The Arts

Dorothy Parker

An appreciation by her grizzled contemporary, W. Somerset Maugham

Once when I was in Hollywood, I was invited to dinner by Miss Fanny Brice. It was by way of being a literary party. Aldous Huxley was there, his sardonic gusto in the horribleness of human beings not yet greatly mitigated by non-attachment and brotherly love. Dorothy Parker was there demure in black silk, but with a demureness fraught with peril to the unwary. I forget who the remaining guests were but they were evidently grand, for at dinner Dorothy Parker and I found ourselves seated together a good way down the table and well below the salt. The food was good, the wine choice, and we were waited on by Russian noblemen or Japanese Samurai. I forget which. After my neighbour I had discoursed for some while upon the weather and the crops, with fleeting references to Shakespeare and the musical glasses, I said: “Why don’t you write a poem for me?” “I will if you like,” she replied. “Give a pencil and a piece of paper.”

Now I am not one of those prudent authors who keep a little book in their pocket so, whatever they are, wherever they may be, they can jot down any happy thought that occurs to them.  I, too, sometimes have a happy thought, but I always think I will make a note of it later, and then forget what on earth it was. I had neither pencil or paper. “Let’s ask for it,” I said and turned to the Russian nobleman or Japanese Samurai, whichever the case might be, and told him what we wanted.

He was gone a long time, evidently having some difficulty finding what we had asked for in that sumptuous house, but at last returned with a ragged piece of wrapping paper and a blunt pencil. Dorothy Parker took it and wrote:

 Higgledy Piggledy, my white hen;
She lays eggs for gentlemen.

“Yes, I have always liked those lines,” I said.

She gave a thin, cool smile, and without an instant’s hesitation, added:

You cannot persuade her with a gun  or a lariat
To come across for the proletariat.

With this brilliant rhyme she gathered Higgledy Piggledy into the august company of Jove’s Eagle, Sinbad the Sailor’s Roc, the Capitoline Geese, Boccaccio’s Falcon, Shelley’s Skylark and Poe’s Raven. Chaucer’s Chanticleer is her fitting mate.

WSM

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DP Had Dorothy Parker been a supercentenarian, she would have been 124 years old today and she surely would have had some choice observations about life in 2017. Here are some which stand the test of time:

On other people

“Their pooled emotions wouldn’t fill a teaspoon.”

“You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.”

On drinking

“I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.”

On money

“Money cannot buy health, but I’d settle for a diamond-studded wheelchair.”

On love

“It serves me right for putting all my eggs in one bastard.”

 

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