Today would’ve been Dorothy Parker’s 125th birthday, and though the internet did not exist during her lifetime, listicle scribes sustain her legacy every August 22nd by collecting the acid-sharp literary barbs for which Parker was so famous. Two years ago: It’s Dorothy Parker’s birthday so here are her best put downs. Three years ago: Wickedly clever quotes from Dorothy Parker to celebrate her birthday. Etc. etc.
Parker was just as well known in her own time as in ours for being a sassy put-down machine, but she felt quite ambivalent about her reputation. The Paris Review wrote in 1956, “Miss Parker has only contempt for the eager reception accorded her wit. ‘Why it got so bad,’ she has said bitterly, ‘that they began to laugh before I opened my mouth.’” But, as Sadie Stein pointed out in The Paris Review Daily, writing about that interview nearly 60 years later, “She refuses to call herself a serious writer, saying, ‘There’s a hell of a distance between wisecracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words.’”
For all her protests, Parker’s wit was truly wisecracking, and her wisecracks also held truth. (If you want a portrait of Parker that belies her discomfort with being called a serious writer, check out Michelle Dean’s book, Sharp.) She was a complicated and confounding woman, impossible to boil down to a one-line description. Though—seriously—her one-liners were really good. After all, as she said:
“The first thing I do every morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.”
There’s truth and verbal calisthenics all in one.