010 Penguin will bring Complete Poems out again.

But before that can happen, Scribner has released a revised and updated edition of Not Much Fun, a book that presents a fascinating answer to a biographical mystery about Mrs. Parker’s love life, new discoveries, and a revised introduction. Silverstein was kind enough to grant the DPS a second interview.

Why do you think there is such enduring interest in Dorothy Parker?

When I was asked that question before, I suggested that Dorothy Parker endures because wit always is in style. And she projects an attitude that a large swathe of the popular culture finds attractive, that is, sharp but vulnerable, cynical yet sentimental—street cred with an underlying sensibility.

I used a quote from W.H. Auden in the introduction: “Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.” The fact that her stuff is still remembered, and is still in print—seventy, eighty, even ninety years after it first appeared—proves its essential worth. Dorothy Parker has had plenty of time and opportunity to slip into obscurity, but has stubbornly refused to do so. Why? Because lots of people continue to love her stuff, and she makes new fans every day.

What led you to seek out Parker’s “lost” work?

I didn’t actually set out to look for Parker’s “lost” work. I didn’t know it existed until I found it.

What was the process to find these?

To start, it was sheer inadvertence. I tripped over several of the lost poems and free verses while searching old Life magazine microfilms for Robert Benchley’s famous capsule reviews of Abie’s Irish Rose.

Benchley was Life’s drama critic at the time, and each week he had to concoct short snippets for every play then in production. As luck would have it, he hated Abie, intensely, but it perversely continued to run: night after night, then week after week, then month after month—then, ultimately, year after year. And each week he had to write something new about it. Torture.

Benchley’s ongoing ordeal is Broadway lore. I was trying to assemble the full set of Abie snippets when I came across Parker items I’d never seen before. I reviewed her compilations and realized they had never been collected.

After I accumulated the Life items, I checked every newspaper, and magazine, and index that I could find in several libraries and databases. The stuff accumulated. Two years and more than 120 items later, Scribner published Not Much Fun. That was 1996.

Why did you want to bring out an updated edition of Not Much Fun?

After the first edition appeared I found several more items.

What new poems have been added?

This time round there are four new items and one expanded item. One of these “new” items—that is, new for Fun, although it’s more than seventy years old—which I titled “Pecking Order (or ‘Eggs Tempore’),” actually appeared in the 1996 Fun first edition, but not as a poem. I put it in the introduction, as part of an anecdote. Why? Because when I was assembling the first edition I subjectively decided it was not a poem. This time I changed my mind and added it to the text.

Another new item, the hate verse “Reformers,” first appeared in an obscure 1922 book called Nonsenseorship, which was a collection of anti-censorship pieces supplied by several writers. I missed it first time round, even though its existence was known and citations to it were available. How did that happen? I don’t know. But it did—my fault entirely—so I fixed it this time.

You [Kevin Fitzpatrick] sent me the third new item, the couplet I titled “Blurb.” Apparently either Frank Adams or his publisher asked Mrs. Parker for promotional copy for the dust jacket of Adams’s 1936 collection The Melancholy Lute; that is, they wanted a blurb. She sent Adams’s editor a handwritten postcard with the two-line poem, which eventually appeared on the book’s jacket in slightly different form. I believe Adams’s son, Anthony, kept the postcard. He gave it to you, you gave it to me. Many thanks for that.

The fourth new item, a poem called “Pollyanna Gets the Air,” was a single typescript page that I found photocopied in a box of documents, unsigned and unattributed. It appeared in Life, also anonymously, in 1922. I determined it was hers, and put it in.

As to the “expanded” item, “The Passionate Screenwriter to His Love”—by “expanded” I mean that about one-fourth of it did appear in the first edition of Fun. When I assembled that first edition I simply did not realize that there was any more to it. This time the full text appears.

How did the discovery of “Pollyanna” happen, and what conclusions do you draw about it and Parker’s relationship with Charles MacArthur?

As I said, I found it in a box of documents, which led me to the New York University Fales Library. There I found a folder comprised of what appeared to be both original typescripts and previously-published items pasted onto sheets of paper, all hand-numbered consecutively in the upper-right corner of each page. I deduced the folder contained a large part of an early draft of the manuscript of Enough Rope, Mrs. Parker’s first collection, which was published near the end of 1926.

There were several clues, which led me to conclude it was genuine, and an early draft of the Rope manuscript. Several items that were very subtly edited between their original publication and Rope, and have passed into posterity in their Rope form, were included in the folder, but in their original forms. That led me to conclude two things: first, that the material in the folder was genuine—who else who know about the changes?—and second, that it was an early draft, because they ultimately were changed. And all of the items were written in or before 1926. And several runs of items in the folder were arranged in an order either identical or nearly identical to that in Rope. There were other things that also caught my attention, but you get the idea.

And there were clues that led me to attribute the anonymous “Pollyanna” piece to Mrs. Parker. As I said before, it was one of several typescripts. The “Pollyanna” typescript had several typographical errors. One, in the date, was identical to a typo in another item in the folder; an item that we know was written by Mrs. Parker. The format of the date was identical to that of other items we know were written by Mrs. Parker. Several other formatting features were very similar, if not identical, to those of other typescripts of items we know were written by Mrs. Parker. I concluded to my satisfaction that the “Pollyanna” item was written by Mrs. Parker. Then I looked into it even further, and corroborated my earlier conclusion.

As to tying it to her celebrated affair with Charles MacArthur, the timing was precise and the language was unique: in no other item did she describe qualities that so clearly described MacArthur and her affair with him—that he liked variety, that she had been warned she was one of many women in his life, but that she plunged in anyway. She had other men like that in her life, but years later. MacArthur was unique.

The dating of the poem also led me to conclude that her affair with MacArthur must have occurred in late 1921, rather than in 1922, as has long been asserted. It couldn’t have occurred in 1922; if so, the poem was not about MacArthur. Simple as that. But I looked into it and found there was no hard evidence the affair had occurred in 1922—some historians had just assumed the accuracy of earlier accounts without researching the matter themselves. After conducting my own research I satisfied myself there was no evidence that the previous accounts were correct. Fascinating stuff there.

Do you think there are more Parker pieces out there that have not been discovered?

Yes.

Thanks for the interview, and good luck with the new edition of Not Much Fun. It is available now in bookstores and online.

Kevin Fitzpatrick is the president of the Dorothy Parker Society. He is the author of A Journey into Dorothy Parker’s New York (Roaring Forties Press, 2005) and co-editor of The Lost Algonquin Round Table (Donald Books, 2009). He leads walking tours devoted to Mrs. Parker and the Algonquin Round Table.

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