For my 14th birthday she had presented me with a book on scandals of the Amish, which I cherished; for my 15th, an oversized tub of Brussels sprouts wrapped in lingerie, which I hid under my bed. When I turned 16 — that day when one is supposed to be festooned with pink ribbons and sugary icing flowers — Arden arrived at my door with a thick, unwrapped paperback: "The Viking Portable Dorothy Parker." The cover intrigued me: a black-and-white photo of a pretty, short-haired woman with dark eyes, looking broodingly, longingly, off into the distance. "Dorothy's our people," Arden said with assurance. I nodded. We weren't really the sweet 16 type.
I quickly learned everything I could about Parker: She was born in 1893 and had a fairly miserable childhood, losing her mother when she was very young and then getting shipped off to boarding school. She wrote smart, dark and funny — and was all of those things in real life too. She attempted suicide several times. She was married three times (twice to the same man). In the 1920s, she and a group of writer friends formed the Algonquin Round Table, that most talked-about of literary circles. In later years, she was put on the Hollywood blacklist and descended into alcoholism. It wasn't a very happy-sounding life, but I was instantly obsessed. I loved the book before I'd read a single sentence.
The word "portable" in the title was fitting. Fourteen years have passed since I received it, and the paperback has traveled with me everywhere I've been. Books are like family members, like friends. They go with you, and more than a couch or a quilt, they represent home, the familiar. At least they do for me. Others in my collection are more pristine, more beautiful. There are several dozen hardcovers on my bookshelves now and even a few antiques. But this book bears the marks of love: a cover that's fraying slightly at the edges, pages with a sun-stained border, underlinings in pink and blue and purple ink, some straight as an arrow, which I'm sure were drawn in bed. Others wobbly and disjointed, hastily written on the subway. There are the margin markings in my own sort of shorthand: exclamation points meaning, roughly translated: HA. A single check mark meaning I wish I'd written that.
Looking it over, I can tell you at exactly which stage of my life each of these markings was made. I didn't read the book straight through, beginning to end. Instead, I discovered it part by part, according, I think, to what I could handle at any given point. (Not unlike those designer Swedish high chairs that everyone in Brooklyn seems to have now: Your baby can sit in this booster seat before he's even able to hold his head up and then later he can convert it into a futon to use in his college dorm!)
First, of course, came the parts about love and angst, not necessarily in that order. In high school, I adored Parker's witty little poems, her tart and cynical musings on romance, which are interspersed with essays and stories throughout the book. (Perhaps speaking to my adolescent attention span, I hardly noticed most of these longer pieces then.) My friends and I developed a Tao of Parker when it came to boys. (Anyone who knows something about Parker's own love life knows what a smashing idea this was, but anyway.) Examples: "Never say to him what you want him to say to you." And the equally instructive but far less useful:
By the time you swear you're his,
Shivering and sighing,
And he swears his passion is
Infinite, undying —
Lady, make a note of this:
One of you is lying.
I memorized and recited the poems as I rode the train home from school or loaded the dishwasher after dinner. I took three years of high school French and don't remember a word. But I can still do most of "Enough Rope" from memory.
One night while my parents were out, I wrote a few of my favorite Parker poems right on my bedroom wall. I copied "Observation" above the headboard of my canopy bed:
If I don't drive around the park,
I'm pretty sure to make my mark.
If I'm in bed each night by ten,
I may get back my looks again.
If I abstain from fun and such,
I'll probably amount to much;
But I shall stay the way I am,
Because I do not give a damn.
Strong words. Especially, as my mother pointed out, when you write them in Sharpie on your ballet slipper-themed wallpaper.
The thing was, I gave a damn. I was pretty obedient by normal teenage standards. I came from a relatively functional family. I had had the same boyfriend, of whom my parents approved, for three years. I never smoked or drank. I was nothing like Dorothy, really. And this was perhaps one of the reasons I loved her most. For a certain kind of girl, Dorothy Parker is the human expression of wit and spunk and strength and rebellion. The same way generations of new kids are always discovering the music of Kurt Cobain — thinking they're the first, or if not, then at least the ones who truly understand it most — girls like me discovered her. In doing so, I imagined another sort of life for myself. A life in which I gallivanted around Manhattan without fear, making pithy remarks about this or that, always knowing the right thing to say at the right time, instead of thinking up the perfect comeback two days too late.
All through my junior and senior years, "The Viking Portable Dorothy Parker" sat on my dresser or in my backpack, a sort of talisman. By then I had decided that I wanted to be a fiction writer in New York City some day. Preferably 1925, though I was willing to cede that part of the wish.
In college, I kept the "Portable Parker" on my nightstand, and fell in love with her short stories while I was supposed to be reading Milton. She was the sort of exquisite, clever storyteller with whom you could stay up all night. Her characters had names like Mimi and Midge, and their observations were razor sharp. In "The Lovely Leave," a woman's soldier husband comes home just for an afternoon, and she is cross with him for leaving so soon. "I like you in black," he says, complimenting her dress to keep the peace. She replies, "At moments like this, I almost wish I were in it for another reason."
Parker and her stories were emblematic of a time I romanticized, and sitting there in my flannel pajamas at Smith College in Massachusetts, I'd be transported to her Round Table at the Algonquin in Manhattan. I could picture her sipping gin and zinging Robert Benchley in a crowd of writers bathed in cigarette smoke. I wanted to be there, too.
After graduation, I moved to New York. I lived with a roommate in a small and charmless apartment across from a fire station and felt more or less lost in this vast, fast-moving city. Some days I'd look up while riding the subway and it would hit me, not in a pleasant way: I live here. I often doubted whether I had the pluck to survive, and since I had few friends, my beloved books became even more important to me, though the only place I could fit them was piled up in the closet. I'd sometimes stand before them, my eyes running over their familiar spines, dozens of novels and biographies and poetry collections nestled in between my bathrobe and suitcase. A select few, maybe 10 or 12, got to live outside the closet, and the "Portable Parker" made the cut. Its contents were a reminder: You're here to be a writer, this is the city you've been reading and dreaming about for so long. Dorothy's picture on the front cover was a reminder, too: Oh please, she seemed to say. Quit your whining and just get on with it. You're tough enough.
This was around the time that I discovered Parker's genius book reviews. Somehow I had never noticed them before. To read her real-time thoughts on the novels of her day was to be a part of the living, breathing world of writers, and I cherished lines like: "'Lolita,' as you undoubtedly know, has had an enormous share of trouble, and caused a true hell of a row." And, "I am sick of those who skate fancily over the work of Mr. Capote, to give their time to the beat boys. They neglect to say one thing, which is, to me, the most important; Truman Capote can write." (There's still a purple Post-it marking that February 1959 Esquire review of "Breakfast at Tiffany's.")
Sometimes I would read the work of the snarky blogger girls who were all the rage when I got to New York and think that perhaps they were trying for something Parker-esque, but missing the mark. There was that fine line between deliciously clever and just plain mean, and they usually seemed to come down on the latter side of it. I was beginning to get my first newspaper assignments and I even tried one essay in a tone I thought of as similar to hers. It was an open letter to my book club, declaring that I was dropping out. A lot of readers thought it was funny, but the women in my book club did not. They stopped speaking to me. I never wrote anything like that again.
One spring evening, a few years after I'd arrived in New York and was just starting to feel comfortable here, I got a chance to have dinner with a young woman writer I admired. I was nervous, and got there early. She arrived 10 minutes late, with a book in her hand — "The Viking Portable Dorothy Parker." "I'm rereading it. A trip down memory lane," she said, with an almost embarrassed smile, like I'd just caught her listening to a Menudo album on her iPod. When I told her of my love for the book, she said that she, too — and many others like her — had come to New York wanting to be Dorothy Parker. "We want to write the way she did, without living life the way she did," this woman told me.
Apparently we had all been reading Parker in our suburban bedrooms around the country as young girls, in collective, unknowing awe. But ours is the generation of Type-A perfectionism, even among writers. There's a certain zany, disordered, bohemian lifestyle we all put up on a pedestal, while quietly making our college loan payments on time and worrying about deadlines and passing on that third glass of pinot grigio because tomorrow morning's hangover just isn't worth the trouble. There's no such thing as the modern-day Parker, so we worship her in absentia.
Over the years, I've become known to those around me as her biggest fan. And as tends to happen when everyone knows you like something, I've been given lots of Parker-paraphernalia: a few hardcover editions from different decades, a DVD of the film "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle," in which Jennifer Jason Leigh portrays the title character with a sort of bored affect and an accent that makes her sound like she has several frozen grapes in her mouth. An ex-boyfriend even gave me a signed copy of the novel "After Such Pleasures." I adored the gift, but it never seemed quite right. There, in Dorothy's handwriting, were the words, To Marjorie Grogg — With best wishes. Dorothy Parker.
Marjorie Grogg sounded like the name of a Parker character, and not one the author would look favorably upon. And the signature — so plain and businesslike — didn't seem like the Dorothy I knew. I still keep that autographed edition in a special place, but there's something overly serious and uninviting about it. I've never actually read the book. I prefer my paperback "Portable" any day of the week.
One of my best friends from college, Laura, helped me move my things into the very first apartment I had all to myself, the apartment where I wrote my first novel. The two of us stood there in a sea of boxes, uncertain where to start. I felt overwhelmed — I was sick with the flu, and the moving men hadn't been able to get the couch through the door. But Laura opened up a box labeled "BOOKS" and started placing them one by one on the mantel. "The Portable Dorothy Parker" was the very first that she unpacked.
The book has come to mean more to me than even the sum of its contents. I prefer the poetry of Yeats or Auden or Millay to Parker's, but if the house were on fire and only one book could be saved ....
Recently, I took Dorothy down off the shelf, the blue-etched cover photo as familiar to me as any family picture from the past. I skimmed through, and as has happened so many times before, my eyes landed on a section I had never read, never even noticed — the introduction, written by New Yorker writer Brendan Gill. He opened with the line "There are writers who die to the world long before they are dead." It doesn't get better from there. Two pages later, he says of the Algonquin Round Table that Parker "was one of their leading lights; to be that, she might have said, it would have sufficed to be a glowworm. ... Hemingway, Faulkner, Lardner, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Cather, Crane, and O'Neill were not to be found cracking jokes and singing each other's praises or waspishly stinging each other into tantrums on West 44th Street."
I was shocked by his decision to focus on everything Parker wasn't, instead of what she was. What Gill misses in his assessment is the power this woman's words had for me, and others like me, and more teenage girls to come, across decades and cities and worlds.
When I sold that first novel a couple years back, my editor invited me out to have a celebratory drink. We met at the Algonquin.
J. Courtney Sullivan is the author of "Maine" and "Commencement." This essay originally appeared in "Bound to Last: 30 Writers on Their Most Cherished Book."
The Portable Dorothy Parker
By Dorothy Parker, Viking, 610 pages, out of print
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