In honor of Dorothy Parker's birthday, I re-re-re-watched Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (Why didn't Jennifer Jason Leigh get an Oscar? She was brilliant!), a documentary about Parker called Kindly Direct Me to Hell, and I'm in the middle of reading What Fresh Hell is This? a biography by Marion Meade.
I'll never forget when I first became aware of Dorothy Parker. 11th grade. American Literature class. I was one of those students who took the textbook home and read through it at the beginning of the year. Everything else in the collection escapes my memory except for the short story The Waltz. In the story, a woman at a dance or ball of some kind accepts a waltz from a man who is a terrible dancer. The brief italicized sections are what she says to her partner, the regular type indicates her real, stinging-nettle thoughts.
To say I loved the story was an understatement. I read it countless times. The Waltz was the funniest thing I'd ever read in my life. It made me actually want to start going to dances so I could weave my own interior world-weary, bitter commentary. I was worried that the teacher wouldn't assign the story, and skip over it in favor of something dull and teachable. Then I was worried she would assign it. What if the rest of the class didn't like it? I didn't think I could sit in a room full of cretins for the rest of the year.
Finally, toward the end of the school year, the teacher put The Waltz up on the board for the next day's reading. Sometimes, she had students read aloud. What if she didn't call on me? That was MY story, dammit!
I need not have worried; the teacher read The Waltz aloud herself. Every word. I thought her delivery was all wrong, but I now realize that I was wrong. She had a beautiful, clear, ladylike voice with just a hint of wryness. She was perfect, and I still hear her version in my mind's ear. She saved me. If I had been called upon to read aloud, I would have given the protagonist's interior thoughts a Steve Martin inflection. Or Bill Murray. Shudder.
Keeping my eyes on the page as instructed, and smothering my own laughter, I listened for reactions to what I thought were the best lines. Only one got a mild chuckle, in which the dancer compares her upcoming ordeal to a football scrimmage.
I was satisfied. No reaction would have had me totally pissed. A lot of admiration from my classmates would have had me jealous, and doing cringeworthy things like speaking up and waxing eloquently about Parker's other stories and her poems and the Algonquin Round Table, all of which I'd discovered on my own (sometimes to the detriment of my studies in other classes) during the school year. I would have striven obnoxiously to prove that no one ever had or could ever appreciate Dorothy as much as I could. She was all mine, forever.
After a short quiz about the story and an exercise in which we had to hunt for examples of hyperbole and similes, The Waltz was history. Not for me, though. Happy Birthday, Mrs. Parker! I still think you're wonderful.