During my first trip to New York, just as if I had been a Syrian arriving in Nero’s Rome, it was necessary to fulfill certain unavoidable rituals: see Picasso’s Guernica at MOMA; cross the Brooklyn Bridge on foot; have a martini at The River Cafe; spend the night in the Chelsea Motel beneath the shadow of Dylan Thomas; devour half of a chicken at Sylvia’s in Harlem and afterwards attend Sunday services in any Chapel of the Seventh-Day Adventists to hear a sermon with rhythm and blues; find out if it were true that there were colonies of white, blind crocodiles in the sewers and if rat men were reproducing among the rusty pipes 50 meters deep, right under Tiffany's jewelry store, where, according to Truman Capote, you had to buy a handful of diamonds to add to the morning oatmeal.
It was an initiatory journey in search of a writer but in this case it was not Truman Capote, who enthralled me; nor Scott Fitzgerald; nor John Dos Passos; nor J.D. Salinger; no, it was the journalist Dorothy Parker whom I bore in my memory from a remote summer of my adolescence in which I discovered that this woman had visited the Hotel Vermeer, in Benicàssim, Spain during the Spanish Civil War, where members of the International Brigade were convalescing. There the journalist had an affair with a brigadista who went crazy at the end of the war because no one in the bars would believe him when he told about this adventure.
New York is a mental state or a literary genre before which a writer should measure himself because it changes nature every five years. When I arrived for the first time, it was a filthy, violent city, with the sickeningly sweet odor of gas mixed with the smell of putrid vanilla ice cream, to the point where you were disappointed if during the first night you were not stabbed in Hell’s Kitchen or if you didn’t see a demented prophet fire a rifle at close range from an eave of a building.
Who was Dorothy Parker? On my first visit to New York, she had recently died from a heart attack, sautéed in alcohol, alone in a hotel with just her dog Troy, on Wednesday, June 7, 1967. However, her verses were still alive and in the air:
“Drink and dance and laugh and lie,
Love, the reeling midnight through,
For tomorrow we shall die!
(But, alas, we never do.)”
She had written this without succeeding at dying despite having tried to do so two times: once by cutting her veins with the razor blade of her husband; another time with Veronal.
In her time of glory, this woman was at the center of a world that one could only dream about: Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Hollywood at the end of the silent film era, the golden era of Montparnasse, vacations on the Riviera. She was always invited by her wealthy friends, who needed the outbursts of her scathing tongue during their after dinner conversations or over drinks in the white chairs of their gardens, in order to feel wonderful, diabolical, and evanescent.
In the same manner that she squandered her genius like a mischievous child, she also filled fashionable magazines with her stories. But it was in The New Yorker, of which she was a stockholder, where her talent shone.
One day, she kneeled and prayed:
—Dear God, I pray that you make me stop writing like a woman.
How does that prayer sound today?
Her lyrics lent glamor to the songs of Irving Berlin and Cole Porter. The first recording of Glenn Miller, in 1932, was one of her poems entitled, “How Was I to Know this Happiness Was Love?” And in Hollywood, she wrote scripts at a fixed rate per page, left in mailboxes next to those of Scott Fitzgerald, who was by then an alcoholic wreck. She appeared frivolous, always carrying a Pomeranian dog in her arms, but she never stopped being a radical—a point of reference among the writers of The New Yorker, divine specimens who had established their tertulia(*) at The Round Table of the Hotel Algonquin on 59 West 44 Street. She went as far as to occupy a suite there where her lovers arrived and departed as if it were a post office branch.
She depreciated the rich but enjoyed their money, and while she lived she was always surrounded by friends until immolating herself upon the altar of the dawn. That was the New York of Dorothy Parker.