I’ve just completed a wonderful Dorothy Parker reader. A marvelous collection of her verses (she would never allow anyone to call them poems), her short stories, and some of her book and play reviews.
Her work is not for the seriously depressed. It seemed she lived in depression or on its edge nearly all her life. Her writing, honest and brutal at all times, surely reflects the agony, bravely covered by wit and humor, that comprised her days on earth.
She at one point created a 35-panel cartoon summing up her entire life. Each panel is usually a single item to sum up the event– three pills symbolize one of her three attempts to end her life. A white stork with a bundle represents her pregnancy; a black stork with bundle indicates her miscarriage. Short, brutal, to the point.
I don’t know why, but I relate to her very much. And, I did so long before I read any of her work. I think the her famous phrase “What fresh hell is this?” in response to phone or door bell was enough for me to know this woman spoke to me.
She, didn’t think much of her own talents. As I said, she wouldn’t allow her verses to be called poetry; they were simple rhythmic versing, something less than poetry. She attempted but failed to write a book, something she acclaimed as the real mark of a “writer.” She thought Hemingway smashing and James Thurber extraordinary.
She joined causes, was labeled a communist in the 50’s and was blacklisted. She married, divorced, and married again. She seemed a woman of extreme insecurity, bravado, and nicer than one would expect. She hated Hollywood, loved New York, and held her own among the literati of her day. She drank way too much.
Mostly she understood women, at least the women of her time. And though she was of my grandmother’s generation, I learned that the miseries of womanhood in the 50’s and 60’s and 70’s at least were not new, but had been the bane of women in the 20’s and 30’s and 40’s, her salad days.
She writes achingly of women deserted by men, suspicious of men. Whole pages are consumed in prose devoted to “should I call him?” The answer was always no, no, never. He will see you as clinging and needy, and he will run for the hills. Pages of women not saying what they really think, but what is acceptable, what is womanly. Dressing for men, starving for men, drinking, and laughing for men.
Pages of dissecting his every word, going over and over again and again, trying to secure some small kernel of kindness, some hope, something upon which one could plant confidence upon. Something upon which a woman could feel secure, wanted, loved, and no longer lonely.
Dorothy’s private hell of insecurity, loneliness, and feelings of abandonment were there, on each page, stark, raw, ugly at times. Embarrassingly presented in Big Blonde. On and on in dizzying array, she stood unadorned, unprotected, sometimes achingly as pathetic creature.
And she was me, and she was most every girl/woman I knew in the 60’s. All of us pretending to be liberated, strong, independent, carefree. We were never lonely, never needy, never scared. We lived and moved and had our being in the world of men, and we laughed and joked and we swore like sailors. We were one with them, like them, not like them. We lied and we lied, and we went home alone at night.
Except for the one night stands after orgiastic drinking spells at bars and parties. We never asked that dreary question: “When will I see you again?” We knew, even when he mumbled something about, “I’ll give you a call,” as he stumbled out the door and back to his life. We knew. Though for some days, we waited, waited by the phone. Checking it now and again, damning that dial tone for telling us that indeed, the phone was not “out of order.”
We started and stopped enumerable affairs of the heart. Sometimes a few dates, sometimes only one. We never asked why, but we always internalized the problem as with ourselves. We bravely lied to each other that we hadn’t cared about this one or that one. We told ourselves we were not like this, it was not our fault.
But you can’t get past a childhood when it was the way things were. When mother reminded us often, “You have to suffer to be beautiful.” Yet all the suffering in the world wasn’t going to make myopic girls “beautiful” and we knew that. We tried to overcompensate by wearing more eye makeup, but glasses were definitely NOT “in” in the sixties.
And so we, of the liberated generation, were so deeply unliberated inside. Except that unlike Dorothy, we hid it well. I can but imagine how women viewed her work in its time. Did they hate her for laying bare their inner souls? Or did they take secret solace that they were not alone?
So, here’s to you Dorothy, Dot to her friends. Oh how grand and brave you were girl. You were so much better the writer than you thought. You exposed so exquisitely the wrongness of how girl babies are raised and nurtured? You showed us how sad we were. You gave us, oddly, some strength you cannot have been aware of. Strength to change that picture, if only for our own daughters.
But, you were right dear. Never call a man to reclaim what appears to be slipping away. Never, never do it. I did of course, and it never worked well. It always injected even more pain into the wounds of insecurity.