I’m a big Janis Joplin fan. My high school theatre teacher turned me onto her when I was fourteen. I have every album she ever recorded. I even own the “special 24-karat Gold Disc” Master Sound Series of her seminal album Pearl. My husband paid a fortune for it back in the day when CDs were cool. It was an anniversary present. I was delighted, though that was some time ago. He knows my taste in anniversary presents has changed.
Janis Joplin was a great singer. Just listen to her tough yet tender rendition of the Bobby Womack penned Trust Me on Pearl and try not to be swept away by the pain and the poignancy. The urgency. The sheer pleasure of it. Go on…Listen..
Okay. All that is interesting–or maybe not–depending on your opinion of Joplin. Some folks do not like her. Her fandom usually comes at the price of acquired taste, as it did with me. But, irrespective of that, what does she have to do with Dorthy Parker? Fair question.
When you talk about Janis Joplin it’s easy to get sidetracked by her life, the shortness of it; the obscenity of it. Her bombastic style. The drugs and drinking. The fatal overdose. So much so that her voice, her artistry, yes, her greatest gift is often assigned to the backseat.
I’m not going to do that with Dorthy Parker. I’m not going to quote her quips or expound on her seat at the Algonquin Round Table. You won’t hear details of her marriages, romantic trysts, Communist sympathizing or her admirable contribution to the NAACP from me. It’s all very interesting. Fascinating even. I urge you to read up on these things and many, many more details of a rich, often troubled, but always colorful life. You won’t be disappointed. Despite a myriad of problems and systemic alcoholism she did not flame out at an early age like Joplin did.
But here, in this singular outlier of a post, I’m going to focus on Dorthy Parker the writer and her composition Big Blonde for which she was awarded the O. Henry Award for best short story of 1929. Big Blonde is a testament to the breadth and depth of her talent.
And yes, of course, it highlights her wit. Absolutely, without question, it does–and her sardonic underpinnings too. But more than that it flaunts her easy way with words. The flow. The rhythm. Her uncanny ability to turn on a dime within the whim of economy and summon a tale from the distance of sympathy and the intimacy of empathy. It is her best known short story.
I think it’s her best. Period.
Men liked her, and she took it for granted that the liking of many men was a desirable thing. Popularity seemed to her to be worth all the work that had to be put into its achievement. Men liked you because you were fun, and when they liked you they took you out, and there you were.
This is sum of Hazel’s life. She is the party girl who does not drink. She is the life of the party who doesn’t tell jokes. Instead she consoles and cajoles her drinking companions and is audience for their jokes–especially the jokes of men. She laughs and flirts for a living while being a plus sized model on the side.
But don’t get the wrong idea. Hazel’s no floozy. She wants to settle down into the bliss of domesticity and Herbie Morse is her kind’a guy. Smart, industrious–on the smallish side–Herbie’s a well dressed ball of nervous energy. He loves raucous hilarity and lots of stiff drinks. They are handsome couple, each on opposite ends of the scale, ample and svelte sliding toward each other. Together they make the rounds of the neighborhood hot spots. Hazel is a good sport. Herbie decides to make an honest woman of her.
She loved the flat, she loved her life, she loved Herbie. In the first months of their marriage she gave him all the passion she was ever to know.
Hazel grows comfortable as wives and husbands often do–too comfortable, perhaps. She feels free to finally be herself, to be moody sometimes, to cry. The fact is, she suffers from depression. Nothing debilitating but little things can set her off. A movie. A poem. An orphaned animal. She grows sentimental and likes to stay in at night. This is not what Herbie signed up for. He feels stifled and put upon. What happened to the enabling, accommodating girl he fell in love with?
“Ah, for God’s sake,” he would say. “Crabbing again. All right, sit here and crab your head off. I’m going out.” And he would slam out of the flat and come back late and drunk.
Commitment is important to her. Marriage is what women of her time aspire to. It is the barometer of their self worth. So she takes up drinking to save it even though she’s repelled by the taste and smell of liquor.
After experiment, she found that Scotch whisky was best for her. She took it without water, because that was the quickest way to it’s effect.
Herbie pressed it on her. He was glad to see her drink. They both felt it might restore her high spirits, and their good times together might again be possible. “Atta girl,” he would approve her. “Let’s see you get boiled, baby.”
Now she is a conspirator in the debauchery. Things might start off innocent enough, they might even have some fun, but it is short lived and liquor fuels their mutual resentment. They quarrel incessantly. Then it turns physical.
There were shouted invectives and pushes, and sometimes sharp slaps. Once she had a black eye. Herbie was horrified next day at sight of it. He did not go to work; he followed her about, suggesting remedies and heaping dark blame on himself. But after they had had a few drinks–“to pull themselves together”–she made so many wistful references to her bruise that he shouted at her, and rushed out, and was gone for two days.
She commenced drinking alone, little, short drinks all through the day. It was only with Herbie that alcohol made her nervous and quick in offense. Alone, it blurred sharp things for her. She lived in a haze of it. Her life took on a dream-like quality. Nothing was astonishing.