When Dorothy Parker Got Fired from Vanity Fair
By Jonathan Goldman
Dorothy Parker’s reputation as one of the premier wits of the 20th century rests firmly on the brilliance of her writing, but the image of her as a plucky, fast-talking, independent woman of her times owes more than a little to her seat at the legendary Algonquin Round Table. Jonathan Goldman explores the beginnings of the famed New York group and how Parker’s determination to speak her mind — even when it angered men in positions of power — gave her pride of place within it.
I’m sure many have never heard of her, but she was a mover and shaker of the early 20th century. Her sharp wit cost her the desk job she held for two years. However, she found success instead as a freelance critic, author of brilliant and acclaimed verse, short fiction, essays, plays, and film scripts. The incident changed her career and stature, and its response helped forge the legend of what would eventually be called the Algonquin Round Table.
Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley with their employers in 1919: Vanity Fair editor Frank Crowninshield, Vogue editor Edna Chase, and publisher Condé Nast
Dorothy Parker lost her job as Vanity Fair theater critic on January 11, 1920, in the tea-room of the Plaza Hotel. Parker must have known there was trouble brewing as she sat down across from editor Frank Crowninshield. She had been in hot water for months. Her latest column had been a particularly biting one. Reviewing The Son-Daughter, Parker contended that David Belasco’s new play followed his old one, East Is West, “almost exactly”, which Belasco made known he considered grounds for a libel suit. A couple paragraphs later, writing about the new Somerset Maugham play Caesar’s Wife, Parker zinged actress Billie Burke for performing “as if she were giving an impersonation of Eva Tanguay”. The comparison to a risqué vaudevillian enraged Florenz Ziegfeld, one of Vanity Fair’s most reliable advertisers, who happened to be Burke’s producer — and husband. Ziegfeld and Belasco both took their umbrage to publisher Condé Nast. It is in dispute which complaint held more weight, but either way, Nast passed the buck to Crowninshield, who met Parker at the Plaza and fired her from the job she had held for two years. Parker promptly ordered the most expensive dessert on the menu and left.
In 1914 Vanity Fair accepted her poem “Any Porch”, which satirized chitchat of society women in meticulously metered and rhymed stanzas such as, her first paid piece.:
I don’t want the vote for myself,
But women with property, dear ––
I think the poor girl’s on the shelf,
She’s talking about her “career.”
The piece earned her $12, comparable to about $300 today. Parker used the poem as justification to force her way into Vanity Fair’s offices at 19–25 West 44th Street and ask for a steady job. The editor, Crowninshield, was sufficiently impressed. In 1915 he hired her for Vogue, another magazine owned by Nast, to do editorial work and write captions for illustrations of women’s garments.
The film, Mrs. Parker, was an introduction to learning more about her. As an “old movie buff” her likeness or mention would show up in other films of her day. To learn more of this extraordinary woman, click the link. The more I learned of her unknown life, the more fascinated I became, like being born a “Rothschild,” but hardly a “poor little rich girl.” She was a woman after my own heart, except I would never be unkind. Honest yes, but without ill-will. She held court with the great writers of the day, including Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, supporters of her writings.