At the Back Fence Issue #311

July 21, 2008

From the Desk of Robin Uncapher:

Dorothy Parker

Sometimes a love story won’t do. Sometimes what you really want is the story of a broken heart and the woman who survived it. A story like that can be comforting when everything around you looks bleak – which leads me to today’s column on Dorothy Parker.

In the spring of our sophomore year of college, my friend Rhoda had a miserable time, and took a lot of it out on me. Nothing was going her way. Her boyfriend dumped her. She worried that being a woman would hurt her career as an economist. No one understood her. Men were pigs.

This was 1974 and college men were giving feminism lip service. Rhoda knowingly commented that their primary interest in the movement was access to uncommitted sex. These guys, she pointed out, did not want you calling them and asking them out (heaven forbid). They just wanted you to pick up your half of the tab when they condescended to ask you. They thought you were desperate if you asked a man to dance and rude if you avoided dancing with one of them.

Advice givers seemed to be divided between the women who told you you didn’t need a man, and the women who told you you had to pretend you were an idiot to get one. “Chase him until he catches you,” they said, or “there are a lot more fish in the sea.”

As Rhoda hit the wall, she was more and more difficult to live with, and one afternoon, after a session of nonstop complaining, I told her I had an appointment and walked away seething. I returned an hour later with a gift, a book which I threw unceremoniously onto her study table. “Read this,” I said grumpily. “It will make you feel better.”

It did. The book, which was full of smart women braving modern life on their own, made Rhoda laugh until she cried. It made her feel clever…it made her feel that living alone would be better than settling.

The book was The Portable Dorothy Parker, and it still holds a prominent place on Rhoda’s bookshelf.

Long before Carrie Bradshaw dished in Sex and the City or Bridget Jones counted calories and cigarettes in her diary, there was Dorothy Parker. Dorothy Parker was the first female author I read who told you what it was like to be a single woman in the modern world. Her female characters didn’t comfort each other like Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda. They couldn’t. They lived in a world where women lived lonely isolated lives, each one sure that she was the only woman who had ever been cheated on, been dumped, or insulted for no other reason than a plain face. And yet, Dorothy Parker’s female characters stood far above those of just about every author around for the simple reason that this author was smart and funny. Her point of view was purely female, and she never let the reader forget it. Yes, Dorothy Parker wasn’t going to cover for some guy who was too stupid to call when he said he would. She was going to get her revenge by making the whole thing into a really good story.

The first Dorothy Parker story I ever read was The Waltz, an interior monologue told by an unfortunate woman who can’t get out of dancing with an oaf. We see him entirely through his partner’s eye’s and hear her thoughts which contrast with her words. “Why thank you. I’d adore to,” says Parker’s young woman who is thinking, “Just a quarter of an hour ago I was here feeling sorry for the girl he was dancing with. And now, I’m the girl.”

The oaf in The Waltz gets no chance to defend himself. He doesn’t even get a voice. Like the men in Sex and the City, we see him entirely though a woman’s eyes,

Parker’s story was one of the first I’d ever read which was told from a modern woman’s point of view. Magazines, movies and television were full of female characters then, just as they are now. But never did one read a character who told such unvarnished truth about the interactions between men and women – that women, if they were to be polite, had to dance with everyone, while men were free to only ask women with whom they wished to dance.

In another story, A Telephone Call, a woman agonizes over an expected phone call. She prays that the phone will ring and, when it doesn’t prays for the strength not to call the man who promised he would, Why? Because, as she puts it, “they hate it when you call them.”

The unfairness of this, feeling belittled by love, feeling small and needy – these are feelings that Parker explores brilliantly. Her character knows that she’s in the right, knows that she should not feel hurt by a man too rude to call. But she is hurt. More than that, she feels powerless because social conventions prevent her from calling him to complain. It’s a no win situation, but that doesn’t matter to the woman who sits and waits for the call.

Last week I had the opportunity to revisit Dorothy Parker’s stories and poetry when I found an audio version of The Portable Dorothy Parker available for download on my library’s web site. I downloaded it not knowing if the stories and poetry would remain fresh after all these years. I needn’t have worried. While many customs have changed, emotions never do. The anguish of Parker’s narrator’s is as haunting and as funny as they were almost eighty years ago, when many of them were written.

I fell in love with Dorothy Parker’s stories and poetry for the same reason that I fell in love with romance novels. They described the emotions which come out when men and women fall in love. Parker’s stories seldom have conventional happy endings, yet they leave you smiling. Most of them are not full blown stories. In Here We Are, a recently married young couple bicker, but comfort themselves with the belief that once they consummate the marriage, they will never argue again. We don’t see this couple after the wedding night. We don’t need to. It’s perfectly obvious what’s going to happen. The situation is a disaster waiting to happen, and so true to life that it is very funny.

Even pathos can be funny in the right hands. In one story a busybody of a woman comforts a sick friend. This gossip manages, just by talking constantly, to hint that her that her friend’s boyfriend has been seeing another woman. Its fairly clear by the time we learn this, that the sick woman is recovering from an abortion, but the gossip has no idea how insensitive and cruel she is. She just can’t stop herself from gossiping.

One of the unfortunate things about Dorothy Parker is that so many people tell her story solely in terms of the witty remarks she made during her life. The movie Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle was an awful disappointment for just that reason. Actress Jennifer Jason Leigh played Dorothy Parker like a bad drunk who didn’t know how to deliver her own lines. The dialogue of the movie dragged and was not helped by the constant insertion of Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley one liners, which were often out of context. Watching this dreadful movie saddened me terribly. It was as though someone telling John Belushi’s story felt the need to have the actor play his scenes like he was in the midst of an overdose.

Far better was Marion Meade’s Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This?, which examined the complicated woman who was Dorothy Parker with making her seem pathetic.

The new audio version of The Portable Dorothy Parker was just as entertaining as I hoped it would be, Stories I barely remembered had me laughing out loud, The narrator Lorna Ravar, does occasionally sound too old and too fussy for the stories. But compared to Jason Leigh her delivery is positively inspired.

Dorothy Parker’s verse is easy to understand and her stories read quickly. You can get through most of her stories in the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee. Do yourself a favor and pick one up. You won’t regret it.

LLB: ATBF is evolving as AAR changes over time. Without advertising constraints, we are more free to write about topics that aren’t always romance novel related, and, after more than ten years, we trust that you don’t necessarily need questions to consider to discuss whatever strikes your fancy from reading an ATBF column on the ATBF Forum.

Robin Uncapher