BY ELLEN MEISTER
Have you ever had to tell an editor you wouldn’t be meeting your deadline? That’s an uncomfortable conversation for any writer. But for Dorothy Parker—one of America’s greatest literary wits—it was so excruciating she simply couldn’t face it, and the consequences were nearly devastating.
In 1929, Harold Guinzburg and George Oppenheimer—the young entrepreneurs who founded Viking Press—convinced Parker to sign a contract for a novel, and deliver it in under a year. That’s high pressure for most writers. But for Parker, who often took six months to complete a short story, it was shooting for the impossible. Indeed, she was so slow and cautious in her fiction writing that she once remarked, “I can’t write five words but that I change seven.”
Still, she was determined to join the ranks of the contemporaries she so admired, such as Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and left for Europe to work on her book. By the end of 1930, her deadline had passed and she had nothing to show for it except one long (and often hilarious) letter she had written to her publishers over the summer. (Complete letter available as an ebook from Penguin Classics with an introduction by Marion Meade. See Alpine Giggle Week: How Dorothy Parker Set Out to Write the Great American Novel and Ended Up in a TB Colony Atop an Alpine Peak.)
And so she sailed back to the U.S. to tell the young Viking founders in person that she had failed. The conversation, however, never happened. Too distressed to face them, she attempted suicide by swallowing poisonous shoe polish. Fortunately for those of us who cherish the stories, essays, poems and reviews she wrote in the years that followed, Parker only succeeded in making herself terribly ill, and several months later she recovered.
She never did deliver on the manuscript. In the 1970s, Viking reported that their agreement with Dorothy Parker was the longest unfulfilled contract in the company’s history. In the intervening years, however, they contracted with Parker to edit a collection of works by her friend F. Scott Fitzgerald. She struggled writing the introduction and simply couldn’t complete it. It was 1945, and facing her editor with this failure wasn’t any easier than it had been fifteen years earlier.
Fortunately, however, Parker found a less dangerous way to avoid the confrontation: she sent him a telegram. And while most of Parker’s papers were destroyed, this small treasure (complete with a spelling error that is probably the teletypist’s), still exists to remind us that even our literary heroes struggled putting words on a page.
PASCAL COVICI, VIKING PRESS 1945 JUN 28 PM 4 37 18 EAST 48 ST
THIS IS INSTEAD OF TELEPHONING BECAUSE I CANT LOOK YOU IN THE VOICE. I SIMPLY CANNOT GET THAT THING DONE YET NEVER HAVE DONE SUCH HARD NIGHT AND DAY WORK NEVER HAVE SO WANTED ANYTHING TO BE GOOD AND ALL I HAVE IS A PILE OF PAPER COVERED WITH WRONG WORDS. CAN ONLY KEEP AT IT AND HOPE TO HEAVEN TO GET IT DONE. DONT KNOW WHY IT IS SO TERRIBLY DIFFICULT OR I SO TERRIBLY INCOMPETANT.
Ellen Meister is a novelist, essayist, public speaker and creative writing instructor at Hofstra University (Hempstead, NY). She runs a popular Dorothy Parker page on Facebook that has over 130,000 followers. Her novels include Farewell, Dorothy Parker (Putnam 2013) and The Other Life (Putnam 2011).
In February 2015, Putnam will publish her fifth novel, Dorothy Parker Drank Here. To connect with Ellen, visit ellenmeister.com, and for daily quotes from her Dorothy Parker, follow her Facebook page.