RHYME and REASON

For singer-songwriter Niki Lee of Catonsville, Dorothy Parker's poems have been a musical inspiration

January 06, 2001|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Almost everyone knows a snippet of Dorothy Parker's tart poetry.

Her advice to the lovelorn, for example:

"Candy is dandy

But liquor is quicker."

Or, perhaps ...

"Men seldom make passes

At girls who wear glasses."

FOR THE RECORD - In Saturday's Today section, two lines of poetry were incorrectly attributed to Dorothy Parker. The words, "Candy is dandy / But liquor is quicker" were written by Ogden Nash.
The Sun regrets the errors.

Lots of people love the short stories by the brilliant, brittle and erratic Mrs. Parker of the Algonquin Round Table, stories like "The Big Blonde," "A Telephone Call," "Diary of a New York Lady" and a couple dozen more.

Lots of her admirers can recite great swaths of her longer poems, such as "Resume."

"Razors pain you;

Rivers are damp;

Acids stain you;

And drugs cause cramp.

Guns aren't lawful;

Nooses give;

Gas smells awful;

You might as well live."

But few have put the bittersweet poetry to music as Niki Lee has. The Catonsville singer-songwriter has set a baker's dozen of Parker's poems to music for her one-woman show portraying Parker. The only wonder is why she is the first.

Parker knew what she was talking about, says Lee. She was a founding member of the Round Table at New York's Algonquin Hotel, that nonpareil collection of acerbic wits who drank their lunch throughout the Roaring - and pouring - '20s. She often out-witted her cronies, mostly theatrical people such as Robert Benchley, Robert Sherwood, Marc Connolly, Charles MacArthur and George S. Kaufman, and possibly out-drank them, too.

Her wickedly barbed literary and theater criticism still delights readers generations after she detonated them. Of the early acting of the now sacrosanct Katharine Hepburn she wrote: "Miss Hepburn runs the gamut of emotions from A to B." The beloved "House at Pooh Corner" by A. A. Milne evoked this Constant Reader quip from her in the New Yorker : "Tonstant weader fwowed up."

Lee recites "Resume" at a table in the City Cafe in Baltimore, where she's been talking about her adventures in the life of Dorothy Parker.

"She tried to kill herself four times," Lee says. "I know she tried to slit her wrists. She OD'd on sleeping powders. She drank a bottle of shoe polish. And there's one that I don't know."

Lee uses "Resume" in a short song cycle.

"I do one song, actually a combination of one poem called `Thought' and one called `Penelope.' And after I do that, I kind of beat on the guitar in a percussive way and I recite `Resume.' And then I sing one called `Coda.'

"So it's three poems I put in like a little medley. So the first one is about love, the second one is `Resume,' obviously about death, and the third one is also about suicide, not really wanting to live, `Coda.' "

"Coda" is an astringent ballad that begins:

"There's little in taking or giving;

There's little in water or wine,

This living, this living, this living

Was never a project of mine ..."

Lee is tall and lithe and her dark hair is frosted blond at the tips. She's 41 and has been singing professionally about 15 years. She wears two stones in her right ear, blue and white, and a gold hoop in her left. Dorothy Parker was small and dark and fragile, a quintessential New Yorker, both tough and vulnerable, and quite beautiful in her youth, with limpid brown eyes.

"She dressed impeccably," Lee says. "She wore gloves and hats, and people couldn't wait to see what she wore in the springtime.

"Then she got not very pretty. She turned very wrinkly and baggy, in her 50s and 60s. She was looking rough, because she drank so much and she never stopped drinking, either. I think I read somewhere she drank martinis like they were glasses of iced tea.

"She went through some weird phases, like this real leftist phase when she was in Hollywood, when she started wearing little babushkas and peasant skirts and stuff."

Lee began work on her Parker project in May. She had had a real Dorothy Parker Memorial Day.

"I was having a really rotten weekend," she recalls. "I went to the video store, and I normally don't pick out sad movies. I like happy endings.

"I thought I really just want a movie that portrays a woman's life that might be worse than mine at this very moment ... because that's going to make me feel better. I'm going to know my life is not that bad."

She picked "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle" because of the picture on the cover.

"I had no idea who she was," she says. "I got it and I watched and I was mesmerized. I can't really tell you if it was a good movie or a bad movie. I was just mesmerized by the idea of this woman.

"She was brilliant and funny and accomplished and [yet] her personal life was a complete, total wreck. I just found that interesting and very kind of, ah, familiar.

"And I watched it again. I said, `OK, now I've got to find out who this woman is.' "

Wheels set in motion

The next morning she punched up Dorothy Parker on her computer.

"I started looking at some of the funny things she said. And then some of the poetry. And when I sat reading the poetry, this one called `Ultimatum,' I think might have been the first one I saw, I thought this looks like a song to me."

"Ultimatum" begins:

"I'm wearied of wearying love, my friend,

Of worry and strain and doubt;

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