Mistress of satire

Mistress of satire

Jefferson Chase looks at a female writer and renowned wit not scared of a drop of more of the hard stuff: Dorothy Parker
Jefferson Chase

16 November 2002

Publication: Issue 27

The pantheon of female whisky writers isn’t large, a fact attributable less to Y chromosomes than to socialisation. Dorothy Parker is the witty exception. Born in 1893 in New Jersey to Scottish-Jewish parents, Dorothy Rothschild was expelled from Catholic school for insisting that the Immaculate Conception was a form of ‘spontaneous combustion.’ At 20 she married a New England WASP, got a job at Vanity Fair magazine and moved to New York. There she helped found the Algonquin Round Table, the so-called ‘vicious circle’ of hard drinking journalistic wisecrackers. Parker beat the boys at both booze and barbs: she was the only Algonquin member to achieve lasting fame.Her poems are satires in her own voice on romance gone sour – for Parker all romance was sour – whereas her three collections of short stories are monologues by upper class nitwits. A particularly funny example, Just A Little One, has a chatty socialite meeting up with a male acquaintance in a speakeasy.Well, I don't know Fred – what are you going to have? Then I guess I’ll have a highball, too; please, just a little one. Is it really real Scotch? Well that will be a new experience for me. You ought to see the Scotch I’ve got home in my cupboard. At least it was in the cupboard this morning – it’s probably eaten its way out by now.Parker let her characters hang themselves with their own words. As the socialite continues, we realise that she is hardly the neophyte drinker she pretends. At one point, she even makes her date promise to prevent her, should she try to take home a horse – the elevator boys in her building object. The speaker also runs down the looks and taste in fashion of ‘Edith’, an ‘awfully nice’ person, throughout the story: “Do you really know a lot of people that say she’s good-looking? You must have a wide acquaintance among the astigmatic, haven’t you, Freddie?” A brusque answer leads to tears and then elation, when Fred, presumably feeling the effect of the highballs, takes her hand.I think we ought to have a little drink, on account of our being friends. Just a little one, because it’s real Scotch, and we’re real friends … Do you realise, Fred what a rare thing a friend is, when you think of all the terrible people there are in the world? Animals are much better than people. God, I love animals. That’s what I like about you, Fred.Although an alcoholic herself, Parker never lost her sharp eye for the bathos of people under the influence. One need only imagine Fred and the setting to feel the cutting force of Parker’s ridicule.The story concludes, as it must, with a Scotch and a strange drunken suggestion.Look, I’ll tell you what’s let do, after we’ve had just a little highball. Let’s go out and pick up a lot of stray dogs … And a horse, I’ve never had one single horse, Fred … It would be so sweet and kind. Let’s have a drink and then let’s you and I go out and get a horsie, Freddie – just a little one, darling, just a little one. Parker may seem too bleak and cynical to be truly funny, but her obvious joy in being clever belies the nihilism. Contrary to her image, Parker was a committed socialist and civil rights advocate, and unlike a fair number of alcoholic writers, she did not commit suicide but stuck things out, with a resilience born of wit, not pathos, until her death in 1967. Like a digestive whisky after a heavy meal, clear, hard and to the point, she remains a refreshing exception.

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