Friday, October 30, 2009

Don't judge a Dorothy Parker by her cover

If you were at a book sale and saw this book on the table amid hundreds of other books, would you look twice at it?

The old adage about not judging a book by its cover must have been reverberating through my subconscious the other day when I came across the book above, a soiled, jacketless specimen with a splitting spine.

I about passed it over, but saw the author's name, Dorothy Parker, and, being a fan of her wit and writing, I decided to give it a courtesy look. I didn't have this particular title of hers and wanted to browse its contents. I could always buy a decent copy if I liked it. The book is After Such Pleasures, second printing from Viking, 1933, a short story collection that includes her O. Henry award winner, Big Blonde.

But I was in for quite a shock when I opened the book.

Signed copies of her books are scarce, even more so for this title. For the price of a junk book, I brought it home to research the mystery surrounding the inscription.

Parker inscribed the book:
"To Helen DeWitt-- Who was so darn nice to me-- Gratefully, Dorothy Parker Presbyterian Hospital January 16- (I think)"
I wish she had added the year to the date. It could be a contemporary inscription with regard to the book's second printing in 1933. Or it could be from Parker's last years when she was frequently in and out of hospitals--the 1960s. The ink would indicate a fountain pen, which would have been more consistent with the 1930s, though.

And what of Helen DeWitt? She took good care of Parker at Presbyterian Hospital (New York, I assume), so undoubtedly she was a nurse. And did DeWitt already have the book and asked Parker to sign it, or did Parker send it to her as a thank you? And why that book?

Clues for nailing down the background on this inscription are thin, to say the least. I have a copy of her biography, You Might As Well Live, by John Keats (Simon & Schuster, 1970) and have researched it for clues. All I could find out about hospital stays is what I reported above--that she was a frequent patient in her final years in the 1960s. She lived from 1893-1967. A sardonic sense of humor and razor-sharp wit most often characterize her writing and personality, but happiness eluded her through several marriages, alcoholism, and suicide attempts. Her poem from Enough Rope (1926) is perhaps her best remembered:

Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
This poem was recited by Angelina Jolie in a scene from the film Girl Interrupted

Not wanting to get too biographical of Dorothy Parker, I'll just mention a few more books in my collection that may be of interest to anyone wanting to get acquainted with her prose and poetry. In addition to short stories and poems, she also was well known in the 1920s and 1930s for her book reviews for the New Yorker, collected in a volume titled, Constant Reader (Viking, 1970).

But if it's her verse you're interested in, try her collected poems from Viking, 1936, Not So Deep As A Well, which includes her first three volumes of poetry.


  1. Anonymous16/4/14 21:42

    Greetings from Ireland. Wow! Nice find. Let me know if you ever plan to sell this or list it on ebay ;) Just found your blog and it's very interesting and excellent.

    1. It was indeed a nice find. No plans at present to sell, but I'll let you know should that change. Thanks for reading and your comments!

    2. Anonymous18/4/14 05:10

      You're welcome! And thanks for responding, I thought you might be interested also to see this. The seller claims it is Dottie's own personal copy of "Sunset Gun" but the signature does not look like her, also it's signed "Dorothy Janice Parker" and I can find no reference - in book or online form - of her having the middle name Janice. Alas, regardless, I cannot bid on this item as it's USA only and I am in Ireland. But thought you might like to see it and wonder what your opinion on it is.


    3. You're right--that doesn't appear to be her signature. At least. it doesn't compare with what I have and what else I have seen online. The annotation on one of the poems looks closer to her writing. Interesting bookplate, too, though the date is curious. Perhaps another Dorothy Parker owned the book and put her middle name in it so as not to mislead anyone who might come across it later. Thanks for sharing; it's an interesting item to ponder.