My Dorothy Parker years

At 15, I fell for the brilliant NYC writer. In the hotel she made famous, I found a home away from home

Published June 9, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

From left: Charlie MacArthur, Harpo Marx, Dorothy Parker and Alexander Woollcott     (WIkipedia/<a href='"'>Vitaly Korovin</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
From left: Charlie MacArthur, Harpo Marx, Dorothy Parker and Alexander Woollcott (WIkipedia/Vitaly Korovin via Shutterstock)

It’s curious, the things you remember. They are never quite what you expect. There are people you promise you’ll remember until your deathbed, and you forget them a week later. Then there are things that stick in your mind, even if you never made the effort. There are staircases to bathrooms, for instance. I am surprised how relieved I am to find the bathrooms at the Algonquin hotel in the same place -- down a marble staircase that spirals into the basement. I have always hated that steep little staircase; it’s a nightmare if you’re wearing heels. But I am so glad it is still there.

The hotel is reopening after six months of renovations, and I am attending what I have been informed by a publicist is an “ultra private event.” Simon Doonan is here. Elizabeth Gilbert and Junot Diaz are here, too. I have not been allowed to bring a friend to this ultra-private event, so I am running around in that doe-like way that you do at parties where you don’t know anyone, and everyone seems too important to talk to, and you assume that if you just keep moving no one will notice you are alone. This is effective, because no one cares if you are alone.

I grab a glass of wine and a canapé and head to the bathroom as soon as I enter. Muscle memory kicks in, and I can practically ride the banister down. The bathroom is fresh, and repainted, with an enormous “no smoking” sign. I think of all the years I came here and never thought to smoke. I sort of wish I had now. I wish this in spite of being a non-smoker.

I stand in a stall for a while. There must be a time limit, but no one has informed me. Bathrooms are such a lovely sanctuary. You can stand there as long as you want and no one is allowed to bother you. I realize that the canapé is still in my hand. It is a piece of beef on a piece of crostini.

There was a time I would have killed for that. When I was 15 I was studying abroad in Paris, and I was so homesick. I hated Paris. What I remember most is wanting a burger – a real, American burger – and never being able to find one. That, and never being able to tell when people were joking. So I spent my summer there looking for burgers, and not laughing, and eating these croque madames that tasted like soot, because I kept going to a workman’s cafe where everyone smoked, especially the cook. While I sat there, all I did was fantasize about ketchup, and read Dorothy Parker. As writers go, Dorothy Parker has so much meat in those lean little stories that as a teenage girl, if there’s any hope for you at all, you gobble her right up, just like a filet.

In August, I flew back to meet my mother in New York before going home to Chicago. I couldn’t wait for someone to make a joke in English. When I landed I was exhausted, and jet-lagged in that way that makes your face feel rubbery, but I knew where I wanted to go: The Algonquin.

Oh, it was horrible. Every other person was wearing a sports jersey. A man with a Southern accent was earnestly discussing Broadway plays on his cellphone – the newest model, the kind that flipped -- and you would think he was Truman Capote, but only if Truman was very, very badly informed. The carpet was so faded. And the waiters really did seem to hate you. There was a cat, Matilda, who lived in the lobby. The whole place looked like a Victorian bordello.

But they sold prime sliders. And there was a portrait of Dorothy Parker’s famous Round Table in the back. I tasted the beef, and my eyes rolled back in my head.

“These burgers are awful,” my mother said. “Let’s go to the Waldorf. Let’s go literally anyplace else.” It was too late. I was in love.

- - - - - - - - - -

I took a copy of Dorothy Parker’s stories off to college, where I fell in love with a real person, a real red-meat American boy, and then, quick as blinking, he went away to New York to make a fortune in finance. I rode the train up to see him, because we had decided to exchange everything we’d given each other. That is the kind of excuse people make up to see one another at that age.

He met me at Penn Station, and his lips were trembling, and I thought, “I am never going to get over this.” He brought back the stuffed moose that he had won for me. (How? At a fair, surely. Doing what? Puncturing water balloons? Racing plastic horses?)

We both carried plastic bags filled with minutiae, and we’d brought the cups we’d given each other. His said “Republican.” Mine said “Democrat.” We were barely old enough to vote, and, as is the case with people barely old enough to vote, our political feelings were very, very strong. We were desperate for an identity, and we were partial to the kind spelled out in red-and-blue Arial font. But when our bags came too close together, the cups clinked violently, and I began sobbing in the way that would lead passersby to believe that not one, but both of my parents had just died.

“We should go someplace happy,” he said.

We walked for five blocks. It seemed inconceivable that there was a place where happiness had ever existed.

“Where’s happy?” he asked.

I gulped like a fish. “Snork,” I went, rubbing my nose, convulsing like the most demure mental patient, “snork.” We walked three more blocks. “The Algonquin?” I asked.

“What’s that?” he said.


When we walked into the lobby, I picked up Matilda the cat, balancing her in one arm and the stuffed moose in the other. My eyes were a glamorous shade of ebola red, tears blending with snot into a puddle right above my lip. The maître d’ got us a table next to the window, presumably so anyone passing by could see what fun people had inside. We were next to a group of Orthodox Jews and I thought, “Oh, man, those guys have it all figured out.”

The tables had these little novelty napkins that read, “I like a martini, one or two at the most, after three I’m under the table, after four I’m under the host – Dorothy Parker.” They were the kind of napkins the little old lady in Dubuque would find hilarious.

“I still love you,” he said, while I blew my nose into a hilarious napkin. “I’m still going to get to talk to you all the time, right?”

“No,” I replied, “you left me. Actually, you are actively leaving me. I’m not going to Myspace you.”

He shoved an entire fistful of bar mix into his mouth. “There are plenty of girls who’d date me.”

“No, there are not, actually.”

He pulled out his phone and showed me a text from a girl.

“I’m never going to talk to you again,” I said, “because you’re a bad person.”

I went to sleep alone that night, clutching that stuffed moose in the Iriquois, which is not the Algonquin, but is next to the Algonquin, and has slow, plodding elevators so antiquated that standing in them can be peaceful. I listened to “Where Do You Go (My Lovely)” and told myself that the years from 20 to 30 were going to be a very desirable age. I cried until sunrise, rocking back and forth, as if I were on a ship, at the beginning of a long voyage.

The next day, I was walking down the street and I got lost almost immediately. A man in a suit stopped to help me. “The streets are tricky around Grand Central,” he said, which they aren’t. That night I sat in the lobby of the Algonquin with him. He ordered a martini with Bombay Sapphire gin. I thought Dorothy Parker would have liked that.

- - - - - - - - - -

The next time I came to the Algonquin I was scouting Manhattan in earnest, to see if I could take up permanent residence here.

I was seeing a man then, who would make any woman think of puppy dogs and cloudless days in February. I didn’t love him. I wanted to. I didn’t. So I brought him to the Algonquin because I hoped the patina of love might smudge off on him.

We were under the awning when he told me he loved me, and the sunset –it was one of those long, Don DeLillo sunsets -- cast this pink light over everything. I thought about how good we looked, how tall he was, and how this sunset was really working for me, and I paused for three contemplative seconds and said, “I’m so glad, I love you, too!”

Well, I was 22. I liked to be loved. Later in the evening, he scooped a handful of bar mix, and I nibbled it out of his hand, like a cat. I wanted to feel domesticated. Matilda sat in the corner, her eyes half-closed in that way that gives her the curious impression of judging people.

A little later, while I was still in New York, the boy I’d dated in college called. “I heard you were back in town,” he said.



And then I started crying.

“What’s wrong? Tell me what’s wrong.”

“No, everything is fine. It’s just really good to hear from you.”

“You suck at lying. Don’t ever play poker. I mean, you’d be invited to all the good games, you’d just really suck at it.”

I thought about telling him about the ways, specifically, that my relationship was not right, and all the things that had happened since I’d talked to him last, and I paused for a second and said, “I will never play poker.”




“The Algonquin?”

“I can’t believe you still go there.”

“I love it,” I said. “It’s corny, but I love it. I love their corny little napkins.”

“It’s not very hip.” It was as though he’d taken elocution lessons from whoever turned Christian Bale into Patrick Bateman. He sounded the way cigarette ash tastes.

“It’s hip. And I don’t think that’s a thing people say.”

“Hip replacement.”

When I saw him again he looked like someone from Westchester trying to dress the way he thought someone from Manhattan would dress. We went to the Cellar Bar and Bungalow 8. I wore a white toga dress, with little black straps. It seemed very Manhattan at the time. I didn’t wear it long.

The next morning I rolled over and said, “You know I’m moving here soon.”

“We can’t get back together. You know that I’m moving to L.A., right?”

“You are?”

“In a few weeks.”

“OK,” I said, “I’m going to throw all your clothes out the window, now.”

(He was too quick.)

- - - - - - - - - -

So, I moved to New York. I was surprised to realize I had no friends. After a few weeks I began to experience the kind of loneliness that made me ride the subway at rush hour every day just so I could press against people, or walk down Fifth Avenue in the dead of summer, so I could reach out and almost half hug someone, with my arms still pinned to my sides like a Tyrannosaurus, or some other lonely monster. I lingered on the stairs at Grand Central Station and waited for people to run into me.

During the day I worked as a nude model for art classes, and at night, I sat in the Algonquin. I ate fistfuls of bar mix from my own hand for dinner, and gripped a copy of the New Yorker to keep people from thinking I was a prostitute. Some days, the only words I said out loud were “Prosecco, please.” I thought that if the loneliness stretched on and on like a horizon, the end of it eternally receding, then one day, I could check myself into a room high up at the Algonquin, and open a window, and throw myself onto 44th Street, as easily as I might toss a pair of pants.

In spite of this, I remember the bar mix tasting absolutely terrific.

Eventually I made friends. “Would it be a cliché,” one of them asked, “for a bunch of writers to go to the Algonquin?”

I was a writer by then, or something like one. I’d sold articles. In the evenings, I trotted to and fro in a plastic miniskirt serving shots someplace not as nice as the Blue Bar in the Algonquin.

“Oh, we should. We should,” I said. As if, like them, I’d never been.

For a while after that, I invited every person I met to the Algonquin, as though it had just occurred to me.

- - - - - - - - - -

Then I fell in love with a writer – a real one, a good one -- and it was actually like falling. I had been told by every reliable source that to fall in love with this person was emotional suicide. Somehow, that made the falling irresistible.

I never took him to the Algonquin, never even suggested it. It was already haunted by then. Not just by the ghosts of Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker but by specters from my past, too. They could overtake me at any moment. I could sit down, and not be able to stop thinking about some conversation I’d had in that seat three years ago. I’d think about it so hard that I spent the actual present conversation doing nothing but nodding, and making mewling cat noises of agreement.

People are forever telling you to live in the moment, but they never even hint as to which moment that might be. Still. I could see the future of that infatuation by then, and to have this man’s ghost linger there -- it would have been the ghost of Mozart’s father, it would have dragged me, or the Algonquin, or everything, right to hell.

Really, I shouldn’t have taken him to Ben & Jerry’s, either.

I took a friend to the Algonquin instead, after things with that writer ended. I was sleeping 14 hours a day, stuffing myself with sleep, gorging on it, and it was raining. I walked over to the hotel in a nightgown and trenchcoat and rhinestone-encrusted shoes. The idea of putting an outfit together seemed impossible, and, thank God, no one at the Algonquin cared.

“So,” said my friend, “this is your place.”

I nodded. I made a little cat noise.

“I like it here,” he said, “it suits you. It’s funny. And old-fashioned. And sort of sad.”

“You think I’m sad?”

“You want to hear a joke?”


“Knock, knock.”

“Who’s there?”

“Stop fucking crying, that’s who’s there.”

No joke has ever made me laugh harder. I’d print that on a hundred napkins.

- - - - - - - - - -

The boy moved back to New York, but it was a long time since we’d been to the Algonquin. He dressed well by then, sharp tailored suits.  We were drinking champagne.

“Can we get two bowls of bar mix?” asked the boy. His voice had mostly returned to normal by then, too. The waiter glowered for a while, before nodding as though he’d been asked to place a hit on an infant.

“I love that you still come here.”

“Jesus Christ. It’s awful. Sometimes I think I’ll end up a crazy old woman, here. Wearing a turban. Lipstick all over my face. Edie Beale. Mumbling 'I had a past.”’

“Well, I’d be here. I’d mumble with you.”

I was ripping at my cuticles – I do, when I’m nervous, or bored, or anything at all but ecstatic or asleep, really – and he reached out and wrapped my hand into his. It’s amazing how many things a person can say that are better than “I love you.”

And because I needed to say something I said, “We could get real food, you know. I’m starving.”

“French fries?”

“Yeah, the burgers are legit terrible.”

- - - - - - - - - -

Days before the party for the reopening, the boy texts me. “You know Matilda is back, right?” he asks. It’s 12:30 a.m., which means the Algonquin has been open for two days, and I am in bed. It’s been a year since he and I went there. We text a good deal. We gossip about our romances.

“The Algonquin is open again.”

“And Matilda is present.”

“They want Chloë Sevigny to come and make it hip. Do you remember everything that happened there? Imagine if it had been some hip place with Chloë Sevigny gazing out over it all.”

The thing about trendy places is that if they get trendy enough, they become part of public history. Children born in 1995 remember Studio 54 as though they’d danced with Warhol there. There is no room for people to make those places their homes, except for the very famous, or very rich. They belong to too many. It’s the untrendy places, the bodegas, and subway stations and hotels with faded carpeting and tacky napkins, that become so deeply intertwined in your private memories that one day you wake to realize they have been the backdrop for the story of your whole life.

I think -- I hope -- it will take more than Chloë Sevigny to change that.

It is still daylight when I leave the Algonquin opening. It is bright, and Manhattan looks so pretty today, as though she has turned herself out for a party. It is one of those rare days in June when it is not raining. I am carrying a gift bag, which the organizers of this ultra private event have given me, and I open it as soon as I get to the street corner. Inside, I find the collected works of Dorothy Parker, which I have had since I was 15.

I was 15, once. I came back from Paris, and I went to the Algonquin. It worked out as well as you could hope it would. It was a very nice party. Ultra nice. People will ask me how it was, and I will say, “Simon Doonan was there and Junot Diaz and Elizabeth Gilbert.” But what I will want to say is that I was 15, once. I came back from Paris, and I went to the Algonquin. And when I am old, and dying, I am absolutely certain I’ll still hate that bathroom staircase.

By Jennifer Wright

Jennifer Wright is the author of "It Ended Badly: Thirteen of The Worst Break-Ups In History" and the upcoming "Get Well Soon: History's Worst Plagues And The Heroes That Fought Them" (MacMillan). You can follow her on Twitter @JenAshleyWright.

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