You Must Remember This

Dorothy Parker Goes to Hollywood

The celebrated wit made her mark on the movie business—and found herself touched by the blacklist.

Dorothy Parker.
Dorothy Parker.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

You Must Remember This, the podcast that tells the secret and forgotten history of 20th-century Hollywood, is back for a new season. When each episode airs, creator and host Karina Longworth will share some of the research that went into the episode in an excerpt here on Slate. Listen to the complete Episode 3 below, on Dorothy Parker and the blacklist, and subscribe to You Must Remember This on iTunes

In New York in 1932, the celebrated wit and writer Dorothy Parker met the man who would be the most instrumental in her future Hollywood career: Alan Campbell. Campbell was an actor who had published a few short stories. He was beautiful, like a young, much better looking Scott Fitzgerald. He was 29 and Parker was 40, and they were smitten with one another. Campbell was Parker’s physical type, and she was flattered that such a young man desired her, although their age difference made her nervous enough that she usually didn’t mention it. Campbell loved Dottie’s wit, and saw immediately that she was kind of a mess when left to her own devices; he wanted to take care of her. He started by suggesting she change her hair, and when she did, she was so taken by her new look that she kept it until she died. In 1934, they married. Soon thereafter, they met an agent who suggested they go to Hollywood and sell themselves as a husband-and-wife writing team. They were offered a combined $1,250 a week to work at Paramount. That was a small fortune in those days, equivalent to about $1 million a year today. Parker was against it, but her debts had mounted to unconscionable levels, and Campbell talked her into it.

Parker’s might have been the name that got the Campbell-Parker team work, but it was Campbell who ensured that they were able to produce work. Parker’s first, solo sojourn in Hollywood in 1929 had ended without a produced screenplay, and there were indications at the beginning of her second sojourn that she was incapable of writing a whole movie. Parker was a master at firing off-one liners, and she had built a body of poems and reviews stringing together a dozen of the same, and she had started developing a talent for writing short stories of limited incident, that crusted acidic wit around a gooey core of melancholy. But she had never been much good at sustained writing or developed narrative. She hadn’t written novels because she couldn’t manage to concentrate on any one thing for that long; even a magazine article posed a serious challenge, and so much prodding from editors that the result seemed hardly worth their effort. In the language of modern Hollywood she would have been someone you called for a punch-up—to provide a dozen new lines in order to give an existing character a sense of humor or to liven up a few scenes. You would probably not think to hire her to take a blank page and a concept and turn them into a screenplay.

That’s where Alan Campbell came in. Though himself new to screenwriting, Campbell was able to see what his wife could do, and train himself to do what she couldn’t. Thus they developed a system: Campbell would structure the screenplay and sketch out the action of the scene, and then Parker would come in and pepper the structure with snappy dialogue.

Parker wasn’t proud of the work they were doing on forgettable films like the Bing Crosby vehicle Here Is My Heart, and she still objected to the pretentious nouveau riche elitism of Hollywood life in principle. But she was drinking less, and she had completely stopped talking about suicide. And whether she knew it or not, Parker was playing a role in shaping the definitive character of the first wave of talkies. In this scene from Hands Across the Table, one of Campbell and Parker’s first assignments, Carole Lombard plays a would-be gold-digging manicurist who gets an assignment from her boss, played by character actress Ruth Donnelly. Donnelly’s comebacks are vintage Parker: 

Parker insisted that Hollywood money wasn’t real money, but “congealed snow that melts in your hand.” The couple melted their snow on a new house in Beverly Hills, a Picasso, a Packard, and servants, who kept quitting because Campbell and Parker were prone to drinking all night and sleeping most of the day and expected the help to be on call whenever they were needed.

They lived as comfortably as they could, denying themselves nothing. But Parker, whose support of Sacco and Vanzetti had awakened her political consciousness, hadn’t lost her interest in progressive politics. She joined her friends Donald Ogden Stewart—who had just written Manhattan Melodrama, the first pairing of Thin Man stars William Powell and Myrna Loy—in supporting the Scottsboro Boys, eight black kids who were tried and sentenced to death for the rape of two white women.* Though there are conflicting reports as to whether or not Parker ever actually joined the Communist Party, in Hollywood publicly throwing one’s support behind the boys, as Parker and Stewart did, was equivalent to showing off a party membership card in terms of how you were perceived.

Parker and Don were concerned about what was happening in Germany, and together they hosted a dinner where Otto Katz spoke powerfully about the threat of Nazism. Some reports call Katz a “Soviet agent” sent to recruit Hollywood luminaries to the party. More nuanced reports contend that Katz was working for Willi Münzenberg, a German Communist who had fled Nazi Germany and was working out of Paris to try to publicize what Hitler was up to and what could potentially happen in a one-party anti-Semitic state.

Katz warned that Hitler could inspire a second world war, and Parker took those warnings to heart. She and Stewart, Oscar Hammerstein, and actor Frederic March formed the Hollywood Anti-Nazi league. This group published a weekly newspaper and held meetings which were well-attended and smiled on by the studios—until word started to spread that the league was a Communist front. Membership dwindled a bit, but a passionate core remained, and by the time war was actually underway, the League had roughly 4,000 members.

Politics became the driving force in Parker’s life. She started putting money behind causes, and hosting regular dinner parties for the purpose of listening to socialist speakers. She abandoned her old wardrobe of designer clothes and started dressing plainly. According to her biographer Marion Meade, the writer once outfitted in Valentino now “showed up at Paramount dressed like a Ukrainian farm woman getting ready to climb on a tractor.” She no longer had patience for friends who weren’t concerned about Hitler and fascism—and most of her friends weren’t, and thought Parker was exaggerating the threats for effect.

Many could not reconcile Dorothy Parker the activist with the excess of the Campbells’ lifestyle, the essentially self-obsessed nature of her signature writings, and her tendency toward drunken dramatization. At speaking engagements, when she’d warn of the monstrous ways of the Nazis, she’d be greeted with rolled eyes and charges of bias; if she showed emotion when talking about injustice around the world, it was assumed she was a weepy drunk. By the time the U.S. actually entered World War II to fight the fascist threat that Parker had been railing against for years, many of Parker and Campbell’s Hollywood friends had stopped talking to them.

Meade has put Parker in the camp of writers who would not have had the power to inject their personal politics into the movies they wrote even if they tried, and she notes that Parker would not have tried, because she and Campbell were too dependent on their salaries to do anything to put their earning potential in jeopardy. Based on my understanding of how the studio system worked while Dorothy Parker was working in it, I’m sure this was basically true. However, for a brief period during World War II, political ideas that Parker believed in deeply were able to sit comfortably within films intended to rouse viewers to the cause of the war. That would seem to be the explanation for Saboteur, Alfred Hitchcock’s first film made in America with an entirely American cast, from a script originally written by Peter Viertel and Joan Harrison and rewritten by Dorothy Parker.

Saboteur tells the story of a handsome young man named Barry who works at an airplane factory. When a fire breaks out at the plant, killing Barry’s best friend, Barry is blamed for it—it’s assumed he’s a spy sent to sabotage the important war work taking place there. He believes the real culprit is a shady guy he met that day at the plant, and so Barry goes on the run looking for him. He soon discovers an underground network of fascists, led by a pillar-of-society-type rich guy named Tobin. Tobin turns Barry in to the police, but the handcuffed Barry escapes, and ends up seeking refuge in a cabin in the woods occupied by a kindly older blind man. When Pat, the blind man’s supermodel niece, shows up, she spots Barry’s handcuffs, recognizes him from a radio APB, and insists her uncle turn him in: 

Barry and Pat end up traveling cross-country together. At a high society party that doubles as an emergency meeting for the fascists, Barry tries to warn the partygoers of the threat in their midst. 

The film ends in a spectacular climax inside and outside the Statue of Liberty—marking this almost-B movie with a no-name cast as a kind of dress rehearsal for Hitchcock’s later, star-studded technicolor extravaganza, North by Northwest. Aside from a scene in which Barry and Pat seek refuge on a train car occupied by circus freaks, including a baldly fascist little person, it’s unclear exactly what parts of Saboteur Parker wrote. But the film is full of the concerns that had occupied her off time and had consumed her heart since Sacco and Vanzetti: the rights of the accused, not to mention the wrongly accused; the disadvantages of the worker in a society ran by the wealthy and the powerful; the notion that being an American was not about paranoia, but about trust. Regardless of who wrote what, this is a movie in which the hero tries to warn rich people about Fascism, and is accused of being drunk. For nearly 10 years, that had been the story of Dorothy Parker’s life.

Parker didn’t work in Hollywood during much of the war. She was not subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, but she attended the hearings anyway, in support of the unfriendly 19. But she stayed off the blacklist through the 1940s.

And then in April 1951, the doorbell rang, and Parker answered, and she immediately clocked the two men in suits standing on her doorstep as FBI agents. They started asking questions. Was so-and-so a friend of hers? Did she know that so-and-so was a Communist? What about such-and-such? Did she ever see such and such at a Communist Party meeting? Parker knew better than to incriminate her friends, or herself, and apparently so did her dog, who started barking the moment the Feds crossed the threshold and didn’t stop throughout the whole interrogation. When asked point-blank if she had conspired to overthrow the government, Parker responded, “Listen, I can’t even get my dog to stay down. Do I look to you like someone who could overthrow the government?”

To hear the rest of the story of Dorothy Parker and the blacklist, listen to Episode 3 of You Must Remember This on Panoply.

*Correction, Feb. 26, 2015: This article misstated that the Scottsboro Boys were sentenced to death for the rape of one white woman. It was for the rape of two white women.