On the Cap d’Antibes, at the entrance to the chemin des Mougins, a fragment of a sign remains nailed to a post. The sign used to direct visitors to the Villa America, the home of a wealthy Bostonian couple Gerald and Sara Murphy, who lived there through most of the 1920s.
The villa was well named, for it was here that the Murphys extended hospitality – and sometimes money – to galaxies of contemporary American writers and hangers-on. Among those enjoying their largesse – and the escape from Prohibition – was the New York short story writer, poet and critic, Dorothy Parker.
The Murphys had been introduced to the Cap d’Antibes by Gerald’s former Yale college-mate, the song-writer Cole Porter, and stayed for most of the decade. Their lifestyle was lavish and their parties notorious. They were the models for Dick and Nicole Diver in Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night: when someone asks the Divers if they like the Côte d’Azur, another character says, ‘They have to – they invented it’.
Parker was one of the better known members of a group of writers who lunched regularly at the Round Table in New York’s Algonquin Hotel for marathons of gossip and bootleg drinking – although according to Harpo Marx, it only became a Round Table ‘when everybody was getting nostalgic about the twenties. Until then it was just a table.’
During World War II she had spent three weeks with Somerset Maugham at the aptly-named Parker’s Ferry in Yemassee, South Carolina – his temporary home during the German occupation of the French Riviera. Maugham called himself her ‘admiring friend’: when they sat together at a boring literary dinner in Hollywood, they amused themselves writing poems to each other. One of hers that he treasured was:
Higgledy Piggledy, my white hen;
She lays eggs for gentlemen
But you cannot persuade her with gun or lariat
To come across for the proletariat.
As Constant Reader, book and theatre critic for the New Yorker magazine, Parker reviewed the work of a number of Côte d’Azur writers. She idolized Ring Lardner and James Thurber, creator of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, found the journals of Katherine Mansfield ‘the saddest book I have ever read’, and slept through George Bernard Shaw. But she reserved her bitterest invective for A. A. Milne, ending her review of The House at Pooh Corner: ‘Tonstant Weader fwowed up’.
(Milne, who stayed at Cap Martin in 1914, took ten years to respond: in his autobiography he wrote, ‘No writer of children’s books says gaily to his publisher, “Don’t bother about the children, Mrs. Parker will love it”.’)
A prolific writer for most of her a lifetime, Parker is best remembered for a nine-word poem:
Men seldom make passes At girls who wear glasses
She lived much of her life in Manhattan hotels, and in 1967 she died in one, alone, at the age of 74. Her ashes were collected from the cremarorium by a friend five years later and sent to her lawyer, who kept them for a further 15 years, after which they were claimed by the National Association of Colored Peoples as part of Martin Luther King Jnr.’s ‘estate’. (She had left her entire estate to King, who was assassinated soon after her death.) The NAACP eventually buried the ashes in a specially-built memorial at its headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland in 1988 – 21 years after her death.