Thursday, April 10, 2014

A Little Dotty

Dorothy Parker, of course, is regarded as one of the wittiest writers ever, at and far from the Algonquin Round Table.  Like so many famous writers from the East, she journeyed to Hollywood to write (and often fail to write) screenplays for the studios--along with Fitzgerald and Faulkner and on and on.  My new ebook When Hollywood Turned Left tells how Upton Sinclair's race for governor of California provoked such outrageous actions and tricks by the moguls that it led to the liberal takeover that remains to this day.

One of the writers who backed Sinclair, despite threats from her bosses, was Dorothy Parker.  Here's an excerpt from the book, which takes place in September 1934, two months from election day.
*
Dorothy Parker was happy to be back in California. Signing a new
contract this morning with Paramount, at a salary of five thousand
dollars a week, she also felt a bit sheepish, for she was the latest in a
long line of literary figures to arrive in Hollywood with much fanfare,
having once vowed never to return.
 
For several dozen celebrity writers, Hollywood was truly the land of
milk and honey. Since the dawn of the talkies, the studios had lured star
newspapermen, playwrights, and novelists with sunshine and fat pay-
checks, which most of the writers were wholly unaccustomed to. Some,
on arrival, bought automobiles for the first time. The emigres from the
East looked down their noses at the crude moguls and posturing actors,
then knocked off early and headed for the pool, the racetrack, or the
beach.
 
"Millions are to be grabbed out here," Herman Mankiewicz had
wired his friend Ben Hecht, "and your only competition is idiots." It
was an invitation few could resist—not John Dos Passos, not Scott
Fitzgerald, not even Thomas Wolfe. MGM grabbed the lion's share:
Robert Benchley, Anita Loos, Joseph and Herman Mankiewicz, George
S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, Frances Marion, P. G. Wodehouse,
S. J. Perelman, Charles MacArthur, Carey Wilson.
 
Some came and left quickly, in disgust. "It's slave labor and what do
you get for it?" one writer complained. "A bloody fortune!" After
working on eight scripts for MGM in 1932, only two of which were
produced, William Faulkner happily returned to writing stories in Mis-
sissippi, announcing that he had "not forgot how to write during my
sojourn downriver." The only reason anyone would ever go to Holly-
wood, Faulkner announced, was "to get what money he could get out
of it." Following this dictum, he returned in July 1934 to work on
“Sutter's Gold” for Universal.
 
Departing Hollywood in 1931, Dorothy Parker boasted that she hadn't
actually written a single word. Hollywood was the Klondike, Sodom-in-
the-Sun, Poughkeepsie with palms. Streets were paved with Goldwyn,
she sighed. The pay was good, but in Hollywood money was like con-
gealed snow in your hand. She likened Beverly Hills, where she lived,
to a woman in a Cadillac dangling a mink-clad arm out the window and
holding a bagel.
 
Although her initial stay in Hollywood lasted only three months,
stories about her season in the sun were legion. "Where does my con-
tract allow time to fornicate?" she supposedly asked one MGM execu-
tive. ... Upon occupying her office at MGM, she stripped the nameplate
from the door and replaced it with MEN. . . . After completing a script
and then waiting for days to see Irving Thalberg, she abandoned her
office to meet a gentleman in Santa Barbara. When Thalberg, suddenly
unable to reach her, wrote to complain, she replied that the only excuse
for her absence was that she was "too fucking busy and vice versa."
 
Now, three years later, the sparkling critic, poet, and short-story
writer, often called, to her horror, "American's only female humorist,"
was back, with her two Bedlington puppies and new husband Alan
Campbell, to supply witty dialogue for Paramount. Dottie and her
handsome bridegroom, who at age twenty-nine was twelve years her
junior, would write in tandem. Their first assignment: a piece of fluff
entitled “One Hour Late.” Dottie considered scriptwriting a bore, a stren-
uous bore—you sat there and sat there and sat there—but she thought
they might be able to toss it off in about a week. Then they would relax
and enjoy themselves. Everything about California that wasn't writing
was fun.
 
While looking for a mansion to call their own, the couple, like so
many transplanted literati before them, pitched their tent at the Garden
of Allah on Sunset Boulevard. This garish stucco bungalow hotel was
home, at the moment, to Dottie's old friends Bob Benchley, Aleck
Woollcott, John O'Hara, and Donald Ogden Stewart.
 
Hollywood was happy to have Dorothy Parker back, and though
Parker might deny it, she fit right in. She was a celebrity herself, and
on her arm she wore a tattoo in the shape of a star. Her life-style was
suitably flamboyant. She had engendered numerous affairs (with Charlie
MacArthur, Ring Lardner, and Scott Fitzgerald, among others), at least
two suicide attempts, and a marriage to a much younger man that had
Hollywood tongues clucking already. Like her fictional character Hazel
Morse, she was socially promiscuous and always good for a few laughs.
At parties, some guests demanded, others dreaded, one of Parker's
famous put-downs, always delivered in a soft, pleasant voice. This was
one person whose bite was frighteningly worse than her bark.

Alexander Woollcott called her "so odd a combination of Little Nell
and Lady Macbeth." When George Bernard Shaw attended a party of
international celebrities on the Riviera, the one person he asked to meet
was Dottie Parker. Surprised by her girlishness, he admitted that he had
"always thought of her as an old maid." Only five feet tall, and no Garbo
or Dietrich, she was nevertheless interesting to look at, with her cute
bangs, wide brown eyes, and huge hats. "A tired Renoir" was how her
friend Sheilah Graham described her. Dottie never wore her eyeglasses
when men were around, proving that her most famous couplet (concern-
ing men, passes, girls, and glasses) was heartfelt.
 
What Hollywood didn't know about Dorothy Parker was that she
had a hidden political agenda. Back in New York she was, with Lillian
Hellman, a chief organizer of the Screen Writers Guild. Even worse, she
had privately declared herself a Communist. All she meant by this,
friends believed, was that she felt sympathy for the poor and wanted to
help them, and was mad at the rich (who wouldn't). Several years ago,
Parker had been arrested, with Robert Benchley and John Dos Passos,
for protesting the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. Now she had taken
up a new cause, the Scottsboro Boys—nine young blacks arrested in
Alabama on charges of raping two white women—and planned to throw
a fund-raising bash for them when she got settled in Hollywood.
 
Dottie had come a long way from her prosperous but lonely child-
hood as Dorothy Rothschild. As a young woman, she began to identify
with the underprivileged. Her slashing wit, said to be the product of
mere cynicism-—Mencken in verse—actually reflected a kind of crushed
idealism. As self-contemptuous as she was critical of others, Parker
found that the left-wing politics of the 1930s gave her life new purpose.
 
Naturally she supported Upton Sinclair's EPIC crusade. Like so
many of Upton's admirers, she was no fan of his fiction. His muckrak-
ing, she once remarked, was marred by his inability to "keep himself out
of his writings, try though he may; or, by this time, try though he
doesn't." Also, he had become a confirmed bellyacher. Many socialists
get to be that way, she observed, "and I say it though my heart and soul
are with the cause of socialism."
 
Still, she loved Sinclair as a symbol, as a cause. "To me," she had
written back in 1927, "Upton Sinclair is one of the American great. I
have no words worthy of being laid before his courage, his passion, his
integrity." As she signed on at Paramount for another tour of duty,
Parker was determined to put some of her own passion into politics,
Hollywood-style.
 

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