Sunday, August 22, 2010

Dorothy Parker inscription

Today is writer Dorothy Parker's birthday. She was born in 1893 and died in 1967. One of my best finds on the bookscouting trail was a beat-up copy of After Such Pleasures, a 1933 collection of short stories. The torn and soiled book, which I later found a jacket for, belied the beauty inside--an inscription of gratitude from Dorothy Parker to someone at Presbyterian Hospital (New York?) for being "so darned nice."

I wrote on the Archaeolibris blog about how I found the book. Later, when I found the jacket, I added this post to the blog. Below is a little information repeated from those posts.

Signed copies of Parker's books are scarce, even more so for this title. For the cheap price of a junk book, this bargain table copy became my copy and I brought it home to research the mystery surrounding the inscription.

Parker inscribed the book:
"To Helen DeWitt-- Who was so darn nice to me-- Gratefully, Dorothy Parker Presbyterian Hospital January 16- (I think)"
I wish she had added the year to the date. It could be a contemporary inscription with regard to the book's second printing in 1933. Or it could be from Parker's last years when she was frequently in and out of hospitals--the 1960s. The ink would indicate a fountain pen, which would have been more consistent with the 1930s, though.

What of Helen DeWitt? She took good care of Parker at Presbyterian Hospital (New York, I assume), so likely she was a nurse or maybe just someone who crossed paths with Parker in a meaningful way that day. I also wonder if DeWitt already had the book and asked Parker to sign it, or did Parker send it to her as a thank you? And why that book?

Clues for nailing down the background on this inscription are thin, to say the least. I have a copy of her biography, You Might As Well Live, by John Keats (Simon & Schuster, 1970) and have researched it for clues. All I could find out about hospital stays is what I reported above--that she was a frequent patient in her final years in the 1960s. She lived from 1893-1967. A sardonic sense of humor and razor-sharp wit most often characterize her writing and personality, but happiness eluded her through several marriages, alcoholism, and suicide attempts. Her poem from Enough Rope (1926) is perhaps her best remembered:
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
This poem was recited by Angelina Jolie in a scene from the film Girl Interrupted

That's a sad note to end this on after a birthday prompted the post, so I'll add Happy Birthday, Dorothy! (and wonder how many happy ones she really had).

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