August 22nd: Claude Debussy & Dorothy Parker

Today’s animated, musical Google Doodle celebrates the birth of French composer Claude Debussy, born on this day in 1862. Whenever I wake up in the morning to see a Doodle has been posted, I turn to my long, long list of Doodle-worthy women to start thinking about the day’s post. Today, I was thrilled to find that I would be able to write about a woman who fascinates me: poet, author, and great American wit Dorothy Parker, born August 22, 1893.

Parker is known as much for her writing as for her place in American literary history as a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table of the 1920s. She got her start soon after graduating high school, first by selling a poem to Vanity Fair and then by joining the staff of Vogue (and then, two years later, Vanity Fair itself, replacing P.G. Wodehouse as the magazine’s drama critic). During this era Parker continued to write poetry, but in her magazine staff positions she focused primarily on biting criticism of theater and literature. Though those she reviewed were often highly insulted by her writing, it was widely read and incredibly popular; still, Vanity Fair let her go based on the insistence of New York theater producers. This reputation, however, earned her a spot on The New Yorker’s board of editors when it was founded in 1925.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, she wrote and published prolifically, including 3 volumes of poetry and 2 of short stories; magazines published more than 300 of Parker’s poems throughout the 1920s. She earned the O. Henry Award for the best short story in 1929.

Dorothy Parker, ca. 1920, author unknown.

Dorothy Parker, ca. 1920, author unknown.

Parker also worked as a screenwriter in the 1930s and 1940s, and received Oscar nominations for her co-authorship of A Star is Born (the Judy Garland version used the same screenplay) and Smash-Up, the Story of a Woman. She was also a founding member of the Screen Writers Guild. As a passionate activist for civil liberties and left-wing causes, however, Parker was placed on the McCarthy-era Hollywood blacklist, and was unable to continue her lucrative screenwriting career. Since her death, she has been honored by the NAACP, and the United States Postal Service has issued a commemorative stamp in her honor. The Algonquin Hotel is a New York City Historic Landmark and a National Literary Landmark; this latter designation has also been given to her birthplace.

I wanted to close this entry with a sample of Parker’s written work. It was difficult to choose just one; Parker’s long works and pithy one-liners have both made their mark on pop culture (from her claim that “cheque” and “enclosed” are among the most beautiful words to hear in English, to coining the phrase “What fresh hell can this be?”). But I’ve settled on her poem “Love Song,” written in 1926, for the simple reasons that I like it, and once wrote a paper about it:

My own dear love, he is strong and bold
      And he cares not what comes after.
His words ring sweet as a chime of gold,
      And his eyes are lit with laughter.
He is jubilant as a flag unfurled—
      Oh, a girl, she’d not forget him.
My own dear love, he is all my world,—
      And I wish I’d never met him.
My love, he’s mad, and my love, he’s fleet,
      And a wild young wood-thing bore him!
The ways are fair to his roaming feet,
      And the skies are sunlit for him.
As sharply sweet to my heart he seems
      As the fragrance of acacia.
My own dear love, he is all my dreams,—
      And I wish he were in Asia.
My love runs by like a day in June,
      And he makes no friends of sorrows.
He’ll tread his galloping rigadoon
      In the pathway of the morrows.
He’ll live his days where the sunbeams start,
      Nor could storm or wind uproot him.
My own dear love, he is all my heart,—
      And I wish somebody’d shoot him.
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