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Dorothy Parker: Age will not wither, but wit sure would



Dorothy Parker: Age will not wither, but wit sure would

A weekly column on the vagaries and charms of fashion


Dorothy Parker – the embodiment of 1920s wit – was born yesterday in 1893. I am not sure how many people remember her now.  I asked around and was disappointed by the blank stares I received. This might have amused the lady who maintained “I’m never going to be famous. My name will never be writ large on the roster of Those Who Do things. I don’t do anything. Not one single thing. I used to bite my nails, but I don’t even do that anymore.”
“There’s a hell of a distance between wisecracking and wit,” she said. “Wit has truth in it, wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words”  And she would know: a master wit, with a prize seat at the table. Specifically the Algonquin round table in New York, around the corner from the Vanity Fair offices where she plied her trade. The literary bright sparks of the day lunched daily for over 10 years at the same table on a diet of  sparkling intelligence sprinkled liberally on their conversation with a healthy side serving of whip-smart ripostes. One such prize: on being challenged to a game of Can You Give Me A Sentence – using the word horticulture – “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.”You may in fact recognise all sorts of bons mots she casually threw off to the delight of those who knew and read her.  When the doorbell rang in her apartment she would grouse: “What fresh hell can this be?”. If called upon to write a caption for a  shot in Vogue: “Brevity is the soul of lingerie”. When reviewing a film: “Katharine Hepburn delivered a striking performance that ran the gamut of emotions from A to B.”
It could not have been an entirely simple matter to be a woman blessed with wit in those days (Lord knows it’s still not easy), hence her theory that “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.”  In fact her outlook on matters of the heart was decidedly not of the rose-tinted variety: “Some men tear your heart in two, some men flirt and flatter, some men never look at you, And that clears up the matter.”I am not sure how Dottie, as she was affectionately known to her friends and admirers, would fare today. Her brand of dark humour would require a trigger warning these days. About her abortion she said: “Serves me right for putting all my eggs in one bastard.” About suicide she wrote this little poem: “Razors pain you, Rivers are damp, Acids stain you, And drugs cause cramp. Guns aren’t lawful, Nooses give, Gas smells awful. You might as well live.”
And live she did: “If I didn’t care for fun and such, I’d probably amount to much, but I shall stay the way I am, because I do not give a damn.” When late with a story she told her editor “too fucking busy, and vice versa.” And faced with the prospect of death, she had mixed feelings: “Drink and dance and laugh and lie, Love, the reeling midnight through, for tomorrow we shall die! (But, alas, we never do.)”  In the event, however, she had suggestions for her epitaph (of course she did): “Excuse my dust.” Failing that, “Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment.” 
One last thing: she left her estate in its entirety to Martin Luther King. He was assassinated the year after her death. On that occasion she might have resurrected this observation: “You can’t teach an old dogma new tricks.”

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