How Dorothy Parker's Ashes Ended Up In Baltimore

Aug 19, 2015
Originally published on August 19, 2015 8:09 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When it came to acid commentary, Dorothy Parker surely did. It is said she once commented on a book by saying, this is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

She's also credited with saying, if you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.

INSKEEP: Parker once wrote a poem about suicide in which she turned against it because it just seemed like too much trouble.

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DOROTHY PARKER: Razors pain you. Rivers are damp. Acids stain you, and drugs cause cramp. Guns aren't lawful. Nooses give. Gas smells awful. You might as well live.

INSKEEP: That's Dorothy Parker herself reading the poem. She died of natural causes in 1967, and this is the story of what happened to her remains. She ended up far from her beloved New York in Baltimore. And in this encore presentation, NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce paid a visit.

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NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: So I'm here on the outskirts of Baltimore in a parking lot of a big red brick building that's surrounded by trees and grass. This is the headquarters of the NAACP. And believe it or not, this is the final resting place of Dorothy Parker.

JAMES MURRAY: What happened is Dorothy died in 1967.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: James Murray is the archivist here at the NAACP.

MURRAY: In her will, she stated that Martin Luther King should be the one to have her estate.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Dorothy Parker never met Martin Luther King, Jr., who was surprised by her bequest. Less than a year later, he was assassinated. And Murray says another part of Parker's will kicked in.

MURRAY: If something should've happened to Martin Luther King, she would like for her estate to be turned over to the NAACP.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Even today, the NAACP controls Parker's literary rights. In her writings and her life, Parker sympathized with the oppressed. Those sympathies are actually what ruined one brief visit she made to Baltimore. Murray says she met the writer H.L. Mencken.

MURRAY: And she was quite disappointed because Mencken seemed to talk about blacks, And Dorothy didn't feel comfortable, so she went right back up to New York.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So he was talking about them in a way that was, like, derogatory?

MURRAY: Derogatory, and Dorothy didn't feel comfortable.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: It's impossible to know if she'd be comfortable with her current Baltimore stay. Murray takes me over to a group of pine trees next to the parking lot. Under the trees, there's a circle of brick with a round plaque in the middle. And it says, here lie the ashes of Dorothy Parker, humorist, writer, critic, defender of human and civil rights. For her epitaph, she suggested, excuse my dust.

Do you get a lot of visitors here?

MURRAY: Yes, we do, and most of them from out of town, not local.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Baltimore may not be New York, but it is a step up from Dorothy Parker's previous resting place.

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PAUL O'DWYER: Dorothy Parker left instructions that she be cremated, but she left no instructions as to what was to be done with her ashes.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That is New York attorney Paul O'Dwyer, speaking to NPR in 1988. His office represented the writer Lillian Hellman, a friend of Parker's who was the executrix for her estate. Hellman never claimed the ashes from the mortuary, and O'Dwyer said it was billing her for storage.

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O'DWYER: They threatened to throw them out, and I said we'll dispose of them later on.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Later on meant about 15 years later. That's how long Parker's ashes sat in a filing cabinet in his office. One day, O'Dwyer was chatting on the phone with someone writing a biography of Parker, who was shocked when he said, I'm looking right at her. Soon after, O'Dwyer held a meeting. Reporters and others gathered at the Algonquin Hotel, where Parker used to lunch with her witty friends. Someone said, why not just keep her remains right here at the bar? But, O'Dwyer said the hotel didn't like the idea. He and the head of the NAACP wanted the ashes in Baltimore. But back then, and even now, some of her fellow New Yorkers saw things differently. Kevin Fitzpatrick is head of the Dorothy Parker Society of New York. He says the memorial garden was a nice gesture by the NAACP, but if the organization ever moves its headquarters, he hopes Parker can come home to her family's burial plot in the Bronx.

KEVIN FITZPATRICK: I think she belongs in New York City, but, you know, until that time, I think she's just going to chill out and (laughter) be in Baltimore.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Where visitors can pay their respects and imagine the wisecracks she would've made about Baltimore versus the filing cabinet. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.