Dorothy Parker’s Last Stand

By Maria Morales

“Excuse my dust.”

That was Dorothy Parker’s self-chosen epitaph. The words were emblazoned on a circular bronze marker where the acclaimed writer’s cremains were interred in a memorial garden at the NAACP national headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland.

But on Aug. 18, 2020, after 31 years of being buried on the grounds of the NAACP headquarters, Parker’s cremains were removed and returned to New York for burial.

An unlikely gathering – a rabbi, two lawyers, two journalists, a historian, a photographer and a couple of NAACP staffers – formed their own Algonquin circle as they gathered around the site in the memorial garden. The Algonquin Round Table was an informal gathering of New York City writers and critics who met daily at the Algonquin Hotel for lunch.

Not only was Parker a satirist and screenwriter (she co-wrote the 1937 screenplay of "A Star is Born") she was an outspoken voice on social issues. She was blacklisted in Hollywood in the 1950's for her left-wing views, considered extreme at the time.

Parker died on June 7, 1967 at age 73. A proponent of civil rights, she willed her estate to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., with the condition that if something should happen to him, her estate would go to the NAACP. Less than a year later, King was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn. And per her will, Parker’s family bequeathed her estate to the NAACP.

The NAACP manages the literary rights to all but a couple of Parker’s writings, and in keeping with her wishes, license fees from her works benefit the organization.

“Most requests have a degree of devotion, awe and appreciation for Mrs. Parker’s insights into life and relationships, and with every request I am reminded of how important her thoughts and works are,” said Ned T. Himmelrich, an intellectual property attorney at Gordon Feinblatt LLC in Baltimore who has been overseeing the licensing of Parker’s works for more than 25 years on behalf of the NAACP.

Himmelrich fields a few requests on average each month from across the entertainment industry, from major motion pictures to high school productions. Her short stories, poems and infamous quotes — such as “What fresh hell is this?” — have been used in books, songs, plays, musicals, TV shows and commercials.

“When licensees are reminded that she left her estate to Dr. King and then the NAACP, they are appreciative of her gift and want to support the NAACP because Mrs. Parker did,” Himmelrich said.

While her estate was turned over to the NAACP, her cremains were in limbo for decades. Her close friend and executor, the writer Lillian Hellman, contested the will. Parker’s remains were unclaimed and the attorney who handled her estate kept the urn in a file cabinet in his office for 17 years.

Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke (center left) and NAACP Executive Director Benjamin Hooks lower the ashes of Dorothy Parker at the NAACP headquarters in 1988.| Carlos Rosario/AP

In 1988, the NAACP claimed Parker’s cremains, and in October of that year a burial was held on the grounds behind the headquarters’ building. A picture captured by the Baltimore Sun shows a handful of community leaders watching as then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke of Baltimore and the late NAACP Executive Director Benjamin Hooks lowered the urn into the ground.The circular marker reads, in part, “This memorial garden is dedicated to her noble spirit which celebrated the oneness of humankind and to the bonds of everlasting friendship between black and Jewish people.”

Kevin C. Fitzpatrick, a historian and founder of the Dorothy Parker Society, represented Parker’s family in the relocation process.“The family is extremely grateful to the NAACP for keeping her and her legacy,” Fitzpatrick said. “They were very happy that the NAACP interred her and they’re appreciative of what the NAACP has been doing all of these years in managing her estate.”

Fitzpatrick revealed that negotiations to move Parker’s cremains began a year ago, when rumors of a possible NAACP move reached New York. “There had been talk about the NAACP moving for years,” he said, “but last summer we heard that it was really happening.”

Kevin C. Fitzpatrick shares remarks at ceremony in Baltimore

The NAACP headquarters was based in New York City until 1986, when it moved to Baltimore. In June of this year, the NAACP signed a letter of intent with Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser to relocate to the nation’s capital. Staff is working out of rented space in an office tower in downtown Baltimore while the Washington site is completed.

Himmelrich mapped out a plan for disinterring and relocating the cremains, in consultation with NAACP Interim General Counsel Janette Wallace.The plan required moving Parker in secrecy. In accordance with the contract hammered out by the legal team, The New Yorker and The Crisis were the only two media outlets permitted to cover the disinterment. The New Yorker, which Parker wrote for, was given first rights to publish the story. “I’ve gotten calls from all over the country, as the word got out that the NAACP had moved,” Fitzpatrick said. “I didn’t return them.”

On a balmy summer morning at 9:30 a.m., one construction worker, a Black man wearing a mask with “Black Lives Matter” printed on it, took a shovel to the dirt around the circle of bricks. And so began the arduous process of unearthing the urn containing Parker’s cremains.

Robert Harris, owner of Gambino Construction, a Black-owned company, watched the first shovel go in the ground. Harris and his two crew members dug with hand tools for more than two hours. The urn, in fact, had been placed inside a three-foot-long concrete cylinder, which was sealed by more concrete.

Harris’s team jackhammered the cylinder off the base, only to discover from the bottom of the cylinder that the hole had been cemented as well. Once the cylinder was cut in half, a little mound of raised concrete in the bottom half showed the top of the urn.

The crew carefully used the jackhammer one last time to chip away at the bottom half of the cylinder. It split beautifully, showing the black urn encased. Harris pulled away a chunk of the concrete and placed the urn into a wooden box Fitzpatrick handmade to transport the cremains back to New York.

The attendees then formed a socially distant circle under the shade trees in the garden for an impromptu homegoing service. Rabbi Floyd Herman, who served at the interment 31 years ago and is now 82 and retired, began the service with remarks about Mrs. Parker’s life and her dedication to humanity and civil rights.

Bronze Marker Workers carefully unearth cremains Urn placed into case for transport

And Fitzpatrick noted that Parker’s legacy “is more than dust.”

“Mrs. Parker always, always, championed the underdog,” said Fitzpatrick, who read excerpts from Parker's critiques of depictions of Blacks and Jews on Broadway and in film. “[She] was an outspoken critic when it came to race and religion in Broadway productions. She abhorred the racial stereotypes prevalent of the era.”

Wallace spoke on behalf of the NAACP.

“We express gratitude to Mrs. Parker for being a pioneer in the Civil Rights Movement,” she said. “We will always be grateful for the life and legacy of Mrs. Dorothy Parker.

Wallace then read from Mrs. Parker’s poem, Epitaph for a Darling Lady:

Leave for her a red young rose,

Go your way, and save your pity;

She is happy, for she knows

That her dust is very pretty.

The marker and a piece of concrete that encased the urn will be put in “a special place” at the new NAACP headquarters in Washington, Wallace said.

“She’s going home but she’ll always be a part of our family,” Wallace said. “May she continue to rest peacefully.”

NAACP Interim General Counsel Janette Wallace reads poem at service

Parker is now resting with her parents in a family plot at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, and she has some great company there. Madame C.J. Walker and her daughter A’Lelia, along with musicians Miles Davis and Duke Ellington, Nobel Prize winner Ralph Bunche, suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton and novelist Herman Melville are among the notable people interred in this historic landmark, described by the National Park Service as “a popular resting place for the famous and powerful.”

A private graveside service was held at Woodlawn on Aug. 22. Parker had no children but her sister, Helen, had a daughter. She along with a few cousins, comprise the remaining descendants of the Rothschild family (Parker’s maiden name). They are all now in their late 70's and early 80's and reside in upstate New York. Fitzpatrick said it was the elder generation that wanted to bring her home.

“Today is really about a homecoming to New York City. Having a New Yorker come back to New York is very special to all of us that are also New Yorkers,” said Fitzpatrick at the Woodlawn ceremony. “But, at this same time, I’d like to say thank you to the NAACP and its wonderful stewardship.”

NAACP board member and New York State Conference President Hazel Dukes noted that it wasn’t “popular to associate with the NAACP at the time Dorothy Parker chose to do so.”

“Similar to today, there was a lot of name calling going on for those who wanted to help others less fortunate than themselves,” Dukes said. “We’re such a divided nation now, but I think that her legacy speaks toward Black Lives Matter and in the willingness to speak up and say ‘Hey, this is wrong’. Persons who have come out of corporate America, and other industries, now see they have a place to make things better than where we’ve been, and where we are now, and onward to future generations. So, it symbolized for us at the NAACP, what she did at that time and what the family continues to do in their contributions. “

Dorothy Parker at her typewriter in 1941

Fitzpatrick, author of A Journey Into Dorothy Parker, broke down Parker’s relevance for her contemporaries, and to would-be allies today.

“When she was a Broadway critic in the 1920's, there were still blackface actors on Broadway at theaters that are still around today,” said Fitzpatrick. “That was 100 years ago, but she wrote about that being wrong. And she continued to write about how Black actors were being overlooked and that the roles for Blacks were horrible. She believed in social justice. Her FBI file is an inch-and-a-half thick. They were always following her around, like a lot of writers of the day.”

Parker’s life was more than cocktails and martinis, Fitzpatrick said, noting that she was born with a social conscience.

“When she died in 1967, she left her estate to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man she had never met," said Fitzpatrick. "Sadly, he only lived 11 more months than she did, but today those royalties from her work still support the work and the mission of the NAACP. Every time one of her poems is used or something gets placed in a Netflix show or something, that is a few more dollars that goes into the fund.”

Additional reporting by Ricardo Hazell in New York.

The Crisis magazine is a quarterly journal of politics, culture, civil rights and history that seeks to educate and challenge its readers about issues facing African-Americans and other communities of color.

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