The Traveling Cremains of Dorothy Parker

Posted on September 17, 2020 by Martin Oaks under Community, Cremation, Hello world, Memorial, Resources
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Fifty-three years after her death, Dorothy Parker’s cremains have just been buried in their forever home at Woodlawn Cemetery, The Bronx, New York.

This protracted ordeal began on June 7, 1967 when Parker died from a heart attack in her Manhattan hotel suite.  The wry author and wisecracking mainstay of the famed Algonquin Round Table was 73 years old.

Despite her expressed desire that no public service be held, Parker’s executor, playwright Lillian Hellman, arranged for a memorial at Frank Campbell’s posh funeral chapel on June 9th.

As Parker biographer Marion Meade related, the brief event was comprised of a Bach violin piece and eulogies delivered by Hellman and Zero Mostel, a Parker intimate.  One hundred fifty mourners were in attendance.

“If she had her way, I suspect she would not be here at all,” Mostel said.

After the ceremony, Parker was cremated at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.  The ashes were placed inside an urn for what was presumed to be short-term storage.

Those storage plans were derailed as conflicts over the estate arose.

Parker’s will was explicit: Hellman was named executor; all of the writer’s assets, including future royalties, went to The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.  In the event of King’s death, the NAACP was the next designated beneficiary.

King was astonished when he heard about the inheritance — the two had never met, so he had no idea that civil rights was one of Parker’s enduring passions. “It verifies what I have always said, the Lord will provide,” King avowed.

Details of the will seriously aggravated Hellman.  She later told fellow writer, Howard Teichmann, “You won’t believe what Parker’s done.  I paid her hotel bill at the Volney for years, kept her in booze, paid for her suicide attempts, all on the promise that when she died, she would leave me the rights to her writing.  At my death, they would pass to the NAACP.  But what did she do?  She left them directly to the NAACP.”

Hellman was zeroing in on the most valuable asset in the estate — Parker, who was paid thousands of dollars a week screenwriting, had squandered her earnings. After paying off debts, the estate was just slightly north of $20,000.

The rights to Parker’s short stories, criticism and verse could be material.  Hellman had been down this path previously when she secured the valuable rights of her long-time companion, Dashiell Hammett.

In the early 1970’s, after legal wrangling, Hellman was terminated as executor — rights to Parker’s work went to the NAACP, as had been specified in the will.

Meanwhile, Parker’s cremains traveled a circuitous path.  After a month at the crematory, they were sent back to her legal representatives.  Absent direction from the executor, the ashes were placed in an office filing cabinet, where they sat, forgotten.

Marion Meade’s biography of Parker, What Fresh Hell is This, was released in 1987; then, the cremains became a very public issue. A filing cabinet was hardly a becoming final resting place.

Upon learning of the dilemma, Benjamin Hooks, executive director of the NAACP, took action: along with two community leaders, he arranged for a memorial garden to be constructed behind the organization’s Baltimore, Maryland headquarters.  “The idea of a white woman leaving her entire estate, all she had, to the Black cause was unparalleled,” Hooks declared.

Parker’s cremains were interred in the garden, secure for the time.

Earlier this summer, the NAACP announced the headquarters were going to move to Washington, D.C. What to do with Dorothy Parker became a concern once again.

As Laurie Gwen Shapiro reported in The New Yorker, Kevin Fitzpatrick — author and Parker-aficionado — arrived at an appropriate solution.  Parker’s parents and grandparents were buried in the Woodlawn Cemetery — additional spaces had been purchased for other family members.

Working with the NAACP and Parker’s grandnieces, Fitzpatrick was able to transfer the writer’s cremains back to a family plot in her favorite city, New York.

Fittingly, she was buried on August 22, 2020, the 127th anniversary of her birth.  The epitaph on her urn was one she had suggested: “Excuse my Dust.”

In celebration of Dorothy Parker’s wit, here is small collection of some her best bon mots:

“Living well is the best revenge.”

“It is so easy to be sweet to people before you love them.”

“Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes close to the bone.”

“Brevity is the soul of lingerie.”

“Men seldom make passes at women who wear glasses.”

“Don’t look at me in that tone of voice.”

“Of course I talk to myself.  I like a good speaker and I appreciate an intelligent audience.”

“You can’t take it with you, and even if you did, it probably would melt.”

Dorothy Parker, RIP.

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