Dorothy Rothschild was 21 and living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan when she mailed a letter that changed her life. It happened 100 years ago, sometime in early 1915. The moment set the scene for her to become Dorothy Parker.
The letter she placed in the mailbox contained a 36-line poem. Nine quatrains in a precisely formed rhyme scheme of A-B-A-B. "Any Porch" begins:
"I'm reading that new thing of Locke's --
So whimsical, isn't he? Yes -- "
"My dear, have you seen those new smocks?
They're night-gowns -- no more, and no less."
She went on to destroy the two un-named resort denizens, in conversation no doubt picked up from her many summers spent at Long Island hotels. It concludes:
"So she's got the children? That's true;
The fault was most certainly his --"
"You know the de Peysters? You do?
My dear, what a small world this is!"
The young woman put a two-cent stamp on the envelope addressed to:
443 Fourth Avenue
New York City
In 1915 the magazine was in its infancy. The debut of Dress and Vanity Fair was in September 1913, published by Condé Montrose Nast. The 36-year-old had acquired the moribund Vogue -- launched in 1892 as a ten-cent weekly fashion journal -- in 1909 and made it successful. Nast got his feet wet in magazines during ten years in the advertising department at Collier's Weekly. He hired journeyman art director Frank Crowninshield as editor for the March 1914 issue. "Crowny" promptly dropped "Dress" from the title and added humorous pieces. Down the hall was Edna Chase, in the office, Mrs. Francis Dane Chase. She was promoted to editor of Vogue, a position she would hold almost until her death in 1957.
The poem was accepted for publication for the September 1915 issue of Vanity Fair, and the poet was sent a check for $5. Inspired by this, young Dorothy put on her best dress, gloves and hat. She splashed on perfume and took the IRT down to the offices of Condé Nast Publications to ask for a job. Thirty years later, Crowny remembered the job interview well.
'Any Porch' was the 'first thing she had ever written'... Her father had died just 'a month or two' earlier. She was an orphan. She was working at a dance school, even though she lacked 'the faintest idea' how to teach, couldn't distinguish the lame duck from the bunny hug and was expecting to be fired any day. She was 'tiring' of her musical career, which she had learned was not a bowl of cherries. 'A literary life would suit her better. Could Mr. Crowninshield giver her a job?
In the era before Linked In, the job candidate's credentials must have looked particularly thin. Not only did she not have a college education, she didn't even possess a high school diploma. Her education stopped when she was 15. Her mother died when Dorothy was 4 and her father, a successful rag trade entrepreneur, when she was 20. But the biggest fib was that she was a neophyte writer. The truth was that she had been writing poems since she could pick up a pencil, even if the only audience was her family. With her father and older siblings, she went to the theater. And she read. Constantly.
Crowny liked the comely girl, who stood four feet eleven inches, had jet-black hair and big dark eyes. Her poor eyesight necessitated wearing eyeglasses. Crowny told the applicant he ran a small team on his young staff. But in the neighboring office, see Mrs. Chase and you can join her at Vogue. The redoubtable Mrs. Chase has been with the magazine since 1895 and can use you. The salary is ten dollars a week.
Today her position would be described as an editorial assistant. Chase and the new girl were born nearby each other on the New Jersey Shore, the former in Asbury Park and the latter in Long Branch. That was all they had in common. Fifty years later, Chase said Parker's term had been a "brief, stormy, but exhilarating period."
In 1915 a small, dark-haired pixie, treacle-sweet of tongue but vinegar-witted, joined our staff. Her name was Dorothy Rothschild and she was engaged to do captions and special features. She wrote a piece about houses called 'Interior Desecration' and more than one decorator swallowed hard and counted ten before expressing his feelings about it. Showing rare courage, she risked her head in the line of duty and turned in her experience under the title 'Life on a Permanent Wave' when the wave was still a hazard and its most permanent aspect was the entire day required to accomplish it.
She was a member of the Vogue staff from late 1915 to 1918. Among the copy attributed to her was the famous caption, among an illustration of ten styles of nightgowns, in October 1916: "From these foundations of the autumn wardrobe, one may learn that brevity is the soul of lingerie." The following year she wrote about weddings, at the same time she was getting married herself, to Eddie Parker, a Paine Webber stockbroker. "In all this sad world there is no sadder sight than that of the groom standing at the altar, more married against than marrying. He is mercifully allowed to turn his self-conscious back to the wedding guests, who regard him with the same glitter in their eyes with which spectators at a bullfight look on the bull."
Parker wrote some of the earliest trends pieces for Vogue. From being a secret knitter ("People look at me, and sooner or later, they invariable say, 'You seem like a sensible sort of girl -- there is no foolishness about you.' Old people tell me this as a compliment, young people as an insult."), to exercise routines, light verse and fashions for dogs. She worked in an office where maids dusted every afternoon and women wore gloves indoors. Parker looked at the raw silk curtains, bleached oak furniture and oil paintings on the walls, and remarked, "Well, it looks just like the entrance to a house of ill-fame."
While she was on the Vogue staff, she wrote pieces for Vanity Fair on a steady basis. Crowny bought three more poems in 1916, along with a series on manners and etiquette. She wrote, "Why I Haven't Married, Sketches of My Seven Deadly Suitors" in 1916 ("and these are the seven reasons why my mail is still being addressed to 'Miss'".) In 1917, shortly after her marriage, Eddie Parker enlisted in the army and shipped out to France to drive an ambulance. While he was away she made her first career change, when Vanity Fair poached her. She was 24.
The next five years saw her rise from anonymous copywriter to boldface name. In early 1918 Crowny handed Parker the reins of the monthly drama column. This was unprecedented to have a woman writing for a national magazine serve as its Broadway critic. Parker's only background in theater was that she was a life-long fan; from the time her father took her to see Maude Adams play Peter Pan when she was kid. Now she would be going to the theater five nights a week and writing upwards of 4,000 words a month on what she saw.
Dorothy Parker broke ground in a male-dominated profession when women in America could not vote, buy real estate on their own or get a passport using their maiden name. The Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, granting voting rights, wasn't ratified until the summer of 1920 and other women's equality issues would take years to pass. Unless other sources say otherwise, Parker was the only female critic on Broadway. (When the New York Drama Critics' Circle launched, in 1935, all nine critics were men. There has never been a female president of the group.)
When she was sitting in the aisle seat for Vanity Fair, she was witness to the last great era of live theater in America before radio, talking pictures and television decimated attendance. In New York, close to 80 theaters were in operation, compared to 35 or so today. Sometimes as many as seven new shows debuted in one night. In the Twenties more than 200 shows opened every season; the 2012-2013 season saw just 46 shows open.
And what shows she was in the audience to see. John Barrymore in Hamlet and every edition of the Ziegfeld Follies are some of her most fascinating reviews. Parker reviewed some of the biggest names of the era: Ethel Barrymore, Fanny Brice, George M. Cohan, Katherine Cornell, W. C. Fields, Helen Hayes, the Lunts, Will Rogers and more. She was there for the debut of Eugene O'Neill plays, Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson in blackface, new music by Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and the Gershwins. All of her reviews have been collected in Dorothy Parker Complete Broadway, 1918-1923.
A short time after moving to Vanity Fair, Parker welcomed the magazine's first managing editor. Robert Benchley had flunked out of daily newspapers, but he was perfectly suited to working on humorous stories. The pair became lifelong friends and soul mates. When Robert E. Sherwood was added as staff writer, they formed a triumvirate of office wisecrackers. Around this time the Condé Nast offices moved to 19-25 West 44th Street, steps from Fifth Avenue. This was helpful in June 1919 when a luncheon at the nearby Algonquin Hotel became a daily institution for the next several years. Benchley, Parker and Sherwood were charter members of this Vicious Circle of writers, critics, publicists and actors.
During the time she was on Vanity Fair she was given nearly free rein. In January 1919 she wrote:
Often, in those long quiet hours when I am caught in a subway block, or sitting in the dentist's antechamber, or waiting for a Broadway car, I ponder sadly on the good old times that have passed beyond recall. Those were the happy days -- the days when people rushed gladly to the theatre, enjoyed every minute of it, applauded enthusiastically, wished there were more and came out wreathed in smiles to spread abroad the glad tidings that 'The show was great!' Why, some of them even, of their own free will, went back to see the same play over and over again. Yes, those undoubtedly were the days.
The reviews were a sensation and Parker established herself as a critic with a keen eye and sharp wit. But her term at Condé Nast Publications came to a halt after she watched Billie Burke at the Liberty Theatre in November 1919. Burke, the second wife of Flo Ziegfeld, set Parker's teeth on edge, primarily because she was 35 and still playing ingénue roles. Parker also loved to skewer Ziegfeld at any and every opportunity. Her review said:
...Fortunately safely out of China, is the setting of W. Somerset Maugham's play Caesar's Wife, is which Billie Burke is starred. There are but few flashes of Mr. Maugham's brilliance in the dialogue, and the evening seems a long and uneventful one. Miss Burke, in her role of the young wife, looks charmingly youthful. She is at her best in her more serious moments; in her desire to convey the girlishness of the character, she plays her lighter scenes rather as if she were giving an impersonation of Eva Tanguay.
Ziegfeld hit the roof. He complained to Nast, and this doomed Parker. Crowninshield took Parker to the Palm Court at the Plaza on a Sunday afternoon in January 1920. Over tea and scones he fired her. The next day, Benchley and Sherwood resigned in protest.
That was the last office job Parker ever had, unless you count the Hollywood studios she toiled at for 15 years later. She went on to be a freelancer for the rest of her career. Immediately after leaving Vanity Fair, she went to Street & Smith, where she picked up her drama critic duties for another three years on Ainslee's. When The New Yorker was created in 1925 by her Algonquin Round Table friends, Jane Grant and Harold Ross, she was the anonymous theater critic in the debut issue. Ross added her name to his make-believe editorial board.
Nearly 50 years after her death, Parker has more books in print that when she died. When Nast died in 1942 he was heavily in debt and his company shaky. However, he left it in the care of loyal and smart editors, who made big gains after World War II. Today the Condé Nast Media Group is one of the richest and most respected in the industry. Dorothy Parker's legacy is secure, even if she's only a footnote in the company's long history.
Photos: Dorothy Parker Society
Kevin C. Fitzpatrick is the editor of Dorothy Parker Complete Broadway, 1918-1923, and author of The Algonquin Round Table New York: A Historical Guide. On March 26 he will be giving a free talk and reading about Dorothy Parker's Broadway career at The Drama Book Shop, 250 W. 40th Street. Visit fitzpatrickauthor.com for information.