Dorothy Parker and the Vicious Circle: A Birthday Tribute


Yesterday, August 22nd, Dorothy “Dotty” Rothschild Parker (1893-1967) would have been 119 years old. For a woman who tried to commit suicide as many times as she did, it is a wonder that she lived into her seventies. Although Parker is most well known as a wit, theatre critic, poet, and short story writer, she also made some contributions to the Hollywood scene, writing such screenplays as A STOR IS BORN (1937 AND 1954), SABOTEUR (1942), and some dialogue for THE LITTLE FOXES (1941), so I believe she deserves a mention here. And despite the fact that she once said that Katharine Hepburn “runs the gamut of emotions from A to B,” she still happens to be one of my favorite 20th century women.

Background: Parker grew up in the New York/New Jersey area. Her mother died when she was about five and she absolutely despised her father’s new wife. Parker attended a Catholic school in New York City as a child and then a posh finishing school in Morristown, NJ. By 1918, both her father and stepmother had died, so she worked as an accompanist at a dance school while she worked on her writing. In 1914 she started writing for Vanity Fair and Vogue magazines. Over her career she would write for all the major New York magazines, including Life, McCall’s Yale Review, and Esquire. She married stock broker Edwin Pond Parker in 1917, though the two separated after his return from WWI and eventually divorced in 1928.

Politics: Dorothy Parker was a radical liberal. During the 1930s and 1940s she became a vocal advocate for civil rights. She visited Spain during the civil war and reported on what she witnessed over there in the Communist New Masses magazine. In 1936 she helped to found the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, whose wealthy membership grew to be 4,000 strong. At one point she chaired the Joint Anti-Fascist Rescue Committee, as well as many other left-wing causes. During the McCarthy era, Parker was branded a Communist and subsequently put at the very top of the Hollywood blacklist. Her final screenplay was for THE FAN (1949). She then returned to New York where she wrote reviews for Esquire magazine.

The Algonquin Round Table: In 1919 an elite group of friends – wisecracking theatre critics, writers, and actors – started a tradition of lunching regularly at the Algonquin Hotel. The “vicious circle,” as they called themselves, had no fixed rule for membership, with regular attendees coming and going as they pleased. Charter members of the group included:

Many Hollywood actors, writers, directors, and producers also frequented the Algonquin luncheons:
Members of the Round Table often socialized together outside the confines of the Algonquin’s Pergola Room. They loved playing all manner of games, including cribbage, poker, “wink murder,” charades, and they were serious practical jokers. Many of the members co-owned Neshobe Island up in a lake in Vermont, and the group would often go there to hang out and play croquet. It was not unheard of for members of the group to team up professionally, but the only time the group as a whole ever produced something together was their one-night review called No Sirree! (1922), in which Robert Benchley gave his famous “Treasurer’s Report” monologue. By the early 1930s the Vicious Circle started to break up when members started going their own way, many of them out to Hollywood.
Dorothy Parker led a fascinating life, and she knew many fascinating people. If you are interested in reading some of her work, I recommend you purchase “The Portable Dorothy Parker,” a collection of her best works. Mine is eternally on my nightstand. There is also a very good biopic about Parker and The Algonquin Round Table entitled MRS. PARKER AND THE VICIOUS CIRCLE (1994). I’ll leave you with this clip of Tallulah Bankhead reciting Dorothy Parker’s amusing story: “The Waltz.”