Although I’ve read everything I could get my hands on about Dorothy Parker to better understand the complex nature of her personality, I have pretty much read, and then deliberately set aside her later years, because writing about her in the 1920s, it was not so good for me to be reminded of her fate. As she once told a Hollywood producer when he wanted a happy ending tagged onto a screenplay she was working on, “There are no happy endings”, I could not depict her with that sentiment in my head, even if it flowed like an undercurrent in hers. But now, after five Dorothy Parker Mysteries under my belt, I am not so sensitive, and as the forty-fifth anniversary of her death is June 7th, I’d like to share with you a little knowledge I’ve acquired from my friend Onyx about her Godmother, Dorothy Parker, during those last years of her life.
I met Onyx when we were fourteen years old and attended the High School of Performing Arts on West 46th Street in Manhattan, and she initially struck me as a confident teenager, very sharp and savvy. She was clever and outspoken and the sweetest young woman you’d ever want to know. She, like me and many others, found the High School of Performing Arts to be not just a school, but our other home. What was true for most of us kids was that our family home lives were very much separated from our school experiences. We left our family lives at the door when we entered the school each morning. It was as if we assumed other, chosen identities. We were all so fully engrossed in our studio classes—drama, music and dance. Onyx echoes my feelings when she said to me recently, “Going there (to Performing Arts) was an affirmation of everything that I was, and would grow to be as an individual. It was my own home.”
But, then, who she was as a teenager, and who she was to become as a woman had already been greatly influenced by her father, Jak Orton and three famous women—one of them, her godmother, Dorothy Parker.
Jak Orton grew up in the South and came to New York at 17 to pursue a career in the theatre. He very quickly got work on stage in choruses and walk-on roles, and met the stars of Broadway. His friends, actor Ralph Meeker, and Liz Montgomery of the theatre design team known as the Motleys, introduced him to the Broadway elite. During a tryout in Boston, Liz Montgomery arranged for friends, Onyx’s grandmother and her daughter, Marney, an aspiring actress, to see the show. Sparks flew between Jak and the girl from Boston and the two instantly fell in love and married. In 1949 Marney gave birth to a baby girl, whom they named Onyx. The couple separated when Onyx was ten years old, and by that time, Jak had changed career course to become a sought after interior designer.
When Dorothy Parker met the handsome Jak she said to him, “You look like a fawn.” Dorothy loved good-looking men; she was drawn to clever people. And to enjoy a platonic, long-lasting relationship with any fair-faced fellow, he had to be smart, too. Jak was all that, and witty, creative, and genuine. “She adored my father,” said Onyx.
What flashed in my mind while talking with Onyx about Dorothy Parker, and the two other women that were to influenced her life, was the marvelous book Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis. Just exchange the prepubescent Patrick with the young Onyx, and multiply the character of Mame by three: three female drinking buddies. Her father would be the voice of reason in a wild and frenetic play whose curtain would rise at dinner time three or four times a week in the Ortons’ apartment on Manhattan’s fashionable East Side. The real-life cast of multiple Mames was a trio including actress June Walker, Broadway’s first Lorelei Lee, playwright and screenwriter, Donald Ogden Stewart’s first wife, Bee, a great party hostess. (Onyx corrected my spelling. Although she was formally “Beatrice”, Stewart spelled her name “Bee”.) Add to the mix the venerable Dorothy Parker.
“June was a dear heart, and she adored children; Bee was nuts; Dorothy was quiet, but never shy. She was amazing, and so easily tossed-off hysterical remarks across the dinner table. “She always said what she thought.” Often, dinner would be held at Bee’s apartment, prepared by her cook, or ordered in from The Colony.
The three women and her father would laugh at Onyx’s retorts, and encourage her to join in the conversation. June Walker, the movie star and mother of actor John Kerr, “always brought champagne and caviar and tons of cherries, and was so flamboyantly Hollywood that she even had her stockings pressed.”
“I played bartender, mixing their cocktails. That’s how I learned to drink and smoke. Back then, it was no big deal,” said Onyx with a chuckle.
Again I was reminded of little Patrick Dennis shaking up cocktails for Mame’s eccentric guests.
“But being with them, listening to their conversations, I learned so much about art and literature and theatre,” said Onyx. “I was an only child, and I was included in everything that was discussed in our living room.”
When I asked about their conversations—were they politically bent? Onyx said, “My father wouldn’t have that; he always directed the dinner conversation towards theatre and art and literature. He found politics boring.” Knowing Dorothy Parker’s political leanings and activities, and the 50’s HUAC investigations and her blacklisting, I figured she kept her views close to her chest. And of course, I had to ask Onyx if she remembers her discussing her Round Table years. “No, never,” she said. As the 60s rolled on, the teenage Onyx watched her godmother “become more introspective.”
“Bee Stewart?” I asked. “Her name always pops up when I read about Sara and Gerald Murphy and Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds in Paris and Antibes during the 1920s, but other than the fact that she later married Tolstoy’s grandson, I know little about the woman. What was she like?”
“She gave parties. That’s all she knew how to do—and drink! Bee was crazy! Wild, but wonderful! I loved her very much and I spent lots of time with her. You know, I kind of think Dorothy’s story, Big Blonde was modeled after Bee. Parts of it, anyway. I see her in my head whenever I read it. She died in the 1970s.”
“Did you get gifts from your godmother?” I asked.
“Once. A tin box, decorated, but when I opened it, expecting a gift inside, it was empty.” We had a good laugh about that.
“I remember my christening,” said Onyx. “Really! I was two years old, and there were lots of roses and champagne, and everybody was celebrating, but no gifts for the baby!”
June Walker died in 1966, and on June 7, 1967 Dorothy died three weeks before our graduation ceremony from Performing Arts. I asked Onyx about how she coped during those days.
“They were terrible, horrible days. My father got the call from the Volney Hotel where Dorothy resided, and he went over to the apartment to identify her body. He brought home Dorothy’s dog, Trois—the dog from hell! Of course, the poodle wasn’t house broken; Dorothy never walked the dog, so it made its deposits all over the place. And my father and Bee were very angry with Lillian Hellman, whom Dorothy had named as executor of her will, for going against her wishes. Dorothy didn’t want a funeral service, but Hellman arranged one anyway. Dorothy and Lillian had had a falling out before she died. My father couldn’t stand Hellman.”
The service was just the first of Hellman’s cruel insults against Dorothy, who had not left her small estate of twenty thousand dollars and literary rights to Lillian, but rather to Martin Luther King. After Hellman’s death, Dorothy Parker’s papers, that had been entrusted to her, were nowhere to be found and were suspected to have been destroyed.
“It was the first funeral I ever went to, and it was for someone I loved so much. I was devastated. We were all miserable about it. Dorothy had been kind and gentle with me, always. She was sweet, but I could see she was unhappy.”
I thank Onyx for sharing with me those personal rememberances of her days with Dorothy Parker.
Until next time,