With her 1988 biography, Marion Meade helped rekindle interest in Dorothy Parker, the renowned author and sardonic wit of the Algonquin Round Table. Marion Meade passed away on December 29 at her Manhattan home. She was 88.
Ashley Sprague, a grandchild, confirmed her demise. She claimed that Ms. Meade had recently had COVID-19 but that the exact cause was unknown. Ms. Meade’s “Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This?” detailed the vibrant if difficult life of a significant figure on the literary scene of the 1920s and ’30s.
In addition to coining catchphrases like “You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think” and “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses,” Mrs. Parker joined Vanity Fair magazine as its drama critic at the age of 24. She was also a founding member of the round table at the Algonquin Hotel in Midtown Manhattan.
She, author Robert Benchley, critic Alexander Woollcott, and others engaged in the witty commentary. She overindulged in alcohol, battled depression, and got married twice (and divorced once) to playwright Alan Campbell after a failed marriage to Edwin Parker II. She made two suicide attempts.
According to Ms. Meade, Mrs. Parker “panicked and swallowed a bottle of shoe polish” in 1930 after she could not complete a novel she had promised to her editor at Viking, sending her to the hospital. Mrs. Parker provided her epitaph, “Excuse my dust,” before passing away in 1967.
When Ms. Meade decided to focus on a different figure, she had previously published a biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine, who reigned as the queen of England and France in the 12th century. She initially concentrated on the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, but she quickly discovered that a different author was composing a biography of the woman.
She shifted her attention to Mrs. Parker — whom she called “one of the funniest women of the 20th century, whose wit and good sense never fail to entertain me,” in an essay many years later for Contemporary Authors.
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“From time to time readers will say to me, ‘Oh, she had such a sad life,’” she added. But, she said, she disagreed: While alcoholism and depression derailed her at times, she wrote, they “did not prevent her from being wildly successful, the multitalented author of verse, stories, plays, movie scripts, and criticism.”
Reviews of the book were mixed. In The Pittsburgh Press, Roy McHugh called it an “admirably straightforward biography” that “explains more than is possible and excuses nothing.” But in The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani wrote, “Parker’s cynical wit, of course, cannot have made it easy for friends or biographers to penetrate her defensive armor, but instead of attempting to come to terms with her emotional life, Ms. Meade simply settles for catchphrases, attributing her problems to insecurity or self-loathing.”
The book raised Mrs. Parker’s popularity enough, according to Kevin Fitzpatrick, president of the Dorothy Parker Society, that Penguin Classics decided to reissue collections of her short stories and poetry in the 1990s. And he said that Ms. Meade thought the screenplay for the 1994 Alan Rudolph film “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle,” which was written by Mr. Rudolph and Randy Sue Coburn and starred Jennifer Jason Leigh in the title character, was partially based on her life.
“She talked to a lawyer, but she did not sue,” Mr. Fitzpatrick said in a phone interview. “It was a low point for her.”
On January 7, 1934, Marion Lolita Sidhu was born in Pittsburgh. Her father, Indian immigrant Surain Sidhu, was a physicist who oversaw the University of Pittsburgh’s X-ray facility and later participated in top-secret research at the Argonne National Laboratory. Mary (Homoney) Sidhu, her mother, was a housewife.
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When Marion was young, she had the ambition to become a writer. She received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University in 1955. Later that year, when she arrived in Manhattan to enroll in Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, she hurried to the Algonquin, sat on a sofa in the lobby’s cocktail bar, lit a cigarette, ordered a Tom Collins, and took in the scene that Mrs. Parker must have seen frequently.
She spent a year interviewing famous people and fact-checking for the syndicated gossip columnist Earl Wilson after earning her master’s degree in 1956. Ms. Meade worked as a freelancer for magazines like McCall’s, Cosmopolitan, and The Village Voice for the following two decades.
She also joined the New York Radical Feminists, a group that in 1970 occupied the offices of Ladies’ Home Journal for 11 hours in exchange for a promise—fulfilled—to publish a special “women’s liberation” supplement in a subsequent issue. She also worked as an editor for Aviation Week for a long time.
Her debut book, “Bitching,” released in 1973, was based on conversations with women about what it was like to be a woman and how they felt about males. She then published a biography of Victoria Woodhull, a women’s suffrage movement pioneer, in 1976.
Ms. Meade’s “Eleanor of Aquitaine” (1977) was praised by the critic Robert Kirsch of The Los Angeles Times for her “almost uncanny empathy for her subject,” which he said made it appear as if “she can view the world through Eleanor’s eyes.”
The Parker book took seven years to study and write. She then published biographies of Woody Allen in 2000 and the silent film comedian Buster Keaton in 1995. With “Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties,” a joint portrait of Mrs. Parker, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Edna Ferber, she returned to Dorothy Parker in 2004.
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In addition to Ms. Sprague, she is survived by one great-granddaughter, Alison Linkhorn, her daughter, and another granddaughter, Katharine Sprague. Her unions with Milton Viorst, a writer who passed away last month, Forbes Linkhorn, and Charles Meade ended in divorce.
Ms. Meade revisited her most well-known theme a few times. The introduction to a new edition of “The Portable Dorothy Parker” was edited and written by her (2006). In a Kindle book titled “The Last Days of Dorothy Parker” published in 2014, she expanded on a 2006 Bookforum essay about Mrs. Parker.
She related the story of how Mrs. Parker’s urn ended up being hidden in Manhattan in a file cabinet owned by seasoned politician Paul O’Dwyer, who served as the legal counsel for author Lillian Hellman, the literary executor of the Parker estate. (After a winding trip, the urn was buried at the Bronx’s Woodlawn Cemetery in 2020.)
Ms. Meade called Mr. O’Dwyer in 1987 to let him know she was headed to the Westchester cemetery where she believed the urn to be interred. Ms. Meade wanted to pay her respects now that Ms. Hellman was deceased and her biography of Mrs. Parker was finished.
“Oh, she’s not there,” Mr. O’Dwyer told her.
“Of course she is,” Ms. Meade said.
“No, no,” Mr. O’Dwyer said, “I’m looking right at her.”
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