Friday, February 20, 2009

A Journey Into Dorothy Parker's New York--Kevin Fitzpatrick (Book review)

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) was a theater critic who also published short stories and poetry during her New York years (she later moved to California and became a screenwriter), and was a founding member of the famous Algonquin Round Table, a group of writers and critics who, for ten years, had a standing lunch date at the Algonquin Hotel. She was also quite the partier. She's credited with quite a few pithy remarks, such as:

Men seldom make passes
At girls who wear glasses.

This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force, and,

If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.

But this isn't just a book about Dorothy Parker and her writing. It's also about the history and architecture, the politics and social history of the early- to mid-twentieth century New York City in which Parker lived and wrote. Scattered with photos, maps, and the occasional excerpt from Parker's work, this is a very readable slice of history.

It's a book about the growth of Manhattan in the early twentieth century, the beginnings of Broadway theater, the anti-communism crusade of the 1950s and its effects on American culture (Parker and others in the Hollywood scene were blacklisted during the McCarthy era). One sidebar relates how the Titanic disaster affected Dorothy's extended family when she was eighteen.

Added bonus for theater lovers: a nice twelve-paged section in the middle that details the history of various theaters, their dates, and the famous shows and events that were performed in them.

Occasionally, the connections between events and Parker's life are a bit of a stretch. A large picture of Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller graces one page, on which Fitzpatrick mentions that Parker met the couple at an event where she and Miller both received awards. On the other hand, Lillian Hellman, executrix of Parker's estate upon her death, is never pictured and is mentioned so casually that it's somewhat of a surprise to learn, in the final pages of the book, that she was "one of the few people [Dorothy] trusted" in her later years. It's as if text was written to match the available pictures, rather than the other way around.

Author Kevin Fitzpatrick is president of the Dorothy Parker Society of New York. On their site you can listen to Parker reading some of her poems.

The soundtrack: Rhapsody in Blue, composed by George Gershwin in 1924, during the peak of the Algonquin Round Table years.


  1. I love books like that. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

  2. I understand she was quite an interesting character. Really nice review :)

  3. did you know that they use snips from Rhapsody in Blue for the United Airlines music (like during the safety video)? Someone behind me was trying to remember the name of it and I almost turned around to tell him (but didn't)

  4. Yep, I thought of that when I chose the piece--it's almost ruined it for me, but not quite.

  5. This sounds so good! I love finding out about the connections among people in creative groups and about the places that are so meaningful in their lives.

    I have a friend who used to go to New York for a week each year for the theater. He and whoever went with him (sometimes family, sometimes friends) always had drinks at the Algonquin to honor the Round Table.

    Adding this one to the list!

  6. JenClair, That's really cool! I love that some of these places are still there. Reading about the history of certain buildings and the institutions they were/are part of was my favorite part about this book.

  7. When I read a sweeping book about the Vanderbilts, I wanted to spend time in NYC to see all the places they lived but those mansions have all been torn down - I think most, anyway. I love architecture and history.

  8. Even if the events weren't directly connected to Parker, they were part of "her world". It does sound like the text was stretched a bit, as you say. I bet the photos and illustrations are fantastic; I'll look for others in this series.