What Fresh Hell Is This?

By Marion Meade

Villard. 459 pp. $22.50

DOROTHY PARKER, whose pithy quips ("Men seldom make passes/ At girls who wear glasses") and acid pen made her the sparkling symbol of the '20s, left no clues behind her when she died. No letters, no manuscripts, no memorabilia, no private papers of any kind. Drunk and disheveled, deserted by friend and foe, she sank without a trace in 1967. Her ashes are unclaimed to this day -- stored in the file drawer of a lawyer in New York.

Undismayed by this daunting void, biographer Marion Meade, author of a life of Eleanor of Aquitaine and a novel on Heloise and Abelard, has peered into every cranny that is left. No crumbling shard escaped her gaze. She rummaged in attics, sifted the contents of dusty trunks, burrowed through libraries, persuaded people to share their scrapbooks, their memories and their fading photographs.

She interviewed a five-paragraph list of sources that reads like the literary rent-a-party of the year. Charles Addams, Roger Angell, Louis Auchincloss, Saul Bellow, Nathaniel Benchley, Leonard Bernstein, Heywood Hale Broun, Joseph Bryan III, Budd Schulberg, Ring Lardner Jr., E.B. White . . . If you haven't heard of Robert Yaw II or Naomi Yergin by the time you reach the Ys, you feel it's your own fault.

With the results in hand, you learn almost more than there is to know about Dorothy Parker, and more than you dared to ask about the private scuffles and public spats of all who crossed her path. By the time Parker squeezes into a taxi with Elinor Wylie and Bill Bene't and Edna Millay and her husband Eugen Boissevain and Millay's former lover Arthur Davison Ficke and his new wife Gladys, the mind begins to reel. But it pays to stay the course.

In this welter of walk-on parts, this parade of spear carriers, a subliminal message lurks. Wisecracks, parties and too much fame too soon were the engines of Dorothy Parker's doom -- and she was not alone. This chronicle of ego trips and missed destinies sheds a harsh new light on most of the fabled Algonquin Round Table members and their place in our firmament. Many of them died young, after troubled lives, leaving only a thin trail of accomplishment behind.

Parker came bitterly to believe in later life that they had all wasted precious psychic energy laughing at each other's jokes when they should have been down on their marrow bones, breaking rocks. With the siren sound of their approving laughter in her ears, Parker found it all too easy not to write.

Meade is less concerned with Parker's craft than with the dominant events of her life -- alcoholism and disastrous love affairs, three unhappy marriages (two of them to the same man). She preferred men who were tall, handsome, blond and married to someone else or indifferent to her charms. She loved them, as she once wrote, "until they loved me." But there was also a complex connection between her suffering and her muse. As Aleck Woollcott remarked, on learning that she was (fleetingly) happily married: "That bird only sings when she's unhappy." In a sense her fiction and poems were truer expressions of her life and thought than the "facts" she dispensed about herself.

Even at her most prolific, Parker wrote painfully slowly. ("Everything that isn't writing is fun.") She heaped fun on Edna Ferber, who made buckets of money with easy potboilers. "I understand Ferber whistles at her typewriter," she sniffed. "And there was that poor sucker Flaubert rolling around the floor for three days looking for right words." Yet she shrank from the lonely road in Flaubert's footsteps. Her stay at Yaddo, free of the phone and distractions, nearly sent her around the bend.

She came to view deadlines as Boston drivers regard red lights -- a vague advisory. She delivered magazine assignments months after they were due, if she delivered them at all. Arnold Gingrich of Esquire claimed that extracting her monthly column was a "high-forceps delivery," and many an issue had to go to press without her work. She took advances from publishers for books she never even began to write.

She scorned the rich, took their favors with a warm smile -- then knifed them in the back. Landlords rarely got their rent. At the Algonquin, where her dog ate the furniture and left messes on the rugs, she regarded her mere presence as recompense enough.

So total was her urge to fail that she botched four suicide attempts -- twice with barbiturates, once by swallowing shoe polish and once by slashing her wrists.

"She was at war with herself all her life," wrote fellow Round Tabler Frank Sullivan when she died. "Maybe most of us are and some negotiate cease fires occasionally, which seldom last."

Meade's book could be read as a cautionary tale for those who flower young and come to believe their own legends. ::

Anne Chamberlin is a Washington writer.