Revisiting a life of wit, tragedy


March 16, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

On a blustery, late winter Sunday afternoon, Niki Lee, the Catonsville singer-songwriter who since has added actress to her resume, is standing in the sun-splashed rear parlor of the Bolton Hill home of Patrick and Barbara Francis, setting up a reading stand and two guitars.

She is the author of Here Lies Dorothy Parker, a one-woman show that tells Parker's tragic life story through her poetry and sardonic bon mots, which Lee has bridged together with original songs.

Parker's tempestuous and creative life was defined by failed marriages, suicide attempts and a reliance on drugs and alcohol. She wrapped herself in the self-defense of humor - often laced with sadness, loss and remorse.

Through an odd set of circumstances, her ashes are interred in a grave outside the NAACP's national headquarters in Baltimore, and that organization still holds the rights to her work.

The daughter of a Jewish father and Scottish mother, Parker grew up in New York City, and attended convent schools. As a young woman, she worked for Vogue, and by 1917, was drama critic for Vanity Fair. In the 1920s, she joined the staff of the New Yorker, where she was drama and literary critic.

Her first book of poetry, Enough Rope, was published in 1926, followed by Sunset Gun and Death and Taxes. A prolific writer of short stories, Parker wrote The Big Blonde, which earned an O'Henry Award for best short story of 1929. She also became a very successful Hollywood screenwriter.

(Her screenplay for Smash-Up contains the following extremely revealing passage: "Ya know, Steve, I read somewhere, the Chinese or Egyptians, or someone said these are the three worst things ... to lie in bed and sleep not, to wait for one who comes not, and to try and please, and please not ... they all seem to fit me, don't they?")

But Parker often did please.

As a member of the fabled Round Table at the Algonquin Hotel, she gained lasting fame for her pointedly acid, wry observations. Over lunch and many drinks, her comic salvos sailed back and forth across the table with some of the greatest wits of the age, including Robert Benchley, George S. Kaufman, Franklin P. Adams, Alexander Woolcott and Charles MacArthur.

With her large brown eyes and hair cut into bangs, Woolcott described her as "a blend of Little Nell and Lady Macbeth."

Here are a few examples:

Parker once wrote, "Ducking for apples - change one letter, and it's the story of my life." About her penchant for alcohol: "I'd like to have a martini, two at most, three and I'm under the table, four and I'm under my host."

And about her divorce from Edwin Parker, and subsequent suicide attempt, Parker said: "That's what I get for putting all my eggs in one bastard."

Lee, 42, a tall, blond woman dressed simply in an open-neck shirt and jeans, doesn't try to look like the woman she is about to portray. Nonetheless, her audience accepts her willingly as Dorothy Parker.

She brings a framed picture of Parker into the room, which she places on a nearby table. Taken perhaps in the 1920s, the picture is dark and moody, like its subject.

"Here lies Dorothy Parker," Lee intones, and the show is underway. "Dorothy Parker has inhabited my soul. Good thing I'm in possession of her diaries."

The diary she speaks of is purely fictional. It is the device that Lee uses to tell Parker's story, and it's an effective technique.

For Lee, the inspiration for the one-woman show had its genesis in what she remembered as a "rotten weekend," a little more than 18 months ago.

Trying to cheer herself up, she checked out Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle from the video store; Lee had a faint memory of Parker's work from her high school English classes in Potomac.

"I knew she was very funny and smart, and my mental image was that of Eve Arden-dark hair and pointed glasses-and sophisticated," Lee said.

Lee became so fascinated with Parker that she locked herself in her bedroom and began reading everything she could about the writer's life. Songs came to her in a floodtide, and she quickly wrote them down. She worked nearly nonstop.

"I didn't think I had it in me to write a play, I had written songs for years, but this was new," she said. "Parker was a very funny soul, and what she wrote was a cover-up. She was fragile, vulnerable, a manic depressive and a bohemian."

Lee said that she started the project because it appealed to her; she didn't necessarily expect that it would interest anyone else. "There is something about her writings and personality that makes me feel very comfortable," she said. "It seems all very natural to me. She has become my imaginary friend."

It's difficult to imagine a wittier companion, even if much of Parker's humor was directed against herself. When she turned 70, Parker snapped, "If I had any decency, I'd be dead. Most of my friends are."

Parker died a few years later, in 1967, at the Volney Hotel in New York City, leaving her estate and the rights to her work to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Her will stipulated that after his death, the estate would pass to the NAACP.

Parker didn't make any arrangement for the disposal of her ashes, but she did suggest her own epitaph, "Excuse my dust." She even proposed an appropriate inscription for her tombstone:

"This is on me."

Lee will perform Here Lies Dorothy Parker, at 8 p.m. April 5 at the Creative Alliance, 413 S. Conkling St.. Tickets cost $8-$12 and can be bought by calling 410-276-1651.

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