The two most beautiful words in the English language are 'check enclosed'.
August 28, 2012 7:46 PM   Subscribe

Dorothy Parker left her entire estate to Martin Luther King, Jr. Her close friend Lillian Hellman, who was the executor of Parker's estate, bitterly contested this decision but lost.

To this day, the NAACP receives royalties from sales of her books and poetry.
posted by bendy (36 comments total) 61 users marked this as a favorite

 
I first heard about this from this NPR article: How Dorothy Parker Came To Rest In Baltimore. I hadn't heard about it before. I think it was an outstanding move on her part, and love that the NAACP caretakes her final resting place.
posted by hippybear at 7:56 PM on August 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


You came up aces, Dorothy.
posted by bearwife at 8:05 PM on August 28, 2012 [14 favorites]


I have to say that I was blown away by this. I don't know how to put it into words, but it's like two heroes of mine lived at the same time and though I never thought of either of them in the context of the other, this makes me admire them both more.
posted by bendy at 8:09 PM on August 28, 2012 [10 favorites]


Fuck yeah, Dorothy Parker. I always loved this about her. So bitter and sad, but in the end, she did the goddamn most kind and altruistic thing anyone could have done in that time and place. I bet writing that will was the happiest she ever felt.
posted by padraigin at 8:13 PM on August 28, 2012 [17 favorites]


What a great story. And she'd never even met him! She had to have gotten a HUGE kick out of that.
posted by Curious Artificer at 8:23 PM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


That is an interesting piece of information. I wouldn't have imagined this.
posted by HuronBob at 8:23 PM on August 28, 2012


It is extra cool to do this in your will. You aren't even around to brag or get tax write offs.
posted by Ad hominem at 8:35 PM on August 28, 2012 [10 favorites]


Wow, nice post. This was a fabulous tale for me, up until I was forced to confront the fact that Lillian Hellman, one of my life-long heroes, was less than perfect. Kind of like a sot was with MLK jr., actually.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 8:38 PM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Did Prince know that when he wrote this?
posted by jonp72 at 8:49 PM on August 28, 2012


Amazing story. What a wonderful thing to have done.

I'd think Parker would have gotten a kick out of her ashes being stuck in a file cabinet for 15+ years!

Stories just coalesced around her:
...Parker began to become politically aware and active. What would become a lifelong commitment to activism began in 1927 with the pending executions of Sacco and Vanzetti. Parker travelled [sic] to Boston to protest the proceedings. ...Parker eventually pleaded guilty to a charge of "loitering and sauntering", paying a $5 fine.


I'd love to know why Hellman felt she was 'owed' Parker's inheritance. Her Wiki entry mentions that she was executor, but goes into no detail as to the dispute. Interesting that she was one time member of the Communist party and continued to support those views, yet had this sense of entitlement. Parker struck me as witty, occasionally sardonic, but kind. Hellman seemed to have a large streak of nasty witch.


Not sure if this really is one of Parker's so-called Lewd Poems, but here it is:

Advice for Daughters

Don’t let drunk men come on to you,

But dab it with seltzer in case that they do.

posted by BlueHorse at 8:54 PM on August 28, 2012 [19 favorites]


Forgot to note--there is stamp commemorating Dorthy Parker
posted by BlueHorse at 8:56 PM on August 28, 2012


"I'd love to know why Hellman felt she was 'owed' Parker's inheritance. Her Wiki entry mentions that she was executor, but goes into no detail as to the dispute."

She seemed to be under the understanding that it was promised to her. It may be that Parker never told Hellman that she changed her mind or whatever.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:30 PM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Good for the NAACP doing the right thing with Parker's ashes. And here's a link to her story Arrangement in Black and White.
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:13 PM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


I have long been an admirer of DP, but only learned recently on the interwebs that she endowed the MLK folks. The Hellman aspect of this is sending me into "Whuck?" territory.
posted by trip and a half at 10:16 PM on August 28, 2012


Blasdelb: I just find it weird that a normal person wouldn't say, "Eh, changed her mind. Sucks to be me."-- and move on. Especially given Parker's beliefs and actions in supporting MLK's cause. I could understand Hellman's POV if she felt that King had somehow coerced Parker, or if Parker had lost her marbles and left her dough to a school for clowns, but a wonderfully generous, perfectly reasonable bequest should be honored by a friend, I would think.

Joe: thanks for the link. I was just looking through my shelves trying to find the anthology for that.
posted by BlueHorse at 10:20 PM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Joe in Australia: Am I misunderstanding that story? The character in it seems rather racist. Or was that relatively non-racist in that day and time?
posted by bendy at 10:23 PM on August 28, 2012


Here's another fascinating story about Parker and Hellman. Apparently Hellman had also been granted executorship of Daishell Hammett's estate and was frustrated because she thought that both Hammett and Parker owed her something.
posted by bendy at 10:36 PM on August 28, 2012 [7 favorites]


Adore the turn of phrase by the author:
"But I shall stay the way I am," she wrote in 1925. "Because I do not give a damn." In consequence, partly, of her non-damn donation policy, her end wasn't as sweet as it might have been.
posted by maryr at 11:14 PM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


*goes to Google mousseline de soie and Valenciennes lace

Love what mischief she got up to writing copy for Vogue! What a naughty ex-convent school girl she was.

There was a little girl who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good she was very very good, and when she was bad she wore this divine nightdress of rose-colored mousseline de soie, trimmed with frothy Valenciennes lace.

This information about her will is a lovely surprise, to me anyway, and delightful post. Thanks for the good feelings bendy. It's a good, juicy thread too.

Reading more about her, inspired by this post, it's moving to know what a dedicated, radical activist she was. I had no idea about that side of her character until today. It was also an occasion to think more deeply about the true nightmare of the rabid anti-Communism of the awful McCarthy era, the conspiracy of blacklisting, the hauling up people to be interrogated, all the betrayals of people of their friends for fear their entire lives would be destroyed as authors, playwrights, artists, film makers.

It hurt me to learn, reading her Wikipedia entry, that her cremains were kept in a filing cabinet of her lawyer. That seems so sad her mortal remains were not treated more respectfully, lovingly. That she was not valued as a human being after her death.

So interesting the conflict about her will with Lillian Hellman. In the Vanity Fair article it says: Lillian Hellman organized a memorial at which she herself was the star attraction, and seems to have lost or destroyed all of her friend's remaining papers. Then this: Lillian Hellman sent her ashes to the law firm of Oscar Bernstien and Paul O'Dwyer, and Mr. O'Dwyer, one of New York's greatest people's attorneys and labor defenders, receiving no instructions about their disposal or their disposition, kept them in a filing cabinet in his office for two decades.

And yet again: Hellman raged about Mrs. Parker's alleged promise that "when she died, she would leave me the rights to her writing. At my death, they would pass directly to the N.A.A.C.P. But what did she do? She left them to the N.A.A.C.P. Damn her!"

Omg, what a narcissist bitch! It's one thing to feel resentment or anger but that kind of meanness is revolting.

Huh: (To the present day, those who want to reprint Mrs. Parker have to go to the N.A.A.C.P. and discuss royalties: a perfect posthumous revenge from two points of view.)

Glad she left Martin Luther King/ the N.A.A.C.P. the money, just good to know. Glad the N.A.A.C.P. did the right thing and gave her a memorial. I feel really thankful to them for that.
posted by nickyskye at 11:31 PM on August 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


Am I misunderstanding that story? The character in it seems rather racist. Or was that relatively non-racist in that day and time?

There's a passage in the first link that elaborates:

It's a fairly short story, but it seems longer—as moments of gross social bêtise always do—because the female character just cannot put a foot right. (When she eventually meets the black singer, she speaks "with great distinctness, moving her lips meticulously, as if in parlance with the deaf.") Viewed from more than seven decades later, it seems at moments a little obvious, until one remembers those seven decades and their passage, and the fact that Jim Crow—legally enforced segregation in everything from trains to the armed forces—was the unchallenged rule in 1927, and until one appreciates that Mrs. Parker had anticipated every agonized, patronizing person who was ever to speak of the African-American and his divine sense of rhythm. Indeed, she was four decades ahead of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.

The character is incredibly racist by today's standards. And really racist at any time, but at the time in which the story is set, her racism at that time probably wouldn't have been perceived as very racist by most who weren't pretty used to being the target of racism, and the fact that she so openly worries about being seen as too "familiar" with the singer (calling him "mister," etc) is a nice way of showing just how racist you could be and still be considered / consider oneself progressive in relation to racial matters.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 12:35 AM on August 29, 2012 [5 favorites]


BlueHorse: you are spot on, the point of the story is to expose and mock the main character's racism. Practically nothing Dorothy Parker wrote is meant to be taken at face value.
posted by runincircles at 12:37 AM on August 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


The character is incredibly racist by today's standards. And really racist at any time, but at the time in which the story is set, her racism at that time probably wouldn't have been perceived as very racist by most who weren't pretty used to being the target of racism

I always took the character being super racist while thinking of herself as progressive as absolutely the point.

Parker also dealt with racial relations in the stories "Song of the Shirt 1941" and "Mrs. Hofstader on Josephine St." The former's a little blunt, the latter a little problematic. But on the whole she was definitely well ahead of her time from a progressive perspective. Although the more political stories show her wit a bit dulled (there's one about abortion that I can't recall the title of that thumps you over the head pretty solid, analogy-wise, and there's a sketch in a cafe in Spain during the civil war that never quite gels --- she's much sharper satirising trendy New Yorkers in ill-fitting espadrille braying about which is the best casino to get a martini).
posted by Diablevert at 1:35 AM on August 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Reading that excellent article linked above by bendy, about Hellman's role in Parker's elderly life, then after death, I can only say that Hellman behaved despicably towards the person who had been her friend for decades. She was rolling in money, it's not like she needed Parker's inheritance and had any sound reason to behave in such a callous, hateful way.

Knowing that I am doubly glad Parker's inheritance went to the N.A.A.C.P.
posted by nickyskye at 1:53 AM on August 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, previously.
posted by Houstonian at 3:46 AM on August 29, 2012


For all we know, "Arrangement in Black and White" may have been a verbatim account of a real-life incident. The story was first published in 1927, just as Paul Robeson, of all people, had been touring America singing spirituals. The Rutgers-and-Columbia-educated Robeson was a hit with the upper set, and it isn't at all difficult to recognise him in "Walter Williams". As for the clueless socialite, we may be sure that she wasn't Edwina Mountbatten (whose own scandalous affair with another black man was famously lampooned by another notorious wit of the time), but I'm quite certain that "everybody who knew anybody" would have recognised the person, and that the story must have provoked quite some sniggering among her social circles...
posted by Skeptic at 4:25 AM on August 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


Did Prince know that when he wrote this?

Purportedly, he composed the lyrics without knowing there was a historical figure of the same name. So, no.
posted by Egg Shen at 5:09 AM on August 29, 2012


In the late 70s, my mother described black people to me as "beautiful, musical people with a natural understanding of rhythm and dance."

To our ears, 35 years later, that sounds pretty damn racist. To my now 75 year old mother, that was a perfectly nice complement toward black people. She now understands why that comment wouldn't fly today and I don't think she thinks like that anymore.

I think civil rights, like a lot of things, takes a long time to fully percolate through the consciousness of the general public.

nickyskye: "*goes to Google mousseline de soie and Valenciennes lace

So did I. That was pretty racy for the time and just as hot today.
posted by double block and bleed at 6:06 AM on August 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Whuck" is my new favorite word.

Also,
[this is good]
posted by lysdexic at 6:53 AM on August 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Another one for the history is stranger (and sometimes makes people more awesome) than fiction allows.
posted by immlass at 8:03 AM on August 29, 2012


This makes me really happy, and it's a wonderful article.


I just find it weird that a normal person wouldn't say, "Eh, changed her mind. Sucks to be me."-- and move on.

It seems to be "normal" to expect inheritances from anyone who dies and to be bitter when you don't get them. The people who already have money and/or have already inherited from multiple people are usually the worst. But to be fair, getting disinherited (even if she was imagining it) probably feels like a pretty big slap in the face from beyond the grave-- I would think more with literary estates than with just plain money. I still think Hellman acted like a jerk though.
posted by BibiRose at 8:41 AM on August 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


So does the NAACP get royalties from these martini glasses?

I'm so glad "Excuse My Dust" actually made it onto her memorial plaque.
posted by endless_forms at 10:04 AM on August 29, 2012


Why I love Dorothy Parker:

I like to have a martini,
Two at the very most.
After three I'm under the table,
after four I'm under my host.
posted by cherrybounce at 12:23 PM on August 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


bendy: Here's another fascinating story about Parker and Hellman. Apparently Hellman had also been granted executorship of Daishell Hammett's estate and was frustrated because she thought that both Hammett and Parker owed her something.
So, Hellman was either a serial douchebag, or repetitively delusional, or both? No wonder none of her successful friends kept her in their wills. (Reads bendy's link...)
"A short time later came Lillian, just back from a trip to the Soviet Union, who immediately took charge of arrangements.... The following day, despite Parker's express wish for "no funeral services, formal or informal," she was on show at Campbell's, decked out in the Coopers' brocade caftan.
So, a douchebag, then.
"That goddamn bitch Dorothy Parker. . . . You won't believe what she's done. I paid her hotel bill at the Volney for years, kept her in booze, paid for her suicide attempts—all on the promise that when she died, she would leave me the rights to her writing....
Of the first order.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:32 PM on August 29, 2012


Well, if she had paid DP's Volney bill "for years, kept her in booze, paid for" her medical/shrink bills after suicide attempts and been promised something that was reneged at death, it sounds like DP was deliberately spiting Hellman. Then Hellman reacted in turn, so spitefully, for a very long time after DP's death.

But then Hellman was known to be liar. Hmmm. No, I may err on the side of believing Dorothy Parker but I do believe her and think Hellman was behaving horribly.
posted by nickyskye at 7:52 PM on August 29, 2012


The article itself seems pretty biased against Hellman, for example, saying "having managed to acquire control of Hammett's literary estate.", or describing her as a "greedy, controlling woman." They were together on and off for 30 years, is it really surprising or did it take "manipulation" for Hammett to leave his estate to her?

Also, Parker named her executor, which is a ton of work, without leaving her the one thing which she genuinely wanted, while leaving it to the NAACP, which Hellman apparently disliked because they didn't go far /enough/, not because she was some sort of secret racist or whatever. Even in the article, she's blamed for not paying for the storage of Parker's remains, when she didn't receive a dime from Parker's estate to do it with. It sounds like Parker left her more of an albatross than a gift.
posted by corb at 9:55 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Antagonist: On Lillian Hellman
posted by homunculus at 12:13 PM on August 31, 2012


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