Her caretakers are planning to exhume and move again what’s left of the famously irreverent writer. She suggested as her epitaph: Excuse my dust.
“Her legacy means a lot. She’s been at 4805 [Mount Hope Drive] for a number of years. It’s important to us that we do this right,” said Aba Blankson, a spokeswoman for the national office of the NAACP, headquartered for decades at that address in the business park. Parker’s ashes have been buried there 31 years.
Last month, the NAACP announced that it would relocate its headquarters from Baltimore to Washington, a move that’s been long discussed. City leaders expressed dismay, pledging to try to keep the storied civil rights organization in Baltimore.
Meanwhile, those steeped in the city’s literary lore are left to wonder: What’s to become of Dottie?
“It’s kind of heartbreaking that she’s being moved again,” said New York fiction writer Ellen Meister, who runs a popular Dorothy Parker fan page on Facebook. “She really suffered so much disrespect in terms of her final remains. It’s a tragic end to a very difficult life.”
Parker is best remembered for her sharp tongue and wry remarks as a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table, the circle of New York writers, critics and actors whose boozy lunches and piercing repartee became an enduring scene from the Roaring Twenties.
Born in 1893, Parker worked for Vogue, Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, and wrote drama and literary criticism. She won acclaim for her poems and short stories such as “Big Blonde,” which won her the O. Henry Award for the best story of 1929.
She befriended Ernest Hemingway and partied with F. Scott Fitzgerald. (One rumor suggests she more than partied with the old sport.)
At home, she suffered a series of troubled love affairs and married three times — twice to the same man. She’s known to have attempted suicide at least twice. She hid these ghosts beneath a caustic humor.
The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.
Indeed. Here’s Parker on the subject of beauty: Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.
On other women: You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.
Today, you can buy her delicious quips on T-shirts, posters, even cocktail plates. If you wear a short enough skirt, the party will come to you.
There’s a New York distillery that produces Dorothy Parker gin: I like to have a martini. Two at the very most. After three, I’m under the table. After four, I’m under my host.
In Manhattan, the president of the Dorothy Parker Society leads tours of her old haunts. Meister, whose novels include “Dorothy Parker Drank Here,” has amassed a following of 175,000 with the fan page.
“Most people think of her as a very cutting wit,” Meister said. “Of course, she had this acerbic, razor-sharp wit, but she also had this really generous soul and abiding feeling for justice. She really was, in her own way, an activist for justice and civil rights.”
After all, Parker was arrested and fined while protesting the dubious murder case against Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. She raised money for the legal defense of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers falsely accused of raping two white women in Alabama. Parker’s activism was enough to earn her an FBI file. In her 1939 essay “Not Enough,” she writes of a moral awakening brought on by her aunt’s callous disregard for the working class.
“That was when I became anti-fascist, at the silky tones of my rich and comfortable aunt,” Parker wrote.
By the time the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. marched on Montgomery, Ala., Parker was too old to take to the streets. When she died of a heart attack two years later — at age 73, widowed and childless — she left him her estate of $40,000. King was reportedly puzzled.
“She was very careful to leave instructions that she wanted her estate to benefit the civil rights movement,” Meister said.
King was assassinated within a year, and Parker’s estate went to the NAACP. She neglected, however, to leave instructions for her own remains.
The playwright Lillian Hellman, Parker’s friend, kept her ashes for 17 years. When Hellman died in 1984, they went to Hellman’s lawyer, Paul O’Dwyer. He kept them in his file cabinet. Three more years passed.
This unceremonious resting place drew concern from syndicated gossip columnist Liz Smith. Her plea for help ran in the Baltimore Sun in July 1987, urging “Somebody — give Paul O’Dwyer a call.”
“Perhaps the NAACP would like to claim the ashes of their benefactress,” Smith suggested.
And so it did. One year later, in October 1988, a crowd gathered outside the NAACP headquarters to see Parker’s ashes finally laid to rest. Benjamin L. Hooks, executive director of the NAACP, presided over the ceremony with Baltimore’s mayor, Kurt L. Schmoke.
“I was surprised when Dr. Hooks told me that this was going to occur,” Schmoke recalled. “I didn’t know the history of Dorothy Parker’s relationship to the NAACP and the extent of her involvement in the civil rights movement.”
That autumn day, Schmoke lowered a brass urn with her ashes into the ground. They buried the urn in a circle of red bricks to represent the Algonquin Round Table. The dignitaries scooped in cement. Amid the tall pines, they dedicated the Dorothy Parker Memorial Garden.
“This memorial garden is dedicated to her noble spirit which celebrated the oneness of humankind and to the bonds of everlasting friendship between black and Jewish people,” reads the plaque in the ground.
And, yes, she even got her epitaph: Excuse my dust.
There she’s been for three decades, visited by the occasional fan who’s puzzled to find in Baltimore the ashes of the consummate New Yorker.
“People are kind of disappointed that she didn’t end up in New York,” Meister said. “New York was her home, and her first and last love.”
Today, the roots of the pines have dislodged bricks in the garden’s path. Weeds sprout from the planters. The concrete benches are dismantled and stacked nearby. The grass is mowed, but there’s a crack through the red-brick circle. Attention has been elsewhere.
Last year, the NAACP moved employees to an office building in downtown Baltimore. NAACP leaders said repairs to the Mount Hope Drive site would cost more than the property is worth.
With plans to move out entirely, the organization is left to find a new home for Parker’s ashes. Blankson, the NAACP spokeswoman, said they are discussing options with Parker’s family. She had three siblings and may have left behind nieces and nephews.
Who is the organization discussing the matter with? What options are being considered? Blankson said she didn’t know. She didn’t respond to additional questions.
Schmoke thinks Baltimore should let Parker’s ashes go.
“I don’t think we should try and retain her if the NAACP does move. I think it’s more important to have her ashes associated with the organization,” he said.
What would the oft-quoted Parker say about yet another resting place? One can almost hear her.
What fresh hell is this?
— Baltimore Sun
Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this report.