Wednesday, June 7, 2017

This Day in Literary History (The Uneasy Afterlife of Dorothy Parker)

June 7, 1967—Dorothy Parker—critic, poet, fiction and screenwriter, and Algonquin Roundtable wit—died at age 73 of a heart attack in the New York residential hotel from which she had seldom ventured in her last years of mental and physical decline.

During decades of unhappy love affairs, drinking and despair (including suicide attempts), Parker had known little ease. But she would not be at rest even in death. With her friend, playwright Lillian Hellman, named as executor of her will, Parker’s wishes for the disposition of her income and even her physical remains entered a period of limbo.

A passionate advocate of civil rights, Parker had designated the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to receive proceeds from any copyrights and royalties arising from her estate. If he died, this money would go to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Additionally, Parker stipulated that there be "no funeral services, formal or informal." The first sign that Hellman would disregard the wishes of her friend of three and a half decades occurred when she arranged services at Frank Campbell's funeral home on Madison Avenue—an event with a conspicuous starring role for the caftan-clad playwright.

The financially struggling Parker may have figured that Hellman, well-versed in financial matters, would know how to maximize her estate. The playwright had certainly become familiar with the process in the last decade when she was named the executor of her longtime lover, Dashiell Hammett, upon his death in 1961.

“We won’t fight about money, will we,” Hellman had said to Hammett’s daughter Jo in describing how she would handle the estate of her longtime lover. And so it proved to be: even though Hammett had willed Jo half of his estate, his daughter Mary a quarter, and Hellman the last quarter, Jo was lucky to get a $50 check at Christmastime, even though the copyrights to the crime novelist’s works were starting to reap considerable royalties.

Parker’s bequest, minus unpaid bills and burial expenses, came to $20,000. Publicly, Hellman praised her friend’s gift as a testament to her high-minded spirit. Privately, she fumed to friends that, after all she had done for her, Parker had given the money to a man she had never met. When King was assassinated within the year, Hellman became even angrier at the prospect of the money going to the NAACP.

"It's one thing to have real feeling for black people,” Hellman said in an interview with The New York Times Book Review, “but to have the kind of blind sentimentality about the NAACP, a group so conservative that even many blacks now don't have any respect for it, is something else. She [Parker] must have been drunk when she did it."

Amazingly, Hellman continued to contest the will until a court ruled in favor of the NAACP in 1972.

In the early period after Parker’s death, Hellman confessed to having "absolutely no knowledge of what you do with cremated remains." Sorting out Parker’s publishing rights also consumed much of her attention.

But by the early 1970s, no longer involved as Parker’s executor, Hellman did not feel the obligation to pay for a spot set aside in the urn garden of Ferncliff Cemetery, in Hartsdale, NY. At the same time, she did not want news to get out that, because of her neglect, the cemetery’s crematory had simply discarded Parker’s ashes. So she told Ferncliff to ship the ashes to her attorneys, Oscar Bernstien and his partner, Paul O’Dwyer, who were to await her instructions on how to dispose of them. Those instructions still hadn’t arrived when she died in 1984.

For several years thereafter, Parker’s ashes remained in a file cabinet in the Wall Street office of O’Dwyer, a longtime crusading lawyer and New York politician, as he sought a viable solution. At last, Dr. Benjamin Hooks, executive director of the NAACP, proposed that the NAACP would construct a memorial garden on the grounds of its national headquarters in Baltimore. That is where her ashes lie today, even though she did not have any real ties with the city in her lifetime. 

Nevertheless, the inscription at the memorial contains considerable dignity belying the rather confused and even tawdry path by which it came to the NAACP:

Here lie the ashes of Dorothy Parker (1893–1967) Humorist, writer, critic, defender of human and civil rights. For her epitaph she suggested "Excuse My Dust". This memorial garden is dedicated to her noble spirit which celebrated the oneness of humankind, and to the bonds of everlasting friendship between black and Jewish people.

Hellman’s slowness in administering Parker’s estate had another important effect, according to Parker biographer Marion Meade: it gave the playwright a head start in getting out her own, often untrue, narrative about her own life: “Hellman feared that… any intrepid biographer—digging through Parker's life might expose her own deceptions, and that was something she could not risk.” 

More particularly, Parker, who had accompanied Hellman on a trip to Spain in 1937, would have been in an immediate position to dispute Hellman’s self-serving “Julia” chapter in her memoir Pentimento. Only in the last years of Hellman’s life—after the book had shot up the bestseller list and been made into a movie—did the sham begin to be exposed. It might not even have been perpetrated if Parker had been alive.

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