“Heterosexuality isn’t normal, it’s just common.”
This sounds like something you’d say if you’re queer or an LGBTQ ally to your unenlightened relatives at Thanksgiving.
But gay icon, writer, poet, wit, critic and civil rights activist Dorothy Parker issued this putdown of homophobia decades ago.
Parker, who said that she started her day by brushing her teeth and sharpening her tongue, had a saying for every occasion and mood. “I’m too fucking busy, and vice-versa,” she told (then) New Yorker editor Harold Ross when he wondered why a book review was overdue.
I’m thinking about Parker a lot these days. Parker is best known as a member of the “vicious circle” of writers who gathered at the Round Table at the Algonquin Hotel in the 1920s. Lately, she’s been in the news. Parker, who died at age 73 in 1967, is likely, martini in hand, laughing at the buzz.
Last month, the NAACP announced that it would move its headquarters from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. Since 1988, Parker’s ashes have been interred beneath a plague in a business park at the NAACP headquarters in Baltimore. (Before that, her ashes were in a filing cabinet in a New York lawyer’s office.) Now, the NAACP is considering what to do with Parker’s remains.
Ironically, Parker said she wanted her epitaph to be: excuse my dust. Who knows where she would want her remains to rest? But one thing would make her smile: she got her epitaph, the Post reports.
Why should we care about Parker? What does her life or work offer to us today? When I was young, I tuned out when my parents or teachers mentioned Parker.
“You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think,” “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses” and some of her other, often quoted, quips made me cringe.
Until I became a feminist, came out, started to write and discovered how hard love and writing could be. To my surprise, Parker amused and inspired me. Her wit was as salty as potato chips; her spirit more bracing than the best gin and tonic or fiery sermon.
Parker was there with her razor-sharp wit before Joan Rivers. Long before even your grandma reveled in snark.
You may think that Parker has nothing to do with your world. But even if you’ve never heard of her, you’ve been influenced by Parker.
Her second husband, actor and screenwriter Alan Campbell, coded as queer. So many queer men attended Parker’s parties, that some historians believe the phrase “friend of Dorothy,” used by gays before you could come out, refers to her.
“All I need is room enough to lay a hat and a few friends,” she said.
“I like to have a martini/Two at the very most/After three I’m under the table/After four I’m under my host,” she wrote in one of her poems.
Some of Parker’s reviews, written more than 100 years ago, seem ripped from today’s headlines. “There is always this to be said for the epidemic of Spanish influenza,” she wrote after seeing a bad play, “it gave the managers something to blame things on.”
Substitute “COVID-19” for “influenza” and you’re in our pandemic.
Like many of her fans, I didn’t know until recently that Parker’s wit was married to a strong belief in justice. Parker, who was Jewish, spoke out in her reviews against stereotypical depictions of Black characters and anti-Semitism on Broadway. She left most of her estate and royalties to Martin Luther King, Jr. (and to the NAACP after his death).
Today, Parker would support Black Lives Matter, call for passage of the Equality Act and give Trump a run for his money on Twitter.
Thank you, Dottie! R.I.P.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.