For my 14th birthday she had presented me with a book on scandals of the Amish, which I cherished; for my 15th, an oversized tub of Brussels sprouts wrapped in lingerie, which I hid under my bed. When I turned 16 — that day when one is supposed to be festooned with pink ribbons and sugary icing flowers — Arden arrived at my door with a thick, unwrapped paperback: "The Viking Portable Dorothy Parker." The cover intrigued me: a black-and-white photo of a pretty, short-haired woman with dark eyes, looking broodingly, longingly, off into the distance. "Dorothy's our people," Arden said with assurance. I nodded. We weren't really the sweet 16 type.
I quickly learned everything I could about Parker: She was born in 1893 and had a fairly miserable childhood, losing her mother when she was very young and then getting shipped off to boarding school. She wrote smart, dark and funny — and was all of those things in real life too. She attempted suicide several times. She was married three times (twice to the same man). In the 1920s, she and a group of writer friends formed the Algonquin Round Table, that most talked-about of literary circles. In later years, she was put on the Hollywood blacklist and descended into alcoholism. It wasn't a very happy-sounding life, but I was instantly obsessed. I loved the book before I'd read a single sentence.
The word "portable" in the title was fitting. Fourteen years have passed since I received it, and the paperback has traveled with me everywhere I've been. Books are like family members, like friends. They go with you, and more than a couch or a quilt, they represent home, the familiar. At least they do for me. Others in my collection are more pristine, more beautiful. There are several dozen hardcovers on my bookshelves now and even a few antiques. But this book bears the marks of love: a cover that's fraying slightly at the edges, pages with a sun-stained border, underlinings in pink and blue and purple ink, some straight as an arrow, which I'm sure were drawn in bed. Others wobbly and disjointed, hastily written on the subway. There are the margin markings in my own sort of shorthand: exclamation points meaning, roughly translated: HA. A single check mark meaning I wish I'd written that.
Looking it over, I can tell you at exactly which stage of my life each of these markings was made. I didn't read the book straight through, beginning to end. Instead, I discovered it part by part, according, I think, to what I could handle at any given point. (Not unlike those designer Swedish high chairs that everyone in Brooklyn seems to have now: Your baby can sit in this booster seat before he's even able to hold his head up and then later he can convert it into a futon to use in his college dorm!)
First, of course, came the parts about love and angst, not necessarily in that order. In high school, I adored Parker's witty little poems, her tart and cynical musings on romance, which are interspersed with essays and stories throughout the book. (Perhaps speaking to my adolescent attention span, I hardly noticed most of these longer pieces then.) My friends and I developed a Tao of Parker when it came to boys. (Anyone who knows something about Parker's own love life knows what a smashing idea this was, but anyway.) Examples: "Never say to him what you want him to say to you." And the equally instructive but far less useful:
By the time you swear you're his,
Shivering and sighing,
And he swears his passion is
Infinite, undying —
Lady, make a note of this:
One of you is lying.
I memorized and recited the poems as I rode the train home from school or loaded the dishwasher after dinner. I took three years of high school French and don't remember a word. But I can still do most of "Enough Rope" from memory.
One night while my parents were out, I wrote a few of my favorite Parker poems right on my bedroom wall. I copied "Observation" above the headboard of my canopy bed:
If I don't drive around the park,
I'm pretty sure to make my mark.
If I'm in bed each night by ten,
I may get back my looks again.
If I abstain from fun and such,
I'll probably amount to much;
But I shall stay the way I am,