Regular Something Rhymed readers will remember Kathleen Dixon Donnelly’s post on Mabel Dodge and Gertrude Stein (and Alice B. Toklas). For our last post of 2018, Kathleen has written a follow-up piece on another absolutely fascinating literary friendship.
Dorothy Parker purportedly said, ‘The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.’ Well-known for her nasty comments about anyone who had just left the room – sometimes before – she didn’t forge many strong bonds. But she rarely said anything negative about her female friend, poet and novelist Elinor Wylie.
Both were born in New Jersey to affluent families, Wylie eight years before Parker.
In the first few years of the 20th century, Parker—then Rothschild— was struggling with guilt over her hated stepmother’s sudden death, and writing poems about dogs to her father. She left Catholic school, later claiming she was fired for insisting ‘that the Immaculate Conception was spontaneous combustion’.
Meanwhile, Wylie—then Hoyt—eloped with an emotionally unstable Harvard graduate, but soon found herself being followed by an older married Washington attorney, who encouraged her poetry. She abandoned her husband and son to run off to England with the lawyer, where they lived under assumed names.
By the time war broke out in 1914, Wylie’s husband had committed suicide and her new partner’s wife had agreed to a divorce. Returning to the States, the socially ostracised couple moved from city to city, and Wylie suffered two miscarriages, as Parker would later.
Now that Parker’s father had died, she was teaching dance classes on the Upper West Side and sending couplets to the most popular newspaper column in the city, ‘The Conning Tower’ penned by FPA (Franklin Pierce Adams). By 1917 she had talked herself into a job at Vanity Fair, and by the 1920s, she was writing for all the main periodicals, lunching and drinking regularly with the writers of the Algonquin Hotel’s Round Table.
Wylie had dumped her second husband and moved to New York City with incoming husband number three, who, in his role as founding editor of the Saturday Review of Literature, helped her burgeoning career as a poet. When they married in 1923, she dismissed their friends’ misgivings by saying, ‘Yes, it would be a pity that a first-rate poet [Wylie] should be turned into a second-rate poet by marrying a third-rate poet.’
The women became good friends that same year, and Parker was soon going to the Wylies’ impressive apartment to write. By this time, Parker was free-lancing, and it was Wylie who had now talked herself into a job (as poetry editor) at Vanity Fair.
In May 1925, Wylie and Parker were invited to Connecticut for the wedding of Parker’s mentor and fellow Round Table member, FPA, along with other writers working on the newly established New Yorker magazine. Wylie insisted that all continue the party at her nearby country home. Passed out on the couch, Parker was devastated to wake up to the voices of Wylie and another guest whispering about the scars on Parker’s wrists left by her recent suicide attempt.
At the end of the following year, Wylie had an opportunity to come through for her friend. Parker showed up early one Sunday morning at Wylie’s Greenwich Village townhouse, talking about trying to kill herself again. Wylie calmed her down. This was one of the only times Parker talked to someone about suicide before she tried it.
Wylie’s brother and sister, in addition to her first husband, had also killed themselves. She wrote to her mother, ‘I suppose Dottie thinks we are experts on the subject!’
Fittingly, Parker’s first collection of poetry, Enough Rope, was published the next month, dedicated to Wylie and containing Parker’s most well-known poem, ‘Resumé’.
Wylie’s poetry was totally unlike Parker’s short, witty quips. Wylie favoured more traditional wording and structure, and, obsessed with romantic Percy Bysshe Shelley, she wrote two novels fantasising that he had been reincarnated.
Having suffered from high blood pressure and migraines most of her life, Wylie was staying with her by-then estranged third husband during Christmas 1928. When he brought her some water, she wryly remarked ‘Is that all it is?’ and dropped dead from a stroke at age 43.
On hearing of Wylie’s death, Parker was so distraught that she found herself rendered temporarily mute. But her late friend continued to speak to her through the words of ‘Anti-Feminist Song, For My Sister’ – her poem addressed to Parker, which was published in the New Yorker shortly after Wylie’s death. ‘I am I,’ Wylie had written, ‘and you, my darling;/Someone very like myself.’
A few years later, during Parker’s visit to Venice with friends, Wylie apparently spoke up again from beyond the grave. When the holidaymakers started playing with the latest craze, a Ouija board, a spirit identifying herself as Wylie began talking about such gruesome crimes and poisonings that the group became quite scared – an apt end to a friendship founded on death, despair, and the darkest of wits.
Written by Kathleen Dixon Donnelly, who runs the blog Such Friends, and is working on a book ‘Such Friends’: A Scrapbook Almanac of Writers’ Salons, 1897-1930. You can follow her on Twitter @SuchFriends
Edited by Clêr Lewis. Clêr has an MA in creative writing from Goldsmiths, University of London, and is working on her first novel.