The Portable Dorothy Parker
March 15, 2006
Author Marion Meade was amazed when the 2006 edition of The Portable Dorothy Parker was delivered to her. “It’s certainly not a Portable anymore,” she said. “You can’t put it in your pocket. It’s amazing to me.” Meade is the editor of the book and wrote a new introduction. She took a collection that has been in print for 62 years and made it fresh again. By far the most authoritative writer on Parker, Meade wrote the landmark biography Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell is This? (Villard, 1988). Parker was also one-quarter of the subject matter in Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties (Nan A. Talese, 2004). Meade has also written numerous articles on Parker, as well as the foreword for A Journey into Dorothy Parker’s New York (Roaring Forties Press, 2005). She has written 13 books, including biographies of Buster Keaton, Woody Allen and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Meade took time for a Q&A at her Upper West Side apartment with Kevin Fitzpatrick.
How did you come to the project?
I’d felt for years that the book should be revised; at least that the Brendan Gill introduction should be taken off. I thought it was a scandal and a disgrace for years and years. I had interviewed him for my book, and I personally knew what he thought of Parker: Negative. Totally negative. I thought that is just disgraceful to have this introduction on there.
Did you approach Penguin about doing the revised edition, or did they come to you?
No. I sent an email to Lois Wallace, my agent, one day. It was a complaint letter. I complain to her all the time. I said, “Has anyone ever looked at that piece of s—t that is in the front of The Portable Dorothy Parker? That is terrible.” And I said more than that. She then asked me if she could forward it to Kathryn Court (president and publisher of Penguin Books). I said, sure, go ahead. Then Court replied, “We are thinking of revising it” … that was to Lois. I said to her that is nice. But nobody approached me about anything… that was in the summer of 2004.
After Penguin got around to formally asking you to edit the revised Portable, what happened next?
I suggested a concept and prospective table of contents to (the editor). It was submitted to Kathryn Court or someone and more importantly, the NAACP. They had to approve everything.
Is this the point where it was decided the book couldn’t get bigger?
That wasn’t the NAACP’s decision. That was Penguin’s. I was told that I couldn’t put anything in without taking something out because the page numbers had to be the same. In fact, they’re not. The new edition is about 20 pages longer. So I prepared a table of contents and an overview of what the new book should be all about.
There are a couple of short stories that are not in the new edition, “I Live on Your Visits” and “Lolita” which she wrote in 1955. “I Live on Your Visits” is very similar to “The Ladies of the Corridor.”
Yes it is.
I think it’s the only Parker story with a main character, modeled after her, that has a grown son.
Yes. It was Lulu that was the main character in “The Ladies of the Corridor.” In “I Live on Your Visits” – which is a whole view of a younger son – it’s terrible as a relationship between a mother and son.
In addition to taking out those two short stories, you also dropped many of the book reviews from the previous edition.
Yes. I took out all the book reviews that seemed to me to be antiquated and that smelled more like the 19th Century than the 20th. They were of works that were not really up to date.
And many of her drama reviews were dropped as well for this edition.
Even though there were some classics, these (reviews Parker wrote for) Vanity Fair were old. They were really antiquated. They all sounded to me very Victorian… or from World War I. There was nothing wrong with them, but I could not put in things unless I took some things out. So those were the first to go. I saved a few of them. If there were six reviews, I dumped three. I kept a few.
You did add two Parker theater reviews, “Ziegfeld Follies of 1921” and “The Emperor Jones,” a Eugene O’Neill play, that were not in the previous edition.
After she left Vanity Fair she went on to become a reviewer at Ainslee’s. For about two years, maybe more. This didn’t have the prestige of Vanity Fair, of course. It didn’t have the audience. But it was her bread and butter. She was still going to the theatre. She was still writing reviews. They were a lot chattier. Because I think she thought, “Who the hell reads Ainslee’s?” I picked two shows that I thought people would have an interest in.
For Parker’s book reviews, did you pick books that kind of stand the test of time?
Yes. I picked her friends for one thing. I added one introduction she wrote for a James Thurber book. I wanted her friends to be in the book. That’s why I added the review she wrote for The New York Times Book Review of Sid Perelman’s “The Road to Miltown” and one of the two introductions she wrote for Thurber. That’s why I left in “The Years with Ross” by Thurber. She was very fond of Thurber. And of course Perelman, who was her buddy and her Benchley replacement at the end of her life. I just thought I’d put her friends in here (laughs). These were her views of people who really are great humorists.
Her Saturday Evening Post essays are not here or in any other books. You didn’t want to add one now?
Those long pieces from the Saturday Evening Post like “An Apartment House Anthology” were boring in a sense that they were long. But they were the kinds of things the Post used. I’m sure she was paid by the word (laughs). They were big, bulky things. I had no room for something that was big and bulky. I put in one big and bulky thing. That was “The Game” and everything else I wanted to keep short. I wanted something from that period, so I put in the Life magazine stuff. Which were more her, more personal, and funny.
I was interested in seeing more of her verse. Are you or are you not a fan of Parker’s “Hate Verses”?
I don’t like them.
I don’t know why. When I first read them I didn’t like them and I guess I’ve never changed my opinion. I guess I have a little bit, but they’re not my favorites. I don’t know why, I don’t find them that funny any more.
Actually, all the choices in this book, the fact that this book looks like it does, I have to take the credit or the blame.
What are you most excited about adding in to this new edition?
Two things. The interview she gave to the Paris Review which I felt like was a small autobiography. Because of the fact that the people being interviewed, I found out, had a chance to edit (their interviews before publication). So it was very much her own views. I thought she was very honest there. It showed a great deal about how she wrote and what her feeling about writing was. So I was very eager to put that in. The other thing was the letters. I felt the letters showed her as she really was. The long letter to Benchley, she had nothing to do at Montana-Vermala (Switzerland), she could have worked on that letter for weeks. I think she started it, wrote it, and mailed it. Unlike her written work which she joked, “I write five words and change seven.”
You also picked her last published article, “New York at 6:30 P.M.”
Yes. Because personally, I love that piece. I think its one of the most beautiful things she’s written.
It’s not so much about the painter John Koch, it’s about New York City.
It calls up all kinds of images of what New York meant to her.
Is that also why you picked the McCall’s piece “My Home Town” to include?
Yes. I wanted two pieces about New York. For example, there are two pieces about interior decoration in the book that are new. One is a piece that she wrote for Vogue in 1917 and the other for House and Garden in 1942. Those are subjects that aren’t considered very “Dorothy Parker-ish”. I wanted pieces about New York because she is just a total New Yorker to me. This was a piece from the Twenties and a piece from the Sixties.
Do you think the new edition of the Portable gives a broader picture of who Parker was as a writer?
Oh, absolutely. It is broader because she isn’t selecting the stuff. She was very hard on herself. So she just picked what she wanted to be remembered for. Brendan Gill did not pick the stuff that was added in the second edition. He wrote the introduction. The stuff that was added was added by Viking.
Do we know the editor?
I’m not sure… but it wasn’t that Brendan Gill was sitting there going through old Parker stuff, saying “I want this and I don’t want that.”
So I wanted to add things to show the breadth of her humor. Her letters certainly show that. And then there was stuff she never wanted to include, thinking that it wouldn’t add to her reputation. Her reputation as what? (laughs) As a short story writer? I guess she had not decided by 1944 that she could never write a novel. But as a literary person why would she pick some of this crap that she’d written – dashed off for money in 1923 or 1924? (The new edition) shows who she was, what her life was like, and is very representative of her work.
As I said in my introduction, people think of her as this witty woman. In fact, she wrote in five, six, seven genres. The amount that she wrote is awesome, just in its quantity. And there’s stuff I’m sure that hasn’t even been found yet. A lot of the stuff she wrote I don’t particularly like, but it was what she was writing at the time. If I was her in 1944, I would pick (material) very much like she did. I would pick what I was proud of. Most of what she wrote she wasn’t proud of. Although the one thing she said she was proud of was her first short story, “Such a Pretty Little Picture” which she wrote for American Mercury. She never included that. I included that. I think she was right when she made the remark, “I’m so proud of that” decades later. I included one other little verse, “For R.C.B.” I don’t know if anyone would get who R.C.B. was, but it was her best friend, Robert Charles Benchley. It was a little poem she didn’t pick for the (1944) Portable. (That) was the “f—k you” poem; the “we don’t care what anyone says” poem.
Mrs. Parker also included that kooky “War Song” in the 1944 Portable too.
I hate that poem. But that was her choice. And the other thing was I was not going to change anything that she picked for the first edition. Nothing. I figured everything else was up for grabs.
What percentage of the book do you think is new?
Maybe about 30 percent, or more.
What did you want to accomplish with the introduction?
I wanted to say this woman is a legend. Here’s why she is a legend and why people still read her. I also wanted to say, “I love Dorothy Parker. A lot of people love Dorothy Parker; here’s why everyone should.” She was a very unique writer. People have said to me, “Oh, Dorothy Parker, she can’t compare to the greatest writers of the 20th Century. She’s not a Hemingway or a Fitzgerald.” No, but she wrote extremely well, and listen, who’s in Madame Tussauds? Thomas Wolfe? Hemingway? (laughs) No, its actually Parker (laughs) with her friend, Scott Fitzgerald! They picked the two writers that people would know (laughs).
Since your Parker biography came out in 1988, have your noticed if there has been an upswing in enthusiasm for her?
Yes, and this is what I’m basing it on. I worked on the book from 1980 to 1988. Actually I had a three-year deadline (laughs). But actually it took me about seven years to write it, because after I started it, I hated her. And I stopped. I discovered (laughs) that she drank (laughs). I first started to do it in 1980. People always ask biographers what they are doing or who they are writing about. I would say “Dorothy Parker” and I mostly got blank looks. These weren’t stupid people, they were book readers. Some people thought I was talking about Dorothy Thompson. Others kept saying, “Dorothy Parker, oh yeah, I think I remember her.” Her reputation went into a slide in the Seventies. I think a lot of this had to do with Lillian Hellman, who really refused to cooperate in any way with anyone who wanted to write about Parker. (Hellman) was responsible for people forgetting who Parker was. I felt at the time I probably made a big mistake because no one remembers who this woman is. But after the book was published it brought her back. There was one (other) biography (published) in 1970 (“You Might As Well Live by John Keats). It wasn’t a very good biography. It also had a view of her which was horrible.
How do you explain the resurgence? After your bio came out in 1988 other collections followed from every publisher. Random House put out their Modern Library book in a new edition. Scribner published Stuart Silverstein and his research, Not Much Fun. Penguin released Complete Poems and then Complete Stories. The movie came out in 1994… Why do you think all this interest started coming about?
It was a fluke that people started to forget her. A lot of writers are forgotten after their death unless there is something that’s reminding readers that this person was a good writer. Fitzgerald – after he died – there was a big slump. She wasn’t a Fitzgerald or a Hemingway. But for someone of her level, it’s easy to fall off the radar, and she fell off. It just needed something to put her back on.
I think most junior high students are exposed to her through “A Telephone Call” which is always in anthologies.
I happen to dislike all of those monologues. “The Waltz,” “A Telephone Call”… they make my skin crawl.
They present an aspect of Parker – maybe an aspect of her – but an aspect of her writing which is women who are very needy and they need a man.
But you put “The Garter” back into the new edition of the Portable. That’s a very similar story to “The Waltz.”
I guess I thought it wasn’t as well known. I thought it was funny. I don’t like “The Waltz” and I don’t think it is funny any more, even though people like Elaine Stritch (have performed) that monologue. “A Telephone Call” is the needy Parker and the Parker I don’t want to acknowledge. It’s very masochistic. I prefer to emphasize the part of her which was more independent. Parker was very independent, even though she went from one horrible person to another at times.
What do you think of the new cover by Seth? What did you think when you saw it?
I was blown away. I thought it was fabulous. It 100% reflects what is inside the book, and there’s not that many jackets that do. Her whole life story is on the jacket; anything you want to know about Dorothy Parker is on that jacket. It works.
What can people expect in the new Portable?
I don’t think most people who owned the old Portable had any idea of her range and of the other things she wrote. Some of which were off-the-wall. More personal. Funnier. Obscene. I don’t think most people are familiar with that material. They’re going to be surprised. They won’t miss what isn’t there. I don’t think they’ll miss “I Live on Your Visits” but they’ll be surprised by other things. Stuff she wrote for Life, and her letters and her political pieces for New Masses. She does sound like a 1930s Communist Party member (laughs)… like she’s on her way to a cell meeting.
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). He leads walking tours devoted to Mrs. Parker and the Algonquin Round Table.