When I started out as a writer in the 1960’s, I had to go to New York. There was no alternative. Even Boston, where I lived for a few years after college, and which had an old literary tradition, wouldn’t do; the real publishers, agents, bookstores and readers were—they had to be!—in New York. I had no idea, really, what New York was like; I’d never lived there; and I couldn’t have predicted how hostile the environment would be to me.
With my husband and our little boy, I moved into an old residential hotel on East 74th Street, called the Volney. We had several rooms, all beige; the high windows, which we could open and which did not have screens or bars, faced a drop as steep as a canyon with Lexington Avenue far below.
I used to stand, mesmerized, looking down that long drop. I was forcing myself to work every day, but the sustaining life of a New York writer had not opened to me, and would not. My chief, iconic experience was to take place at a literary cocktail party, where I talked to Norman Mailer while he stared over my head.
Or there were the parties at George Plimpton’s house on the East River, where the “girls” were laid out like slabs of meat on a buffet.
Or the start of the New York Review of Books in its office on West 57th Street, where I licked envelops.
And that summer in the city it was very hot.
There was no escape; Central Park was dusty and rundown, the Volney had no air conditioning (nobody did) and my little boy was unhappy with the quiet persistent unhappiness of a sensitive child. The sitter I’d hired to take him to the park, a silent African-American, quit the day she was asked to ride in the service elevator.
Later, going down in the white people’s elevator, I would see a silent, bowed woman I took to be at least a hundred years old. Her silence seemed to bubble with suppressed comments, and her glances were dire; she dressed, always, in black. She seemed a warning of what could happen to women in the great, cruel city. I had no idea who she was.
Many years later, I learned that Dorothy Parker had lived during the last years of her life at the Volney, drying “in her rooms there,” in 1967.
She has been misrepresented as a scandalous woman and a wit. The first part of her reputation came, forcibly, to mind, yesterday when a tall loud man insisted that he knew me, based on a fifty-year-old scandal; Parker would have had to deal, often, with insulting insinuations. She is even blamed for the suicide of her two husbands. Outspoken women still are targets for unleashed hostility.
But I remember her excellent short story, “The Rope,” a parable of marital unhappiness. I relish her late apercu of the overrated Algonquin Round Table: “There were no giants there… Just a lot of people telling jokes and telling each other how good they were.” Few writers, or people in general, have that degree of detachment about their pasts.
I wish I had known who she was when, in my misery and her decay, we shared the white people’s elevator at the Volney. Perhaps I could have told her that one day, decades later, I would come to admire her writing—and how she would have hissed! Perhaps she could have warned me against expecting New York to nourish me, and against expecting too much of men. Certainly she had the courage and the clear-sightedness required for such a warning, and I might even have heard her.
Today the Volney has been renovated and turned into condominiums, and I doubt if any unhappy young writers or angry old writers can afford to live there.
What remains in the end are our words.