Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Getting to Know Mrs. Parker

One of the most equally joyful and frustrating things about being a reader is the sense that you can't get to everything. I imagine if you had the time, you could hear enough music or watch the number of movies necessary to feel like you had something approaching a comprehensive knowledge of your areas of interest in those media. But even if I devoted myself to reading for every hour of the rest of my life (which is impossible, of course, because of the occasional need to blog, or socialize, or watch a big North Carolina basketball game), I don't think I'd get to all the things I badly want to read.

Sometimes a new literary interest presents itself because someone you've been content to know as an iconic thumbnail sketch peeks up and says, "I was more than this, you rube." I have a feeling that's about to happen with Dorothy Parker. The other day, while writing this silly post, I needed to find something pithy, so I immediately Googled her quotations. This is what I mean by a thumbnail sketch -- I know enough about her life and work, generally, to throw her into a conversation or to seek her out for "pithy," but my specific knowledge is sorely lacking.

It wasn't finding the quotation, though, that spurred my interest. It was a second run-in with her (it's often this additional, coincidental prod that gets us moving in a direction, no?) Yesterday, I picked up a book of collected Paris Review interviews, the first of which is with Parker (from 1956). It includes some of the best stuff I've read in a while, and it sent me running to the cash register.

So, some excerpts for you. To begin, here she is on her first job, at Vogue:
I wrote captions. "This little pink dress will win you a beau," that sort of thing. Funny, they were plain women working at Vogue, not chic. They were decent, nice women -- the nicest women I ever met -- but they had no business on such a magazine. They wore funny little bonnets and in the pages of their magazine they virginized the models from tough babes into exquisite little loves. Now the editors are what they should be: all chic and worldly; most of the models are out of the mind of a Bram Stoker, and as for the caption writers -- my old job -- they're recommending mink covers at seventy-five dollars apiece for the wooden ends of golf clubs "--for the friend who has everything." Civilization is coming to an end, you understand.
On her early writing life:
I fell into writing, I suppose, being one of those awful children who wrote verses. I went to a convent in New York -- the Blessed Sacrament. Convents do the same things progressive schools do, only they don't know it. They don't teach you how to read; you have to find out for yourself. ... But as for helping me in the outside world, the convent taught me only that if you spit on a pencil eraser it will erase ink. And I remember the smell of oilcloth, the smell of nuns' garb. I was fired from there, finally, for a lot of things, among them my insistence that the Immaculate Conception was spontaneous combustion.
She's also good with an anecdote, as you might imagine. Here she is on Harold Ross, the editor of The New Yorker:
He was a professional lunatic, but I don't know if he was a great man. He had a profound ignorance. On one of Mr. Benchley's manuscripts he wrote in the margin opposite "Andromache," "Who he?" Mr. Benchley wrote back, "You keep out of this."


Anonymous Rebecca said...

I first was introduced to Dorothy Parker at a very young age, perhaps 10 or 11. I had, however, already hit teenage angst and was quite dramatic. I watched "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle" on Showtime. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Dorothy and recites many or her little poems. I remember she said, "The suns gone dim and the moons gone black for I loved him and he didn't love back." Taht was it for me, I wrote it on a poster and hung it on my bedroom wall, ah.. youth is such a silly thing. After that I read everything I could get my hands on by her.

Anyway, I happened upon your blog while searching for the lyrics to U2's One. Your blogs are entirely too intriguing. I find myself getting absorbed, the internet can be so distracting that way. However, I am glad I came across it, and will pop back when my day is not swamped with things I am supposed to be doing. Good work, very nice writing.

1:50 PM  

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