BALTIMORE -- Well, she told everyone what she wanted said after she died. For an epitaph: "Excuse my dust." And this too she apparently thought might look appropriate on a tombstone: "If you can read this, you've come too close."
It's perfectly fitting that the widely quoted and misquoted Dorothy Parker -- essayist, critic, poet, playwright, searing wit and an original member of the Algonquin Round Table -- left words. But she never left instructions about what to do with her -- except to have her body cremated.
So yesterday, a sunny day, 21 years after her death at the age of 73, Parker's remains were laid to rest on the grounds of the national headquarters of the NAACP here and a memorial garden was dedicated to her.
Parker had been so deeply impressed by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement that she left her entire estate (she had no children) to King. When he was murdered the following year, the money went to the NAACP as stipulated by her will.
"For a white woman in 1967 to give her money to Martin Luther King and then the residue to the NAACP?" said Benjamin Hooks, executive director of the NAACP, as he walked to the garden. "There were people who never did get over cursing her."
On a level piece of land at the bottom of a sloping hill fragrant with newly planted pine trees, Dorothy Parker's ashes, sealed in a gold-colored urn, were interred. And Parker herself was commemorated with new words -- "Defender of Human and Civil Rights." (The inscription also included her own suggested "Excuse my dust.")
The dedication, which began inside the NAACP building with a couple hundred people in attendance, was no funeral. Speakers were armed with lots of delicious Parker quotes. Actress Laurel Ollstein gave a preview of the one-woman show on Parker she planned to do last night and tonight at Baltimore's Arena Theater. Guests ranged from Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke -- also a speaker -- to Cooper Walker, a teacher at Roland Park Country School for Girls, who's giving a course on the Algonquin era.
Above all, the event was a collective attempt to cast the memorial garden and Parker's actions as symbols of lasting black-Jewish relations.
"Some would say these bonds have become frayed in the past few years and maybe there's some truth to that," said Rabbi Floyd Herman of Har Sinai Congregation and vice president of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis. "I would hope both our communities are mature enough to discuss our differences, to disagree openly without rancor."
And from Benjamin Hooks: "We know there have been times when we have gotten on each others' nerves. But there are more points of agreement than disagreement ... We cannot afford to let ties remain frayed."
Only a few Parker stories took racism as a theme. Mostly her concern was expressed through civic activism and financial contributions. "Her checkbooks from the mid-'30s," said Ruth Sheffey, an English professor at Morgan State University, "included checks to the NAACP, the League of Women Voters, the Democratic Party and a summer camp for inner city kids."
On a visit to Washington in 1939 to raise money for orphans in Spain, she broke down in tears as she made her pleas in the living room of a private home. (She raised $95.)
She apparently never met Martin Luther King, who upon hearing of her bequest said that her commitment -- not her money -- "impresses and inspires me."
According to Paul O'Dwyer, a Wall Street lawyer and partner of Parker's now-deceased attorney, Oscar Bernstein, the original estate was $40,000. (King spent none of it, O'Dwyer said.) Hooks estimates the yearly income from the estate at between $3,000 and $10,000.
It was O'Dwyer who kept Parker's ashes for years in an office file cabinet after the crematorium threatened to throw them out (no one had been authorized to pay any storage fee from the estate). Last April, at a meeting -- in the Algonquin no less -- Hooks suggested the memorial garden. Other suggestions from the public ranged from scattering the ashes over the Hudson to mixing them with paint and then, well, painting something.
O'Dwyer was extremely pleased with Hooks' suggestion.
Hooks is a recent enthusiast of Parker. "Every time I get on an airplane, I use one of her phrases: 'What fresh hell is this,' " he laughingly told the gathering.
Parker was in her thirties when she wrote a poem -- it was quoted yesterday -- from the perspective of being 77 years old and looking back on it all:
When you come to this time of abatement,
To this passing from Summer to Fall,
It is manners to issue a statement
As to what you got out of it all.
So I'll say, though reflection unnerves me
And pronouncements I dodge as I can,
That I think (if my memory serves me)
There was nothing more fun than a man!