Dorothy Parker is famous for her poetry and her wit, but not so much for being kickass. In fact, her public and private persona depended on her being perceived as permanently heartbroken, a romantic and creative underdog. However, Dorothy became involved in activism as the 1920s drew to a close, and deserves to be remembered for her activism as well as her wisecracks.
Dorothy was born in 1893. Her mother died when she was five, and Dorothy disliked her stepmother. She was half Jewish (her father, Jacob Henry Rothschild, was the son of Jewish immigrants from Prussia). For much of her life Dorothy struggled with internalized anti-Semitism. This was common among her peers, until the overt anti-Semitism of the Nazis caused Dorothy and many of her friends to become active in fighting anti-Semitism at home and abroad.
During Dorothy’s early career in New York, activism was far from her mind. Dorothy moved to New York City as a young adult and found work at Vogue. She married Eddie Parker, who promptly left for WWI. When he came back, he was deeply changed by his war time experiences and developed addictions to alcohol and morphine. They divorced. Dorothy moved on to Vanity Fair and then to freelance writing, including publishing poems, essays, short stories, and criticism in the brand-new New Yorker Magazine.
By that time, Dorothy was a member of the Algonquin Round Table. I use the term “member” loosely, because the Round Table had no fixed or official membership or official beginning and ending date. It was simply the name given to a group of writers, artists, and actors who met at the Algonquin Hotel daily for lunch, from about 1919 to 1929. This group was famous for quick wit and none more famous than Dorothy.
The year 1927 saw protests around the world on behalf of two Italian immigrants, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. They were accused of murder and armed robbery, and were condemned largely because they were anarchists. Dorothy was deeply disturbed by their case. She participated in a protest march in Boston. A crowd jeered at the marchers and Dorothy, who did not want to ride in the “paddy wagon,” was manhandled by police. Dorothy was arrested for “loitering and sauntering,” about which she said, “Well, I did saunter.”
After this point, Dorothy considered herself to be a socialist, a claim with serious consequences. She drifted away from the Round Table, impatient with the members’ dismissal of politics. She traveled to Spain to report from the Spanish Civil War and spoke at public events on behalf of several anti-fascist organizations in the US. She was a vocal and active member of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League which was founded in 1936 in response to Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. She also co-founded the Screen Writers’ Guild. Dorothy’s activism took the form of monetary donations, speaking at events, and writing, especially in her short stories that skewered hypocritical and indifferent attitudes.
After the war, Dorothy was investigated by the FBI and blacklisted by the House of Un-American Activities. She and her second (and, because by then they had divorced and remarried, also third) husband, who was also blacklisted, left Hollywood and returned to New York City.
In her will, Dorothy left her estate to Martin Luther King Jr., and when he died the estate went to the NAACP (as specified by her will). The NAACP still receives royalties from her work.
After her visit to Spain, Dorothy wrote the following:
I heard someone say, and so I said it too, that ridicule is the most effective weapon. I don’t suppose I ever really believed it, but it was easy and comforting, and so I said it. Well, now I know. I know that there are things that never have been funny, and never will be. And I know that ridicule may be a shield, but it is not a weapon.
I think that ridicule is an excellent weapon. However, what I think Dorothy was saying was that it’s not enough to sit around and be witty. Most of the people who were associated with the Algonquin Round Table disliked politics and avoided serious topics. Dorothy deserves to be remembered as one who quite literally got out of her chair and got to work on the broader issues in the world.