Dorothy Parker

Pictures in Smoked Glass

Oh gallant was the first love, and glittering and fine;
The second love was water, in a clear white cup;
The third love was his, and the fourth was mine;
And after that, I always get them all mixed up.

Parker, on being asked how big an apartment she wanted, said: "All I need is room enough to lay a hat and a few friends"; on hearing an acquaintance had hurt herself in London, assumed the poor girl must have injured her-self sliding down a barrister. She once sent a first-night telegram to an actress which read "A hand on your opening and may your parts grow bigger".

In her heyday, women weren't supposed to be witty about sex or cynical about romance. In the 1920s, privileged women - privileged in that they were urban creatures living in highly-developed societies (Paris and New York spring to mind) - sought to expand their roles beyond those of wife or mother. These gals bobbed their hair and sniffed cocaine, danced the Charleston, necked and got "caught"(their quaint euphemism for unwanted pregnancy), and, of course, society considered it all dangerously permissive. Dorothy Parker's verse gave glimpses of the licence they took and weighed its emotional cost. What in the 1920s appeared unique (or at least the province of the very few), only began to become the country of the many in the late 1960s. At the time they first appeared, Parker's verses were thought strong stuff, going recklessly far in asserting a woman's equal rights in a sexual relationship, including the right to sexual infidelity. These women were "fast" (for "fast" read "promiscuous") and naturally that was considered a very bad thing indeed. Loose women were supposed to suffer but Dorothy insisted on poking fun at the very notion.

To make the leap from woman-as-victim to woman-as-survivor takes more than a broken heart or two - it takes attitude, and Dorothy had that aplenty. She was forever unable to say that a human situation was either tragic or comic - for her it was an inextricable tanizle of disaster and joy, with the likelihood or experiencing both well-nigh simultaneously. In that sense she speaks to us almost the same way as Oscar Wilde does, aware and accepting of the inherent paradox at the heart of the human condition, particularly where the business of love is concerned.

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