Dead Stop
11:12 pm
Wed June 6, 2012

How Dorothy Parker Came To Rest In Baltimore

Originally published on Thu June 7, 2012 7:17 pm

The writer, poet and critic Dorothy Parker was technically not a native New Yorker; she was born at her family's beach cottage in New Jersey. But she always considered New York City to be her beloved hometown. It's where she grew up, where she struggled during her early days as a writer, where she became famous, and where she died of a heart attack at the age of 73.

Today, her ashes can be found not in New York, but in Baltimore at the headquarters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which is located on the outskirts of the city and surrounded by a corporate office park.

The story of how this New Yorker ended up in Baltimore starts with Parker's unusual last will and testament, explains James Murray, the librarian and archivist at the NAACP.

"In her will, she stated that Martin Luther King should be the one to have her estate," he says.

The civil rights leader was reportedly surprised by the bequest; he and Parker, who died in 1967, had never met. Less than a year later, King was assassinated, so another part of Parker's will kicked in: "If something should happen to Martin Luther King," Murray says, "she would like for her estate to be turned over to the NAACP."

Even today, the NAACP controls Parker's literary rights. In her writings and her life, Parker sympathized with the oppressed. Her 1927 New Yorker story "Arrangement in Black and White" deftly mocks people who claim not to be racist but act incredibly condescending and prejudiced.

Parker isn't known to have had connections with Baltimore during her lifetime. She once made a spontaneous visit and ended up meeting the writer H.L. Mencken. When Mencken began telling derogatory jokes about blacks, Parker abruptly left and went back to New York. "Dorothy didn't feel comfortable," Murray says.

It's impossible to know if she'd be comfortable with her current Baltimore stay.

Next to the NAACP headquarters building, near their parking lot, there's a group of pine trees. A brick path under the trees ends with a circle of brick meant to evoke the Round Table at the Algonquin Hotel, where Parker used to lunch with her witty friends. There's a plaque with an inscription that includes an epitaph she once suggested: "Excuse my dust."

Murray says the memorial gets dozens of visitors each year. "Most of them are from out of town, not local," he says. "We get people from Hollywood, lots from New York and from overseas."

Baltimore may not be New York, but it's a step up from Dorothy Parker's previous resting place: a filing cabinet in the office of New York attorney Paul O'Dwyer, where Parker's remains sat for around 15 years.

"Dorothy Parker left instructions that she be cremated, but she left no instructions as to what was to be done with her ashes," O'Dwyer told NPR in 1988. His office represented the writer Lillian Hellman, a friend of Parker's who was the executrix for her estate.

Hellman never claimed Parker's ashes from the mortuary, and O'Dwyer said it was billing her for storage: "I told my associate at the time, 'Take the ashes from the mortuary' — they threatened to throw them out. And I said, 'Take them, and we will dispose of them later on.' "

In 1987, O'Dwyer was chatting on the phone with Marion Meade, who was writing a biography of Parker. Meade mentioned that she wanted to visit Parker's grave and was startled when O'Dwyer said, "I'm looking right at her."

Soon after, O'Dwyer held a meeting. Reporters and others gathered at the Algonquin Hotel. Someone suggested keeping her remains at the bar, but O'Dwyer said the hotel didn't like the idea. He and the NAACP wanted the ashes in Baltimore.

"A murmur of dissent waved through the Oak Room," according to a 1988 account of the meeting in Newsday. "It was unthinkable that the ashes of such a quintessential New Yorker should leave home."

Even today, some New Yorkers would like to see Parker come back.

Kevin Fitzpatrick, the founder of the Dorothy Parker Society of New York, says the memorial garden was a nice gesture by the NAACP.

"You know, it is what it is. It's a nice little thing that they have outside their headquarters," he says. "I'm certainly not going to start, you know, a war with Baltimore to try and get her moved back."

But if the organization ever moves its headquarters, Fitzpatrick says, he hopes Parker will go to her family's burial plot at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

"I think she belongs in New York City," he says. "But, you know, until that time, I think she is just going to chill out and be in Baltimore."

That's where visitors can pay their respects and imagine the wisecracks Parker would have made about Baltimore versus the filing cabinet.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And it's time for a trip to the cemetery, with our summer series "Dead Stop."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: All summer, we're traveling to unusual and noteworthy gravesites around the country. This morning, we consider the resting place of Dorothy Parker, the writer of darkly humorous poems and short stories. Here's a sample of her style - Parker reading her poem "Resume," about suicide.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DOROTHY PARKER: Razors pain you, rivers are damp, acids stain you, and drugs cause cramp, guns aren't lawful, nooses give, gas smells awful. You might as well live.

MONTAGNE: Dorothy Parker ended up dying of a heart attack 45 years ago today, in her beloved New York City. That's where she spent her childhood and found success as a writer, using her biting wit to break into that era's literary boy's club.

Still, Dorothy Parker's remains didn't stay in New York. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce explained how the remains of this white woman ended up on the grounds of the NAACP.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: So I'm here on the outskirts of Baltimore, in a parking lot of a big, red-brick building that's surrounded by trees and grass. And nearby, there's - some sort of corporate office parks. This is the headquarters of the NAACP and believe it or not, this is the final resting place of Dorothy Parker.

JAMES MURRAY: What happened is, Dorothy died in 1967.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: James Murray is the archivist here, at the NAACP.

MURRAY: In her will, she stated that Martin Luther King should be the one to have her estate.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Dorothy Parker never met Martin Luther King Jr., who was surprised by her bequest. Less than a year later, he was assassinated, and Murray says another part of Parker's will kicked in.

MURRAY: If something should ever happen to Martin Luther King, she would like for her estate to be turned over to the NAACP.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Even today, the NAACP controls Parker's literary rights. In her writings and her life, Parker sympathized with the oppressed. Those sympathies are actually what ruined one, brief visit she made to Baltimore. Murray says she met the writer H.L. Mencken.

MURRAY: And she was quite disappointed because Mencken seemed to talk about blacks. And Dorothy didn't feel comfortable, so she went right back up to New York.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So he was talking about them in a way that was like, derogatory?

MURRAY: Derog - and Dorothy didn't feel comfortable.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: It's impossible to know if she'd be comfortable with her current Baltimore stay. Murray takes me over to a group of pine trees, next to the parking lot.

MURRAY: We're going over to where Dorothy Parker - remains are located.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Under the trees, there's a circle of brick with a round plaque in the middle. And it says, "Here lie the ashes of Dorothy Parker, humorist, writer, critic, defender of human and civil rights." For her epitaph, she suggested: Excuse my dust.

Do you get a lot of visitors here?

MURRAY: Yes, we do - and most of them from out of town, not local. We get people from Hollywood, lots from New York, and from overseas.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Baltimore may not be New York, but it is a step up from Dorothy Parker's previous resting place.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAUL O'DWYER: Dorothy Parker left instructions that she be cremated, but she left no instructions as to what was to be done with her ashes.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That is New York attorney Paul O'Dwyer, speaking to NPR in 1988. His office represented the writer Lillian Hellman, a friend of Parker's who was the executrix for her estate. Hellman never claimed the ashes from the mortuary, and O'Dwyer said it was billing her for storage.

O'DWYER: They threatened to throw them out. And I said, we'll dispose of them later on.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Later on meant about 15 years later. That's how long Parker's ashes sat in a filing cabinet in his office. One day, O'Dwyer was chatting on the phone with someone writing a biography of Parker, who was shocked when he said, "I'm looking right at her." Soon after, O'Dwyer held a meeting. Reporters and others gathered at the Algonquin Hotel, where Parker used to lunch with her witty friends. Someone said, why not just keep her remains right here at the bar? But O'Dwyer said the hotel didn't like the idea.

He and the head of the NAACP wanted the ashes in Baltimore. But back then - and even now - some of her fellow New Yorkers saw things differently. Kevin Fitzpatrick is head of the Dorothy Parker Society of New York.

KEVIN FITZPATRICK: You know, it is what it is. It's a nice little thing that they have outside their headquarters. I'm certainly not going to start a - you know, a war with Baltimore, to try and get her moved back.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says the memorial garden was a nice gesture by the NAACP. But if the organization ever moves its headquarters, he hopes Parker can come home to her family's burial plot, in the Bronx.

FITZPATRICK: I think she belongs in New York City. But, you know, until that time, I think she's just going to chill out and...

(LAUGHTER)

FITZPATRICK: ...I mean, be in Baltimore.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Where visitors can pay their respects, and imagine the wisecracks she would have made about Baltimore versus the filing cabinet. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And go to our interactive map on NPR.org, to nominate a gravesite you'd like us to visit this summer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.