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.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Young actors frozen in Time

Found between the leaves of some inconsequential book (translation: I forgot which one), these young actors are forever young on this accidental bookmark.

Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow (their images anyway) were supposed to travel back to Time for a new subscription for the sender. At least that's what Time Magazine hoped with this magazine insert. Instead, they went directly into a contemporary hardbound book (that much I remember) and now to the vast impermanence of cyberspace via this blog.

The Time Archives dates this piece to February 7, 1969.

Hoffman would have been coming off an astounding pair of films, The Graduate (1967) and the soon-to-be-released Midnight Cowboy (1969), with Little Big Man (1970) on the horizon. He was definitely in a zone.

Mia Farrow had scored big with Rosemary's Baby (1968) and would be paired with Hoffman later in 1969 with John and Mary.

And you could find both appearing on this 1969 Time Magazine cover in a timeless, youthful pose. Forty years ago.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Boring Books

This post is book-related, but it doesn't really fit the format of this blog. Rather, it's a YouTube video about books. Very boring books. It's so boring that it's actually funny (your humor mileage may vary). I appreciated the humor in it and so am sharing it here.

I actually watched the whole five minutes plus, but if you just can't get that far, fast forward to the last book at 5:10 on the time bar. There, the video ends appropriately, if not mercifully, with a title by none other than M. Eugene Boring!

The creative mind behind this is author/songwriter Nick Currie, who uses the pseudonym Momus and has the YouTube name, bookofjokes. His latest book is titled Book of Jokes and is reviewed by the LA Times here.