Aside from the famous epitaph “Excuse My Dust,” Mrs. Dorothy Parker later asked that her gravestone be marked by the words, “This is on me.”
The snappy female wit, poet, screenwriter and critic who charmed and chagrined New York in the 1920s endured four suicide attempts, a handful of lousy lovers, alcoholism and Connecticut, outlasting most of her vicious circle until she died of a heart attack at the age of 73.
A wisecracker since childhood, she refused to call her stepmother anything affectionate and instead openly referred to her as “the housekeeper.” Her education over at age 13, she played piano to support herself until she began selling poems and short stories. Hired on by the New Yorker magazine by its second issue, her first book of poems sold 47,000 copies. She held court at the Algonquin Round Table. She hung out in whorehouses with Robert Benchley. She wrote the Academy Award-nominated screenplay for A Star Is Born. She survived a back-alley abortion. She married the same man twice even while declaring him to be as “queer as a billy goat.”
And in 1967, the modern icon’s heart stopped, and she was lost.
No, literally. They lost her.
For 21 years.
Parker left her estate to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Foundation. She had never met Dr. King, but greatly admired his passionate civil rights dedication. After being cremated, her ashes sat on the shelves of Ferncliff Crematory in Hartsdale, N.Y. Six years later, the ashes were sent to her lawyer’s office on Wall Street. The firm had no idea what should be done with them, and so Dorothy Parker was left in a plain gray filing cabinet for the next 15 years.
Perhaps blame should fall on a bitter Lillian Hellman. The playwright of The Little Foxes was blacklisted by Hollywood after she refused to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950, as was Parker. Parker named Hellman as her literary executor, yet after throwing Parker a gala funeral in which she herself starred, Hellman failed to claim Dorothy’s ashes from Ferncliff. Hellman remained resentful that her late best friend did not leave her a large sum of money and notably claimed of Parker’s will, “She must have been drunk when she did it.” Hellman lost her pursuit of Parker’s royalties in 1972.
After a total of 21 years, the New Yorker famous for her sharp tongue and affection for drink was moved to Baltimore when the NAACP (bequeathed the Parker estate in the will of Martin Luther King Jr.) took hold of the ashes and finally memorialized Mrs. Parker on Oct. 20, 1988, with a plaque inside the NAACP gardens.
The plaque generously nods at Parker’s consistent advocacy of social justice achievements. It reads: “Here lie the ashes of Dorothy Parker (1893&–1967). Humorist, writer, critic, defender of human and civil rights. For her epitaph she suggested ‘Excuse My Dust.’ This memorial garden is dedicated to her noble spirit which celebrated the oneness of humankind, and to the bonds of everlasting friendship between black and Jewish people.”
It is nothing less than tragic that such a force of literary history was so literally forgotten.
Dorothy Parker, she of the biting wit and the blazing critiques, an editorial fatale of the Flapper Era, among the early editors of Condé Nast, was at last laid to rest in the same year that Bon Jovi’s “Bad Medicine” hit No. 1 on the charts.
Of herself, she had much to say, but her most mistaken allegation would have to be any doubt of leaving an impression, “I’m never going to be famous,” she wrote. “My name will never be writ large on the roster of Those Who Do Things. I don’t do any thing. Not one single thing. I used to bite my nails, but I don’t even do that any more.”
Lacey Graham is a freelance writer and independent birthing assistant in Sonoma County. For birth doula services, she can be reached through elandoula.com.
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