WHEN TOLD that Clare Boothe Luce was always kind to her inferiors, Dorothy Parker cooly remarked, "But where does she find them?" Asked how he liked children, W.C. Fields replied in a nasal twang, "Parboiled or fried."
It's hard to miss with a book like With Malice Toward All but Dorothy Herrmann almost succeeds. Not content merely to assemble the fast come-backs of people such as Groucho Marx and Alexander Woolcott, she also wants to provide potted summaries of their lives. But her sketches lack zest and drama, her tired sentences serve principally as transitions between witticisms, and a faintly moralizing tone tends to flatten the high spirits of her subjects: They may have been funny, but they paid--alcoholism, infidelity, madness.
And yet none of this matters much: the pages dance with the puns, repartee, and gestures we all dream of making. Robert Benchley remarks of a small office he shared with Dorothy Parker, "One cubic foot less, and it would have constituted adultery." Tallulah Bankhead drops a fifty-dollar bill into the tambourine of a Salvation Army volunteer, saying "Don't bother to thank me. I know what a perfectly ghastly season it's been for you Spanish dancers.' "
Besides the familiar Algonquin wits (Woolcott, George S. Kaufman), Herrmann includes Wilson Mizner ("Always be kind to people on the way up because you'll meet them on the way down"), Texas Guinan, a honky- tonk showgirl known for her salutation, "Hello, Sucker," and Washington's own Alice Roosevelt Longworth, famous for her pillow bearing the slogan: "If you haven't anything good to say about anyone, come and sit by me."
Of them all, Dorothy Parker remains the world's favorite, a specialist in ribald and sardonic verbal twists (a couple of the best left out of Herrmann's collection) like the classic "If all the girls at the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn't be at all surprised."