Dorothy Parker and Elinor Wylie

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’.

Dorothy Parker.                                      This image is in the public domain.

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.

220px-Elinor_Wylie
Elinor Wylie This image is in the public domain.

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.

Mabel Dodge and Gertrude Stein (and Alice B. Toklas)

Regular readers of this blog will perhaps remember Alice Fitzgerald’s post on the friendship between Pratibha Parmar and Alice Walker, edited by Kathleen Dixon Donnelly. Today, Kathleen writes a post of her own for us, edited this time by Clêr Lewis. We hope you’ll enjoy it as much as we did.

If this inspires you to get more involved with Something Rhymed, please find further details here.

Gertrude Stein by Carl Van Vechten, 1934. (This image is in the public domain.)

Think of ground-breaking writer Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) — a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, like me — and you automatically think of her life partner, Alice B. Toklas (1877-1967).

From the moment Stein and Toklas met, in Paris in 1906, their joint biographer, Diana Souhami, writes that they ‘never travelled without each other or entertained separately, or worked on independent projects’.

Very romantic—but, didn’t they have any woman friends?

Both were great friends with many writers—mostly male—who admired Stein’s work, including Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Female acquaintances would come to their salons on the Left Bank in the 1920s, but most were the wives of the writers.

Another American who became well known for her 1920s Greenwich Village salons was Mabel Ganson Evans Dodge Sterne Luhan (1879-1962), daughter of a wealthy Buffalo businessman, widowed and married again before she was 26. Dodge’s first husband was killed in a hunting accident, leaving her with a young son. To pry her away from an affair with a Buffalo gynaecologist, her family sent her to Paris. On board ship she met a rich Boston architect, Edwin Dodge, and they married two years later, establishing a fabulous home, Villa Curonia, in Florence.

MAbel Dodge
Mabel Dodge Luhan by Carl Van Vechten, 1934. (This image is in the public domain.)

In 1911, Dodge visited rue de Fleurus, in Paris, to meet Stein and Toklas. The Dodges in turn invited their new friends to their ornate Italian home, and there Stein began writing A Portrait of Mabel Dodge at the Villa Curonia. She developed an essay technique by adapting what Cezanne and other painters had done in the portraits that she had bought to adorn the walls of her salon. Stein wrote, ‘Pablo (Picasso) is doing abstract portraits in painting. I am trying to do abstract portraits in my medium, words.’

Stein wrote late at night, in her room next to Dodge’s. As Mr Dodge was away, his wife invited her children’s 22-year-old tutor into her bedroom. Stein incorporated overheard sounds into her portrait: ‘So much breathing has not the same place where there is that much beginning. So much breathing has not the same place when the ending is lessening. So much breathing …’ Dodge was thrilled.

Toklas was not.

Dodge had felt Stein warm to her and became a bit flirtatious. As she described in her memoir: ‘Gertrude sitting opposite me in Edwin’s chair, sent me such a strong look over the table that it seemed to cut across the air to me in a band of electrified steel—a smile traveling across on it—powerful—Heaven! I remember it now so keenly! (Alice walked out.) Gertrude gave a surprised, noticing glance … and followed.’ Stein came back to say that Toklas wouldn’t come to lunch as, ‘She feels the heat today.’

Alice B. Toklas by Carl Van Vechten, 1949. (This image is in the public domain.)

From that moment, Dodge felt that Toklas kept them apart. But for the next twenty years Dodge and Stein wrote to each other.

Back in New York, divorced from her husband, holding political salons and having an affair with radical, communist journalist John Reed, Dodge became involved with the organizers of the 1913 Armory Show, the first major exhibition of European and American modern art in the States. Dodge had had a few essays in Alfred Stieglitz’s intellectual photographic journal Camera Work, so the Armory Show’s publicist asked her to write a piece about Gertrude Stein’s avant-garde style for a special issue of Arts and Decoration magazine.

Dodge obliged with ‘Speculations, or Post-Impressionists in Prose’, comparing Matisse and Picasso’s work in paint with Stein’s in print. Stein reacted with delight: ‘Hurrah for gloire! Do send me half a dozen copies … I want to show it to everybody.’

From then on, Stein’s name was associated, both seriously and satirically, with the cubists.

When Reed went off on his communist adventures, Dodge married a painter, Maurice Sterne, following him to Taos, New Mexico, where they established an artists’ colony. By the mid-1920s, Dodge had dumped him and married a Native American, Tony Luhan. They hosted many of the decade’s leading artists and writers, including D. H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda.

Meanwhile, in Paris, Stein and Toklas were welcoming a new generation of Americans who were taking advantage of a cheap franc, cheap food and cheap wine.

Dodge helped Stein get her work published in the States, but Stein didn’t hit it big until, in six weeks in 1932, she wrote The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas because Toklas wouldn’t. American friends encouraged them to come on a US lecture tour, starting at the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan. When they arrived, newspaper headlines proclaimed: ‘Gerty Gerty Stein Stein Is Back Home Home Back.’

Dodge urged the pair to come to her in Taos. Or they could visit her home in Carmel on the California leg of their trip.

Toklas said no.

When the first volume of Dodge’s memoirs, Intimate Memories, was published in 1927, reviewing it in The New Yorker, Dorothy Parker was underwhelmed: ‘It may be in her forthcoming volume, when she gets into her stride of marrying people, things will liven up a bit.’

In later volumes, Dodge treated her friend Stein well, but described Toklas as sinister, and concluded ‘I missed my jolly fat friend very much.’

 

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.