11 April 2006

Stranger than fiction

Marion Meade's engrossing account of the relationship between Dorothy Parker and Lillian Hellman ends with a morbid twist:
In the winter of 1987, after completing a biography of Parker, I was preparing to deliver the manuscript to my publisher when I made a curious discovery. One afternoon I was chatting on the phone with Hellman's attorney, O'Dwyer, who was sitting in his office on Wall Street. Because I routinely verify the whereabouts of my deceased subjects, I mentioned one remaining bit of business: a visit to Parker's grave at Ferncliff Cemetery, in Hartsdale.

"Oh, she's not there," O'Dwyer interrupted. "Of course she is," I began to argue. "No, no. I'm looking right at her." A funny thing had happened to Parker's ashes, he explained. They hadn't been claimed. "Excuse me?" I said. "Never buried?"

As it turned out, Ferncliff's periodic reminders to Hellman about the unpaid storage bill had gone unheeded. By the early '70s, no longer executor and presumably believing this kind of problem was not her business, Hellman had no intention of covering the cost or of paying for a spot in Ferncliff's urn garden. On the other hand, she feared a scandal if the crematory were to make good on its unspoken threat to throw the ashes away. In the end, she advised Ferncliff to package the remains and ship them to her attorneys. Upon receiving it, O'Dwyer and Bernstien stored the package in the bottom drawer of a file cabinet and stood by for further instructions, which never arrived. Hellman died in 1984.

So when O'Dwyer said he was staring right at Parker, he was correct. The file cabinet containing the ashes was located in his private office, a few feet behind his desk. At the time of our conversation, they had been sitting in there for fifteen years, which is not as odd as it might sound. In a busy law office, a package can easily be overlooked. As a result, the box and its unusual contents had been forgotten, though not completely, as O'Dwyer had once shown it to his friend the writer Malachy McCourt, making for an odd celebrity sighting if ever there was one. Years earlier, the young McCourt had met the sixty-seven-year-old Parker at a Hollywood party, proclaimed her unbearably sexy, and gaily propositioned her—and she had responded by calling him a big jerk. Far from starstruck, the jollying McCourt had no idea of her identity because she gave her name only as Dorothy and said she wrote "little things."

Insofar as can be known, McCourt is the only person to have paid his respects to Parker during her "file drawer" period.

Of course something had to be done. After hanging up, I thought about asking O'Dwyer for the ashes and trying to arrange for Parker to be buried alongside her parents at Woodlawn Cemetery, in the Bronx. A biographer's taking possession of a subject's remains may be unusual, but these were unusual circumstances. Before I could propose this plan, however, O'Dwyer called a meeting at the Algonquin for the purpose of deciding a final resting place. People came from all over the country to offer suggestions ranging from the traditional to the fanciful: sprinkling the ashes from an airplane; combining them with oil in a painting; putting them on permanent display in one of the Algonquin's bars. Though the white-haired O'Dwyer, then eighty years old, felt an urgent need to resolve the situation, both he and the Parker estate found the proposals inappropriate. Finally, it was Dr. Benjamin Hooks, then executive director of the NAACP, who came forward to claim the ashes and insist upon a plan that would not trivialize the writer's life. He announced that the NAACP would construct a memorial garden on the grounds of its national headquarters in Baltimore. As Hooks noted, "The idea of a white woman leaving her entire estate . . . to the black cause was unparalleled. I can imagine the gesture was greeted with a raised eyebrow by many whites."

Undoubtedly—and some of the eyebrows belonged to Parker's friends. Now there were wags shaking their heads and likening Baltimore to a fate worse than death.

Was the denouement perfect? Perhaps not, but it was certainly sensible—and if nothing else, a lot better than a makeshift mausoleum in O'Dwyer's drawer.

October 20, 1988, was a sunny, gusty Thursday, with temperatures in Baltimore barely creeping into the fifties. That afternoon, Hooks and Kurt Schmoke, the city's mayor, lowered the forty-pound urn into a brick compartment. The monetary value of the circular garden of white pines, designed by the dean of the Howard University School of Architecture, amounted to ten thousand dollars. As befitted last rites for a major literary figure, the occasion was marked by earnest speeches citing Parker's commitment to civil rights and to the traditional friendship between blacks and Jews. (Parker's membership in the Communist Party and subsequent claim of her Fifth Amendment right not to self-incriminate were not mentioned.)

Parker was finally laid to rest twenty-one years, seven months, and thirteen days after her death. Her friends were unable to attend because nearly all of them were dead.
(via Chekhov's Mistress)


Brook said...

that has to be one of the most macabre and morbid things I've read in my life.

mixed in with an oil painting?!!? good lord...

Carrie said...

That is one of the most interesting stories. Thanks for posting.
Oh, and thank you for the explanation of your hiding whereabouts! I was wondering. So pleased that you found a coffee retreat!

amcorrea said...

"Retreat" is a great word--I won't say more in this medium, but things haven't been going so well. It was a relief to be able to say something positive.

There's an equally morbid story about the body of William Butler Yeats... Will post it soon.