If “A Phone Call” was the only story by Dorothy Parker that you ever read, you might dismiss her as frivolous. It would be easy to overlook the commentary on gender dynamics, or the skilled, biting humor that is grounded in self-deprecation, and which layers a profound sadness underneath. “A Telephone Call” is a tragi-comic rambling of a woman so desperate for a man to call her that she’s pushed to the edge. But if you consider that it was written in 1930, when women were expected to be passive in relationships, the fact that the narrator/protagonist took the initiative to call a man she’s interested in, and is considering calling him again, is rather empowering. So are some of her observations, like, “I know you shouldn’t keep telephoning them–I know they don’t like that. When you do that they know you are thinking about them and wanting them, and that makes them hate you,” and “Oh, it’s so easy to be sweet to people before you love them.”
Parker considered herself a feminist, but the world saw her as flippant, an acerbic wit, like with her infamous, whispered response when Calvin Coolidge died, “How do they know?” Or her famous turn of phrase, “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.”
A lot of her work had that same flippancy, which is probably another reason she was easily dismissed. I think in reality, her serious nature (with a suicide attempt, openness about mental health issues, strong political convictions, and admitting to having an abortion,) is evident in her work. “A Phone Call” comes off as funny and true, and at least for me, easily relatable. But underneath all that is desperation and sorrow. I think the author, like her work itself, hides behind cleverness, and when you look more closely, you find profound depth. She explained getting fired by Vanity Fair after only a year by saying, “Vanity Fair was a magazine of no opinion, but I had opinions.” (1956 interview in Paris Review). I loved “A Phone Call” but I also think it’s important to look at any one of Parker’s stories within the context of her entire body of work.
In another story, “Good Souls” she more describes than narrates, giving a picture of that person everyone knows, the martyr-type, one whom we all try to like, but usually fail to do so. “The Good Souls will, doubtless, gain their reward in heaven: on this earth, certainly, theirs is what is technically known as a rough deal. The most hideous outrages are perpetrated on them. ‘Oh, he won’t mind,” people say. “He’s a Good Soul.’”
Her most famous story, which won the O’Henry award in 1929 for short fiction, is “Big Blonde.” The story describes a woman who is depressed, and it was written before people really talked about depression. It also explores gender dynamics in an era where women were finally “allowed” to have fun, but they still were not seen as equals. Apparently, it is semi-autobiographical, as the main character gets divorced, has a string of affairs, and attempts suicide. The story describes a party girl, one who is seen as a good sport. “So, and successfully, she was fun. She was a good sport. Men like a good sport.”
If anyone knew this, it was Parker. She was one of the original founders of the famous Algonquin Round Table at the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan, where she told jokes and traded barbs with men like Robert Benchley, Robert E. Sherwood, and James Thurber. It was there that Parker became known as one of the wittiest conversationalists in NYC.
A few of her famous quotes:
“She was pleased to have him come and never sorry to see him go.”
“That woman speaks eighteen languages, and can’t say ‘No’ in any of them.”
“Tell him I was too fucking busy– or vice versa.”
And apparently, “What fresh hell is this?” can originally be attributed to Dorothy Parker.
Fascinating column. Did anyone ever tell you that you should be teaching literature?