In a month when Michael Jackson and Led Zeppelin both put out new albums, Dorothy Parker joins their company with new material from her longtime publisher.
While Jackson’s heirs performed a séance to bring out new songs and Jimmy Page himself remastered Whole Lotta Love, Penguin Classics turned to their own house archivist on all things Parker, Marion Meade.
On May 27 the venerable house released two new electronic books of digital material. 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 ($1.99) is a 1930 letter Parker penned to her publisher; The Last Days of Dorothy Parker: The Extraordinary Lives of Dorothy Parker and Lillian Hellman and How Death Can Be Hell on Friendship ($2.99) is a reworked Meade magazine article about the pathos surrounding Lillian Hellman’s mistreatment of Parker.
In Meade, Penguin has hired Parker’s own Boswell, the author of the definitive biography, editor of the revised Portable Dorothy Parker, and champion for Parker’s lost Broadway gem. It is a nice idea for Penguin to bring out new products, even if they are e-books, for Parker devotees.
Alpine Giggle Week is a 1930 letter Parker sent from Switzerland to her publishers in New York. At the time, she was a guest of Sara and Gerald Murphy, the famous Jazz Age expats who were friends with Dos Passos, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway. Meade’s introduction to the letter is longer than the letter itself, and lays out the time period in Parker’s life, and the extensive back-story to all the figures the letter is about and who it is written for. This is the timeframe between Parker’s two marriages, when she was suffering from heartache, depression, and mammoth writer’s block.
Parker recounts the unhappy circumstances of her travels, which was to be the Murphy’s guest while the family tried to care for one of their children, afflicted with tuberculosis. The patients, “the sicks” in her view, inspired a poisonous letter. She recounts the gloomy weeks and the highlight of her time in Switzerland, a visit from her dearest friend, Robert Benchley. Just ten year before, the pair had shared an office and read funeral home magazines together. They got reacquainted in the Swiss Alps:
“There was one young man, I recall, with a cough that was a real museum piece. Mr. B heard him going really good one afternoon, and that same night, much to his amazement, saw him dancing assiduously, clad in immaculate evening dress. “Well, well, well,” was the comment of Our Fred. “I certainly never thought he’d wear a stiff shirt again until they put it on him with thumb-tacks.”
Parker, who turned thirty-seven on the trip, lays out her travels to Paris, Milan, Venice, and Munich, where she picked up a daschund. (“I had never done much about daschunds, except to think they were pretty funny-looking, but after a little while, it’s other dogs that look funny.”) She named him Robinson and took him home.
Reading the letter will appeal to anyone who likes travel blogs and literary history. Parker fires salvos at the local culture, and name-drops with the best of them. However, she spends more time talking about her travails of bad trips and clumsy falls than what Scott Fitzgerald said to her during their three days together with the Murphys. There is an overall sadness to the letter—Parker, after all, was with a family and their terminally sick eight-year-old little boy—that is interspersed with moments of the blackest humor.
“I had better quit crabbing about these present straits, because by the time you get this novelette, they will be over and something new—or more probably nothing whatever—will be going on. So you see. And you also see, I haven’t a damn thing to say.”
I don’t like the title of the e-book, Alpine Giggle Week. A very similar letter was published in Esquire in August 1989. “Letter From A Goddamn Alp” was penned by Parker (the same time she wrote this one) to Benchley. His son, Nathaniel, framed it. His son, Peter, edited it and had it published. It goes over the same subject matter and is just as humorous.
Also going over similar subject matter is The Last Days of Dorothy Parker. This is Meade’s updating the story of Parker’s last years on this planet, and the horrible mess Lillian Hellman created when she left it. Meade covered some of this territory in What Fresh Hell Is This (1988) and Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin (2004). However, this e-book is an expansive retelling of her 2006 article for Bookforum (available here), titled “Estate of Mind.” It adds more information and extensive notes and comments.
That Dorothy Parker’s mortal remains ended up in Baltimore outside the offices of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is well known to anyone who’s read the biographies or visited the memorial virtually. In this new e-book, Meade has free reign to really unload on the unseemly Hellman, as well as dish on scores of publishing world fools who let Parker down. The e-book allows Meade to add other Hellman biographers to pile onto “Lil,” such as Carl Rollyson, who’s written on women as diverse as Marilyn Monroe and Sylvia Plath.
Meade goes to great lengths to explain the mishegas of how a respected writer could be cremated and her remains never claimed. Meade reviews Hellman’s unmitigated spitefulness with all the zeal of one who unspooled the Zapruder film. Hellman’s reputation, whatever is left of it, is kicked out onto West End Avenue and a few taxicabs roll over it.
Parker gets a good long cheer for her unfortunate afterlife travails. Meade writes:
“Little did she guess that settling permanently would require a Homeric journey of twenty-one years. More galling, her real-life coda—afterlife in a tin can—doomed her to spend fifteen of those years hanging around Wall Street, the symbol of everything she hated, followed by eternal rest in Baltimore, another place not to her taste, a short distance from a parking lot (she didn’t drive).”
The Last Days of Dorothy Parker is a good read for those that want to examine the minutia of what became of Parker’s friendship with Hellman, and how Hellman derailed the efforts of Parker biographers in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s a good addition to the bookshelf of Parker bios.
The two ebooks are slickly packaged. The art direction, however, looks like it was done in Bellevue. I realize a sizzling “book jacket” isn’t a requirement for something to be read on a Kindle, however, what passes for a book cover on Alpine Giggle Week is among the worst art ever on any Parker book. The best Parker cover is still Seth’s 2006 Portable Dorothy Parker (well, until this gorgeous thing came along), so for these e-books the budget must have been ten bucks.
Kudos to Penguin for bringing these e-books out. Thanks to Marion Meade for keeping new Dorothy Parker material coming.