Striking with the ultimate comeback is always satisfying, especially when you deliver it in the moment and not on the way home five hours later. One writer who never faced this issue was Dorothy Parker, with her razor-sharp tongue cutting straight to the bone.
Firing barbs back and forth with fellow artists at the now infamous New York Algonquin Round Table during the 1920s, she engaged in many battles of the wits, sharpening her pen in the process.
So here are some of those classic one-line roasts that would give today’s celeb beefs a run for their money.
On Seeing Katherine Hepburn Perform – ‘She ran the gamut of emotions from A to B.’
After seeing Katherine Hepburn stink it up on stage, Parker delivered this damning analysis of her performance. Not one to mince words, she perfectly summed up an early production of the famous star’s inability to express herself. And, not only that, Hepburn agreed with her.
Seeing her early thirties Broadway play ‘The Lake’ become a critical failure, Hepburn didn’t look back on it fondly. Instead, she went to Hollywood and became a screen legend instead.
So maybe a bit of ribbing can help out in the long run. Dorothy later stated she was only joking during the intermission and liked the actress overall.
While Rome Burns (1934) – ‘That woman speaks eighteen languages and can’t say ‘no’ in any of them.’
There’s contention over whether it was Parker who first cracked this, with there already being a variation of the joke kicking about Hollywood. Either way, Alexander Woollcott credited her in his 1934 collection of musings ‘While Rome Burns.’
It’s also not entirely certain who she was talking about, as she’s said to have uttered it about a friend who’d passed out of earshot. Later, in 2003, film critic Gene Shalit mentioned actress Merle Oberon. ‘Do let me call you up sometime, won’t you, please?’ Dorothy asked her departing friend before dropping the dig surreptitiously. Whether Merle was the target of her jab is anyone’s guess, but it remains a line worthy of Parker.
On the Journalist Harold Ross – ‘His ignorance was an Empire State Building of ignorance. You had to admire it for its size.’
Never one to hold back, Mrs. Dorothy Parker had this to say of her journalist friend Harold Ross. He founded The New Yorker in 1925, where Parker published numerous pieces from its second issue onwards.
So always great to make an impression with the new boss.
It was also in The New Yorker that she’d write under her infamous alias ‘Constant Reader,’ eviscerating countless books between 1927 and 1933. One particularly scathing review mentioned how the ‘Tonstant Weader fwowed up’ while reading what she felt was a particularly mawkish novel.
It was A.A. Milne’s ‘The House at Pooh Corner.’
We just thought we’d slip that one in there.
On Reviewing Gertrude Stein’s play Tillie (1919) – ‘To quote the only line of Gertrude Stein’s which I have ever been able to understand, ‘It is wonderful how I am not interested.”
Taken from Parker’s review of the Broadway play ‘Tillie,’ this summarized her distinct lack of interest in Stein’s work as a playwright. Found in the ‘Complete Broadway, 1918 – 1923,’ many other acerbic stage reviews are also collected from this period.
Parker later went on to say of Stein ‘Gertrude Stein did us the most harm when she said, ‘You’re all a lost generation.’ That got around to certain people and we all said, ‘Whee! We’re lost.”
So it looks more than likely there was some animosity between the generations here. We all have our time.
When Informed of President Calvin Coolidge’s Death – ‘How could they tell?’
Responding to the passing of ex-president Calvin Coolidge, Parker quipped, ‘how could they tell?’ Famously unemotional, he was the 30th president of the United States. Hearing the news announced during a theater production, Parker discreetly made the wisecrack to a friend.
There were reports of others delivering similar gags, which is unsurprising given he was a particularly ‘lifeless’ president. But her prompt response was noted in the spur of the moment, making it another banger for Parker.
After Being Told ‘Age Before Beauty’ – ‘Pearls Before Swine.’
Allowing Dorothy to pass while attending an evening meal, a younger socialite reportedly said, ‘Age before beauty, Mrs. Parker.’ It’s a typical line that most people know. The difference here is it was Dorothy Parker on the receiving end, and, quick as a flash, she replied, ‘And pearls before swine.’
Is there another comeback to that? Or is it time to ring the bell?
Many believe the socialite to have been writer politician Clare Boothe Luce, who was apparently feuding with Parker during the 1930s. There have been countless witty responses to the line over the years, but this is one of the best.