On this date 45 years ago, Dorothy Parker died of a heart attack at age 73 in her apartment on the Upper East Side. Today NPR aired a nice story about Mrs. Parker’s remains ending up in Baltimore. I did speak to the reporter for quite a bit. Here is the rest of the story, which is recounted in my book A Journey into Dorothy Parker’s New York. I’ll also include a few other things I said that got left on the digital cutting room floor.
When Mrs. Parker died, she left her estate to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man she never met but had deep respect for. If you think about the 1960s, Dr. King was probably in the newspapers almost every day, and Mrs. Parker would have been reading all about him. He of course was assassinated in Memphis 11 months after Mrs. Parker’s death. The estate then rolled over to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Parker wasn’t a member that I’m aware of; but she was close to leading black figures of the era, such as Paul Robeson and a W.E.B. Du Bois.
What was not in the NPR story was the full chain of events surrounding her death and estate. Mrs. Parker named her friend Lillian Hellman the executrix of her will (“A woman who is appointed by a testator to execute the testator’s will.” – Freedictionary.com). Hellman did two things in June 1967. First, she tossed in the garbage everything from Mrs. Parker’s apartment in the Hotel Volney. All papers, books, clothes and mementos. Next, she went against Mrs. Parker’s wishes and held a public memorial service at the Frank E. Campbell funeral home.
The story takes a few more twists and turns. Mrs. Parker was creamated in Hartsdale, New York, which is in Westchester County, just north of New York City. The crematorium held onto the ashes because Hellman left no instructions. Later, they were shipped to the law offices of Paul O’Dwyer, who’s late partner, Oscar Bernstein, represented Mrs. Parker (O’Dwyer was not Hellman’s attorney, she was represented by Ephraim London). The ashes then moved to the offices of O’Dwyer & Bernstein, LLP. In the meantime, in 1970, Hellman sued the NAACP to get control of Parker’s estate. She lost.
On my walking tours I say that without Marion Meade the ashes might still be in a law office file cabinet on lower Broadway. When Meade was researching Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell is This? (the definitive, and best, Parker biography), she learned from O’Dwyer where the ashes were, and not, where she suspected, buried with her parents in Woodlawn Cemetery. This prompted O’Dwyer to act. He called members of the press, including the great Liz Smith, and they convened at the Algonquin Hotel in March 1988. Not long after, Dr. Benjamin Hooks, president of the NAACP, came up from Baltimore and picked up the urn. In October that year, they were put into a nice spot next to the organization’s headquarters. In a nice bit of irony, their campus is a former convent, which the Catholic Church had sold off. Where Dorothy Parker rests today was once trod by nuns just like the sisters who taught her in elementary school on the Upper West Side.
I put the whole sad tale here in 2000. A few years later, my wife and I visited the beautiful Woodlawn Cemetery and located Henry and Eliza Rothschild’s graves with the help of Friends of Woodlawn Cemetery. There is a place in the plot for Dorothy Rothschild Parker. As I said to NPR, if the NAACP should ever move out of Baltimore, I hope the urn goes to the Bronx.
Until that time, Mrs. Parker can stay in Baltimore. I also said that her close friends, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, are just 40 miles away, in Rockville, Maryland. Visitors can see the Jazz Age legends in one trip, and then stop and see Poe.
Today is the anniversary of Mrs. Parker’s death. I am happy that radio audiences got to hear this story, and maybe some of them will use the news to pick up one of her books.