“The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.”
“She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.” (a review of Katherine Hepburn’s acting style.)
Hers was a precocious talent. She sold her first poem to Vanity Fair when she was 21, and was then hired as an editorial assistant for Vogue.
At 24 she married a Wall Street stockbroker. Soon afterwards, her career began its stellar rise when she became Vanity Fair’s first female drama critic.
‘The House Beautiful’ is for me, the play lousy.”
Her caustic wit was too much for the magazine – she upset too many heavyweight producers – and in 1920 she lost her job. She went through a rough time; booze, affairs, a suicide attempt. But nothing bad can ever happen to a writer. In 1925 she was one of the founding editors for The New Yorker, her private life fueling the short acerbic poems that made her famous:
“By the time you swear you're his, Shivering and sighing. And he vows his passion is, Infinite, undying. Lady make note of this - One of you is lying.”
In the next 15 years she published over 300 poems in some of the nation’s leading magazines. Her first volume of poetry, Enough Rope, sold a massive 47,000 copies.
“I like to have a martini, Two at the very most. After three I'm under the table, after four I'm under the host.”
Some of her most popular work was found in the book reviews published in The New Yorker under the byline “Constant Reader”.
Her review of AA Milne’s ‘The House at Pooh Corner’ remains a classic: – “Tonstant Weader fwowed up.”
But beyond the throwaway one-liners was a tortured soul. Her short story, “Big Blonde”, won the O. Henry Award for the best short story of 1929; it was about alcoholism, isolation and sexual addiction, its heroine a no-longer-young “kept woman.” It was an anthem to the emotional pain experienced by intelligent and aspiring women.
She divorced her husband in 1928 and embarked on a number of affairs. After falling pregnant to a playboy playwright she said:
“How like me, to put all my eggs into one bastard.”
Following an abortion, she fell into depression and again attempted suicide. Then in 1934 she married the actor Alan Campbell, (who was reputedly bisexual.) They moved to Hollywood and earned over $5,000 a week as screenwriters. The big bucks rescued her, but she resented the work.
I can’t talk about Hollywood. It was a horror to me when I was there and it’s a horror to look back on … When I got away from it I couldn’t even refer to the place by name. “Out there,” I called it.
But she was good at the work. She was a joint Oscar nominee for best screenplay for 1937’s A Star is Born.
But this was the age of reds under the bed. The FBI compiled a 1000 page dossier on her.
During the McCarthy era – and despite another Oscar nomination in 1947 – she was blacklisted by movie studio bosses. It was not a good time to be a woman and to be outspoken.
“So, you’re the man who can’t spell ‘fuck.’”
(To Norman Mailer after publishers convinced him to replace the word with a euphemism, ‘fug,’ in his 1948 book, “The Naked and the Dead.”)
Her marriage to Campbell was tempestuous, to say the least. They divorced in 1947, then remarried in 1950. Unable to work in Hollywood she wrote book reviews for Esquire, but they lacked her earlier edge; by then the booze had got to her.
“I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.”
When Hollywood finally opened its doors again, she worked with Campbell on a number of projects that were never produced. He succumbed to a drug overdose in 1963 and Dorothy died of a heart attack four years later. She bequeathed her estate to the Martin Luther King Foundation.
“Time doth flit; oh shit.”
Her ashes remained unclaimed, were left lying in her attorney’s filing cabinet for many years until they were finally claimed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. They designed a memorial garden for them outside their Baltimore headquarters.
She once wrote:
"You see, I had been fed, in my youth, a lot of old wives' tales about the way men would instantly forsake a beautiful woman to flock about a brilliant one. It is but fair to say that, after getting out in the world, I had never seen this happen, but I thought that maybe I might be the girl to start the vogue. I would become brilliant. I would sparkle. I would hold whole dinner tables spellbound. I would have throngs fighting to come within hearing distance of me while the weakest, elbowed mercilessly to the outskirts, would cry "What did she say?" or "Oh, please ask her to tell it again." That's what I would do. Oh I could just hear myself."
In the end Constant Reader reserved her greatest criticism for herself. History says she was much too harsh.
“If all the girls attending the Yale prom were laid end to end … well, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.”
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