Modern life is rubbish. It's time to stand up and take inspiration from some of history's greatest and fiercest women. Let the likes of Frida Kahlo and Josephine Baker, Hypatia and Cleopatra, Coco Chanel and Empress Cixihe be your guide to killing it at work, figuring out who you are and conquering everyday life.
Read Dorothy Parker's advice on how to handle jerks, below.
Dorothy Parker and Handling Jerks
It is a truth universally acknowledged that, at the exact moment you fully invest in a relationship, the object of your affections turns out to be an emotionally immature sociopath.
Experience tells us that there is no point attempting to change your beloved jerk’s behaviour if you make this distressing diagnosis. But just think of the material it gives you for bitching with your friends, moaning to your mother and penning vengeful WhatsApp messages to your crew. And there’s one spiky sister from history who took her painful romantic experiences and transformed them into the most cracking copy. Dorothy Parker was a literary alchemist who turned her dejection into professional comedy gold. No one remembers her husbands or the names of her negligent paramours – but her words are etched onto our psyches as the best retorts ever committed to paper. How could one possibly better ‘It serves me right for putting all my eggs in one bastard’ (about the man who knocked her up, resulting in an abortion), ‘Take me or leave me; or, as is the usual order of things, both’, or ‘Ducking for apples – change one letter and it’s the story of my life.’
Dorothy Rothschild was the fourth child of a moderately prosperous couple who lived happily in Manhattan until Dorothy’s mother died. Her father remarried a devout Catholic whom Dotty did not take to, refusing to address her as Mother, Stepmother or even her given name, preferring instead ‘the housekeeper’. Ouch. Dot had a keen eye for turning personal tragedy into great stories, so it’s hard to know how much of her family myth is just that, but we do know that in 1917 she married Edwin Pond Parker II, a quietly alcoholic stockbroker. The marriage was unhappy, and it’s said she had several affairs, notably with the writer Charles MacArthur (he of the eggs and bastard). She also began to throw herself into work.
In 1918 Dorothy became the theatre critic of Vanity Fair, replacing none other than P. G. Wodehouse, and she quickly developed a reputation as one of the most vicious voices in journalism. She was a regular at the daily lunch of the infamous ‘Algonquin Round Table’, where the most loquacious scribblers, actors and wits of the day would meet to verbally scrap it out. In 1920 she was fired and went freelance, publishing poems and stories, and in 1927 landed a gig as a book reviewer for The New Yorker. She would be its ‘Constant Reader’ until the end of her life.
Dorothy lived at a time when the hedonism of the 1920s was revolutionising life for middle-class women: they cut their hair short, smoked, drank, embraced the sexual revolution, took pride in backchat, drove cars, indulged in consumerism and listened to jazz. The respectable older generation viewed them as a dangerous, reckless force for evil. There was also plenty of handwringing from old-school feminists who had campaigned for political equality and questioned the flappers’ self-absorption and wondered if the pursuit of having-it-all would in fact result in having-not-very-much – and a life that felt lonely, disappointed and bitter. Sound familiar, O woman of the twenty-first century? For Parker, though, the freedom to write the human condition – painful, heart-breaking, but often very, very funny – was paramount.
Her marriage to Edwin ended in divorce in the late 1920s, and in 1932 Parker met Alan Campbell, a much younger actor who had published a few short stories. They married in 1934, and soon after were approached by an agent who told them they could make it big in Hollywood, baby, and they did indeed become successful scriptwriters, even being nominated for two Academy Awards. In LA, Dorothy became a political activist; she opposed the rise of fascism in Germany and Spain, and was investigated by the FBI. Her second marriage failed but her activism endured, and on her death she left everything in her will to Dr Martin Luther King Jr, with her estate eventually going to the NAACP (see Rosa Parks on p. 25).
She had written her own epitaph, ‘Excuse my dust’, yet another masterclass in devastating brevity, but in a strange twist concerning an argument over her will, the urn containing her ashes languished in her attorney’s filing cabinet for seventeen years, until the NAACP insisted it be interred at their HQ in Baltimore.
So the next time you get ghosted after the third date, or find yourself baffled by the fact that your partner is incapable of expressing emotion, think of Dorothy Parker and her exceptional, unforgettable ability to turn even the most embarrassing romantic rejection into a pithy, polished putdown. Yes, there’s despair in her writing about the misery of a woman’s lot, but her defiance, vicious wit and superhuman cocktail-swilling capacity for partying shines through. She was the enemy of the boring and mundane, a sister of sass with a razor-sharp mind.
Illustration by Bijou Karmen
E. Foley and B Coates are editors based in London. Since working on this book they have begun to channel Elizabeth 1's famed public-speaking skills and taken tips from Mrs Beeton when battling imposter syndrome. Bestselling authors of Homework for Grown-Ups and Shakespeare for Grown-Ups, they are anything but imposters when it comes to writing.
Bijou Karmen is an artist and illustrator from Los Angeles.