Saturday History Lesson: Dorothy Parker’s Ashes

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Dorothy Parker died, rather suddenly, of a heart attack in June of 1967. She was seventy-three but had not seemed particularly sick to her friends, who still found her an avid enthusiast of whisky and cigarettes.A chambermaid found her in her room at the Volney hotel on East 74th Street. Only her beloved poodle, Troy, was with her. (History does not record what became of the poodle, beyond that a friend came to collect it.) This week NPR reported on the eventual fate of Parker’s ashes — the short version is that the remains are interred at the NAACP offices in Baltimore. But they left out some of the better parts of the story.

When Parker’s will was read, her friends and family were shocked to learnt that she had left the entire pie to Martin Luther King. On his death the ownership passed to the NAACP. But she also made the slightly unusual provision of making Lillian Hellman, a longtime friend, her literary executrix, though Hellman would not hold the copyright. That meant Hellman was the person anyone wanting to use or publish Parker’s writings had to go to for permission. But the proceeds from any transaction Hellman approved would go to Parker’s heirs: King and the NAACP.

King, for his part, was rather confused. He’d never met Parker. And, as a woman who’d long lived beyond her meagre earnings, the ultimate bequest was small. But he issued the proper laudatory press releases. In another year, as we know, he’d be dead.

Hellman, meanwhile, was furious. She didn’t much like King, and liked the NAACP even less. She claimed to friends she’d paid Parker’s bill at the Volney, and otherwise financially supported her friend, all in the anticipation of the eventual revenue Parker’s copyright would bring. Literary executorship is a bit of an art, as you may have gathered from the hullabaloo over the Joyce estate, let alone the Plath. But Hellman was practiced, even good at it. Hellman was what used to be called a “difficult woman,” often even selfish and volatile, but that seemed to make her a better businesswoman than average, and she thought she could make more money off of Parker’s work than anyone else. Hellman already managed her old lover Dashiell Hammett’s literary estate with shrewedness, warding off would-be biographers.

But even without the money Hellman became a fairly staunch defender of Parker’s copyright. It seems she warmed quickly to the role, finding the control reward enough, one supposes. Parker’s biographer, Marion Meade, reports that Hellman turned down pretty much every request to license Parker’s work until a court forced her to give up the executorship in 1972. “It’s a bad story,” Hellman would tell Nora Ephron in a later interview for the New York Times Book Review. “When King died, it turned out I was no longer executor — everything passed to the NAACP, of course. I was so stupid that I assumed I would be executor of the estate until I died. Now the NAACP has sold the rights to all her work for a Broadway musical. Poor Dottie.”

Of course, Hellman herself had by then already let “poor Dottie”‘s ashes languish in a cemetery storage space for five years. Hellman — perhaps understandably, perhaps not — refused to foot the bill for Parker’s final resting place. The cemetery, frustrated, agreed to Hellman’s request that Parker’s remains be turned over to Hellman’s lawyer. It would be another fifteen years before they finally found their way to Baltimore, in the “Dorothy Parker Memorial Garden” installed in the office park the NAACP occupies. One imagines her acerbic self recoiling at the sentimentalty of that. But at least the spot bears the epitaph she’d once suggested for herself: “Excuse my dust.”


Michelle Dean has written for a variety of places, including The Awl, ELLE and Bitch. More from this author →