August 22, 2018

A Dinner Party for the Ages With Debussy, Dorothy Parker, and the Queen of Soul

By Stuart Mitchner 

The guest list for this week was set for Debussy and Dorothy Parker until the news of Aretha Franklin’s death. The upside of an open-ended column is that there’s seemingly room at the last minute even for someone of Aretha’s magnitude. It’s like a variation on the who-would-you-invite-to-a-dinner-party question people get asked every week in the New York Times Book Review. At this one, you can be sure the piano would get a work-out and the music would be amazing, but what would they talk about? One obvious thing the Queen of Soul and the Dark Lady of the Algonquin Round Table have in common is that both received lavish front-page Times obituaries, with last Friday’s edition running an inventory of Franklin’s “essential songs” not unlike the June 8, 1967 issue’s extensive sampler of Dorothy Parker’s “rapier wit.”

The most obvious thing Msr. Debussy and Mrs. Parker have in common is that both were born on August 22, he in 1862, she in 1893. This year is also the 100th anniversary of the composer’s death, March 25, 1918. His solo piano swan song “Elégie” was dated the day before he underwent surgery for cancer.

Debussy in Hollywood

There’s material for a Dorothy Parker paragraph in the way Debussy’s music first caught my attention. Keep in mind that the merciless wit who allegedly claimed that Katherine Hepburn “runs the gamut of emotion from A to B” once compared a movie theatre to an “enlarged and magnificently decorated lethal chamber.” That said, what I’m talking about happens on the screen of a small Sony TV when Spencer Tracy walks into a darkened room in his bathrobe, opens the curtains on a tall moonlit window, pauses at a piano, and, while standing, begins to play “Claire de lune.” As he sits down at the keyboard to commune with Debussy’s hymn to moonlight, Katherine Hepburn, also in a bathrobe, appears on a moonlit stairway, breathlessly listening. It should have been laughable, but the sheer unexpectedness of it all and the hushed beauty of the music offset the Hollywood banality. As for who is actually playing the piano in this 1945 film (Without Love), IMDB lists only one Jakob Gimpel as “piano double,” a name Mrs. Parker might have had some fun with were she commenting on the spectacle of Tracy playing Debussy in solemn soft focus while Hepburn stands transfixed on a soundstage stairway.

Mrs. Parker has a history with the piece dating back to her 1921 review of the Broadway musical Snapshots, which singles out an “incredible burlesque” of “Clair de lune” that she declares “incredibly awful.” Later, in her round-up of the “highlights” of the 1920-21 Broadway season, she recalls the fountain in the “Clair de lune” travesty as being “faithfully copied” from the one that dentists indicate when they say, “Now rinse, please.”

Being a Woman

You can see Parker discovering herself in the theater reviews collected in Dorothy Parker: Complete Broadway 1918-1923 (iUniverse 2014). Only 24 when she took on the job for Vanity Fair, she soon developed a personal presence that gave her playfully intimate access to her readers. It’s there in the April 1918 review of Oh, Lady! Lady!! when she writes, “If you ask me, I will look you fearlessly in the eye and tell you, in low, throbbing tones, that it has it all over any other musical comedy in town.” Reviewing The Love Mill in the same issue, she sarcastically portrays herself as “a tired business woman” who loves “my bit of vulgarity of an evening.” After watching Sinbad, she claims to take “a certain amount of civic pride in the fact that there is probably more nudity in our own Winter Garden than there is in any other place in the world,” but that there are times when she pines for the show to be over so she can “go out in the street and see a lot of women with clothes on.”

Six years later in Ainslee’s magazine, she’s vamping her male readers: “If I were to tell you the plot of the piece, in detail, you would feel that the only honorable thing for you to do would be to marry me.” It’s not just that she’s comfortable being a woman, she’s a woman with uncomfortable convictions and opinions she has the courage to express. In his introducion to Complete Broadway, Kevin C. Fitzpatrick notes that she was “an outspoken critic when it came to race and religion in Broadway productions. She abhorred the racial stereotypes prevalent in the era,” finding the actors’ portrayal of the Negro race in a blackface comedy “only as deep as a layer of burnt cork.”

Assumed Names

The Frenchman and the lady from West End, N.J. share more than their birthdays. Besides a tendency to write controversial reviews that could get the journals they worked for in trouble, both had a habit of using assumed names, Debussy’s being “Monsieur Croche” while Parker’s New Yorker persona was “Constant Reader.” It’s possible to imagine her connecting with Debussy’s alter ego’s “silent smile that would begin at his nose and gradually spread out in wrinkles all over his face — as if someone had thrown a pebble into some calm pool. It would last for ages and was quite intolerable.”

Another passage in Debussy On Music (Knopf 1977) she might been sympathetic to was written under his own name on April 1, 1901, wherein he promises to give his “sincere impressions rather than ‘Criticism,’ which is all too often no more than a brilliant set of variations on the theme of ‘you didn’t do it as I would, that’s your mistake.’“ There’s something similarly Parkeresque in the passage suggesting that “grownups tend to forget that as children they were forbidden to open the insides of their dolls — a crime of high treason against the cause of mystery …. And yet they still insist on poking their aesthetic noses into things that don’t concern them!” After allowing some critics the benefit “of their complete ignorance,” Debussy skewers “the more spiteful of them” who “give rein to their malice” in order to “cling frantically to their own pitiful mediocrity.”

Happiness Is a Rubber Duck

Constant Reader enjoys giving rein to her malice and does it so infectiously that even her victims might have laughed out loud — after picking themselves up off the floor, having been dealt “a prettily crossed right to the jaw” by a reviewer who refers to herself as “your girl-friend.” Take Yale Professor William Lyon Phelps, the author of a little book called Happiness (“an opus the size of a Christmas card”), which Parker finds “second only to a rubber duck as the ideal bathtub companion. It may be held in the hand without causing muscular fatigue or nerve strain, it may be neatly balanced back of the faucets, and it may be read through before the water has cooled. And if it slips down the drain pipe, all right, it slips down the drain pipe.”

Parker’s most quoted New Yorker zinger isn’t her best or her funniest, and no one seems to know whether or not A.A. Milne, the creator of Winnie the Pooh, laughed or groaned after reading her October 20, 1928 review, the one that ends with a reference to Pooh’s use of the word “hummy,” which marks the place in The House at Pooh Corner, “my darlings, at which Tonstant Weader Fwowed up.”

The Glory of Aretha

The year Dorothy Parker died, Aretha Franklin’s version of Otis Redding’s “Respect” was on its way to the top of the charts and into the consciousness of a time when blacks and women were no longer asking for respect but demanding it. Mrs. Parker would have approved, having been engaged on both fronts long before the summer of 1967. She marched for the women’s right to vote in 1913, helped raise money for the defense of the Scottsboro boys in the 1930s, and after her death, her literary estate was left to Martin Luther King, and then to the NAACP. Her ashes are buried in a memorial garden at the organization’s headquarters in Baltimore. Edmund Wilson is quoted at the conclusion of her New York Times obituary, observing that she “has put into what she has written a voice, a state of mind, an era, a few moments of human experience that nobody else has conveyed.”

Speaking of voice, state of mind, and moments of human experience, there’s the stirring spectacle of Aretha Franklin singing “You make me feel like a natural woman” less than three years ago to an audience at the Kennedy Center that included Barack and Michelle Obama, who were then still president and first lady. In the summer of 2018, the glory of Aretha pouring forth her soul “in such an ecstasy” with an African American president in office is as painful as it is beautiful.

Party Time

Never mind. No use spoiling this transcendental dinner party, not with everyone dressed to the nines. We’ll borrow a moonlit window in New York or Paris or Detroit and a suitable piano as Debussy plays his most famous piece and the little woman Alexander Woollcott once described as “a blend of Lady Macbeth and Little Nell” tells us, “There are certain spells during certain evenings — cognac is best for a starter — when my English slips from me like the shucked skin of a snake, and I converse only in the elegant French tongue. But what French! O God, O Montreal, what French!” After she goes on to destroy a few lines from Paul Verlaine’s poem (“Au calme clair de lune triste et beau,/Qui fait rêver les oiseaux dans les arbres”), Debussy will humor her with some galloping slapstick piano, perhaps “The Golliwog’s Cakewalk,” before Aretha stands up, sheds her mink, and brings everyone to tears singing “Amazing Grace.”