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Writer Dorothy Parker’s ashes exhumed from longtime Baltimore resting place, but where did they go? A mystery solved

Todd Douglas figured there wasn’t much time left to pay his respects. So last weekend he rode his bicycle to the little memorial garden in a Northwest Baltimore business park to see her for himself.

He’d been surprised to read of the strange odyssey that brought the ashes of 1920s New York writer Dorothy Parker, the grande dame of the Algonquin Round Table, to the NAACP’s longtime national headquarters in Baltimore. Douglas learned more in an old documentary, then visited the grounds where her ashes rest beneath an oft-quoted epitaph: “Excuse my dust.”

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He looked down on a mound of loose dirt.

Gone was the circle of bricks inlaid to invoke the round table. Gone was the memorial plaque that proclaimed Parker “defender of human and civil rights.” After 30 years at her resting place on Mt. Hope Drive, the ashes of Dorothy Parker had been exhumed.

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“It was a little sad,” Douglas said. “This poor woman hasn’t had any rest in her afterlife.”

Where did she go? Douglas peered into the nearest windows: all dark. He stood alone. Of course, he didn’t know then that a plan for her ashes — a plan years in the making — was quietly underway.

The brick buildings in the 1950s office complex fallen into such disrepair that leaders of the civil rights organization said renovations would cost them more than the $3.8 million complex is worth. Instead, they moved into a downtown high-rise late last year. Within months, the organization announced plans to relocate to D.C.

Those moves left Dorothy Parker fans in Baltimore with questions.

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Writer Dorothy Parker's ashes are on the move again, although where they headed has been anybody's guess - until today. At left is a marker from earlier this year showing where they were buried at the Baltimore headquarters of the NAACP. At right is the empty patch of dirt after they were recently exhumed.
Writer Dorothy Parker's ashes are on the move again, although where they headed has been anybody's guess - until today. At left is a marker from earlier this year showing where they were buried at the Baltimore headquarters of the NAACP. At right is the empty patch of dirt after they were recently exhumed. (Baltimore Sun)

“I immediately called up the NAACP and said, ’What the heck are you going to do with Dorothy Parker’s ashes?’” said Laddie Levy, a retired English teacher at McDonogh School. “They called me back and assured me: something appropriate.”

NAACP spokeswoman Aba Blankson told The Baltimore Sun two months ago that her organization was discussing options with Parker’s family. But who? What options? Blankson said she didn’t know.

Oddly quiet on the matter was Kevin Fitzpatrick, president of the Dorothy Parker Society in New York. He’s an authority on Parker — he even leads tours to her old haunts — and he’s been quoted in newspapers around the country. Yet, he wasn’t returning messages.

Parker’s ashes previously went unclaimed for years. Once they had been shelved in the obscurity of a lawyer’s office. The Sun recently recounted their unlikely journey to a Baltimore business park.

“It was striking news to me that she was laying here in Baltimore,” Douglas said. “It just seemed so unusual, you know? The fact that she was such a New York icon, and how she wound up at the NAACP headquarters in Baltimore.”

Born in 1893, Parker wrote for Vogue, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. She won acclaim for her poems and short stories. But she’s best remembered as a wit of the Algonquin Round Table, the circle of influential New York writers, critics and actors whose boozy lunches and piercing repartee became an enduring scene of the Roaring Twenties.

A century later, Parker’s quips remain a hot item on coffee mugs, posters and T-shirts. One favorite of Douglas’: The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.

Lesser known was her commitment to social justice. Parker was arrested while protesting the dubious murder case against Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. She raised money for the legal defense of the Scottsboro Boys, nine Black teenagers falsely accused of raping two white women in Alabama. In her searing, satirical story “Arrangement in Black and White,” she presents a fashionable white woman who’s filled with moral superiority after greeting a Black singer at a party.

“I liked him,” she said. “I haven’t any feeling at all because he’s a colored man. I just felt as natural as I would with anybody.”

Still, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was reportedly puzzled when Parker died of a heart attack in 1967 — 73 years old, widowed and childless — and left him her estate. Parker wanted her $40,000 to benefit the civil rights movement, but she left no instructions for her remains. Her ashes languished in a lawyer’s file cabinet for years.

When gossip columnist Liz Smith heard of this, she asked readers to help. In October 1988, a crowd gathered to watch Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and the Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks bury Parker’s ashes and dedicate a memorial garden to her outside the NAACP headquarters.

The McDonogh teacher Levy was soon visiting with his English classes to delight in her irreverent epitaph. He found the high school students drawn to Parker’s writings.

“It’s the humor, the sarcasm,” he said. “She felt very strongly about social issues and especially about racial issues, about men and women, misogyny and such.”

Last month, the NAACP didn’t return messages about what the organization would do with Parker’s ashes. But the article in The Sun brought several offers of help. Some wanted to donate money, or even a burial plot.

“We were offering a final resting place here at no charge,” said Gary Buss, president of Arlington Cemetery outside Philadelphia, the site of an old Quaker farm owned by abolitionists. “It’d be just a perfect place for her.”

Arlington Cemetery volunteer Paul Sookiasian said the NAACP didn’t respond to their offer. He didn’t know a new resting place already had been found. Very few did.

Still, some worried they might never know what became of her ashes. It all seemed like a slight to a city that takes pride in its literary reputation. After all, Baltimore claims the graves of H.L. Mencken and Edgar Allan Poe.

“So many ignore the rich literary history we have in Baltimore,” said Andrea Lewis, who runs literary programs for Maryland Humanities. “It’s undeniable that having had Baltimore as Dorothy Parker’s final resting place is important to this history. It saddens me to learn that her remains have been relocated without having had a broader conversation with the city’s literary community.”

Friday afternoon brought a surprise phone call. Fitzpatrick, the president of the Dorothy Parker Society, was ready to share the news.

In a small ceremony last month, they exhumed Parker’s ashes and returned her to New York. Fitzpatrick, who represents Parker’s family, spent years quietly discussing the move with the NAACP. They reburied her at the historic Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, the resting place of such notable figures as Herman Melville, Irving Berlin and Duke Ellington.

“To respect the family’s wishes, they wanted to keep it private,” Fitzpatrick said. “Hopefully, sometime in the near future, we can put up a nice gravestone and people can come visit her.”

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For now, there’s a small marker where she rests. They buried her beside her mother and father in those historic grounds among her Jazz Age friends.

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