Life

Dorothy Parker’s remains find a home after decades spent in a filing cabinet & a business park

Dorothy Parker’s remains find a home after decades spent in a filing cabinet & a business park
Author Dorothy Parker works at her typewriter in 1941. After her death at 73, Parker's ashes were stored in a file cabinet until being interred at NAACP headquarters in Baltimore.Photo: AP file photo

After spending more than five years in a crematorium, 16 years in a lawyer’s filing cabinet, and 32 years in a Baltimore business park – where the burial marker read “Excuse My Dust” – Dorothy Parker’s remains got on the 2:45 train out of Baltimore and headed to New York City.

In August, on what would have been her 127th birthday, Parker’s remains were buried near the graves of her parents and maternal grandparents at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx during a COVID-19-compliant memorial service.

Related: City councilwoman comes out & delivers epic smackdown to man complaining about a Pride flag

“She’s back in her hometown,” said Kevin Fitzpatrick, president of the Dorothy Parker Society, a group that works to keep people reading and talking about the well-known writer.  “The temporary [grave] marker is in place. I just love that she’s back in her hometown, with her fellow New Yorkers.”

Fitzpatrick was instrumental, along with Parker’s family, in getting her ashes exhumed and relocated to the family burial plot at Woodlawn.

The move puts an end to lingering questions about how Parker’s remains wound up in Baltimore rather than New York, the city with which she’s most closely associated.

Dorothy Parker's temporary memorial at Woodlawn Cemetery
Dorothy Parker’s temporary memorial at Woodlawn Cemetery Kevin Fitzpatrick

A humorist and writer for The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Vogue and other publications, Parker was a member of the Algonquin Round Table, a group of writers and actors who gathered for lunch and drinks at New York’s Algonquin Hotel in the 1920s.

Her poems, essays and short stories made her one of the most talked-about women in the country. In many ways, she was the quintessential New Yorker. Some of her witticisms survive to this day, such as “men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.”

Challenged once in a party game to use the word ‘horticulture’ in a sentence, she said, “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.” When answering her doorbell, she always asked, “What fresh hell is this?”

Parker was also an early gay icon, known for inviting young men to the lavish soirees that she threw, reportedly telling each one to say he was a “Friend of Dorothy” and he’d be let in.

She was a screenwriter on the 1930s version of A Star is Born. According to biographers, one of her ex-husbands was an openly bisexual man who called himself “queer as a billy goat.”  She was blacklisted during the McCarthy era, struggled with depression and attempted suicide at least twice. Her quick wit and use of humor to get through difficult times endeared her to LGBTQ fans.

The Filing Cabinet

As good as she was at coming up with cutting retorts, Parker may not have been the best at planning for the afterlife – or at least her attorney wasn’t.

When she wrote her will in 1965, she had no children and no husband to whom she could leave her estate, but she was a strong advocate for civil rights.

In her will, she left her estate to The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man she never met but admired for his activism. If anything should happen to King, the will stated, her estate should go to the NAACP, the nation’s foremost civil rights organization, founded in 1909 and based in New York at that point.

As it turned out, Parker died in 1967, and her wishes were followed. When informed that a woman he didn’t know had left her estate to him, King reportedly said that it was a sign from above that God will provide.

But King was assassinated the following year. That meant Parker’s estate, including royalties and licensing fees from her writing, would go to the NAACP. Parker’s will specified that she be cremated, but it didn’t say what to do with her ashes, even though a burial site had been purchased and reserved for her in the Parker family plot at Woodlawn. Fitzpatrick said he believes the failure to mention Woodlawn was the fault of the lawyer who drew up her will.

The executor of Parker’s estate, the playwright Lillian Hellman, was miffed she didn’t get any money from Parker and made no effort to retrieve her cremains. The NAACP didn’t come for them either, so they remained at the Ferncliff Crematory, part of Ferncliff Cemetery in Westchester County.

In 1973, after nearly six years of unpaid storage fees, a Ferncliff employee sent the urn containing her ashes to the address on file for Parker, the office of her attorney, Oscar Bernstien of O’Dwyer & Bernstien. But Bernstien had retired and his practice was run by his partner, Paul O’Dwyer, who put the urn in a filing cabinet.

O’Dwyer went on to become president of the New York City Council, from 1974 to 1977, so he may have been a bit distracted. But in 1988, O’Dwyer told gossip columnist Liz Smith about the urn and the story behind it. Smith mentioned it in an article, urging the NAACP to claim “the ashes of their benefactress.”

When Smith’s column drew a big response, O’Dwyer threw a cocktail party at the Algonquin to solicit ideas for what he should do with Parker’s ashes, and NAACP executive director Benjamin Hooks was one of the guests. The organization had moved its headquarters the year before from leased space in New York City to a five-story building it had purchased in Baltimore, and it had room for her on its grounds.  Hooks offered to provide a home for her there, and O’Dwyer accepted the offer.

This is an instance where Parker was failed by O’Dwyer, Fitzpatrick says.

“He failed her because he had the will and the will had an affidavit signed by Dorothy Parker’s niece that said they weren’t making any claims on the estate, so the name and address of the niece were right there,” Fitzpatrick said. “If he had only contacted her, she would have said, ‘Oh, my grandparents are in Woodlawn Cemetery.’ ” Instead, “he had a media event at the Algonquin. That’s how she was taken away to Baltimore.”

The Business Park

The NAACP created the Dorothy Parker Memorial Garden in a grove behind its building and buried the urn that held her ashes, with Hooks and then-Mayor of Baltimore Kurt Schmoke presiding, and a rabbi saying Kaddish.

Parker’s resting place was denoted by a circle of bricks, representing the Algonquin Round Table, and a round metal marker approximately the size of a manhole cover. Part of the inscription on the marker was the phrase that Parker once jokingly suggested for her epitaph: “Excuse My Dust.”  (Another suggestion she made for herself was: “Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment.”) No one else is buried in the memorial garden and few people ever came to visit.

Fast forward to this earlier this year, when the NAACP’s directors signed a letter of intent to move the organization’s headquarters to Washington, D. C.  The NAACP had relocated last year to leased offices in downtown Baltimore, leaving behind the empty building on Mount Hope Drive and Parker’s memorial garden. Because hardly anyone was on the premises after the move, it was a potential target for vandals or grave robbers.

Asked in July what might happen to Parker’s ashes with the pending move to Washington D.C., NAACP spokesperson Aba Blandson was non-committal, telling The Baltimore Sun only that NAACP representatives were discussing options with Parker’s family. But then the answer was revealed, in an exclusive story in Parker’s old publication, The New Yorker.

It turns out that Fitzpatrick had been negotiating with the NAACP for years about what to do with her cremains and was working on a solution.

In a phone interview, Fitzpatrick explained that he had read a 2006 article in The Baltimore Sun about the NAACP contemplating a move to Washington back then. He said he had started DorothyParker.com in 1998 and the Dorothy Parker Society in 1999 and, as a result of doing that, was in touch with Parker family members, who “shared many family stories and memories with me over the years.” From the family, he said, he knew that a burial lot for Parker had been reserved at Woodlawn, even though Bernstien didn’t mention that in Parker’s will.

“It was her attorney who screwed that one up… Oscar Bernstien,” Fitzpatrick said. “When he did the will, he didn’t put in where she wanted to go. He left out the part about the final resting place. I have a copy of the will. It says cremation and no funeral, but it doesn’t say anything about Woodlawn Cemetery.”

A historian, writer, and licensed walking tour guide, Fitzpatrick is the author of several books about Parker.

In response to the Sun article,  Fitzpatrick contacted the NAACP in 2006 to find out what plans directors had for Parker’s remains in the event that they moved, and his inquiry turned out to be the start of a 14-year dialogue with the organization. He said he was able to have ongoing talks with NAACP officials because Parker’s next of kin, led by three grand-nieces, authorized him to represent the Parker family in matters involving her remains.

Fitzpatrick said the family members most involved with the move were three sisters who live in central New York, all now in their 60s and 70s. They are daughters of Parker’s niece.

As the family’s representative, Fitzpatrick said, he spent much of 2006 and 2007 looking into how Parker wound up in Baltimore in 1988 and how to get her out. First, he wrote to the NAACP to express the family’s interest in being involved in future decision-making related to Parker. He also got records establishing that Parker had a plot in the Bronx. The sisters knew from contacting Woodlawn that the family plot contained six places in all and the final two were reserved for Dorothy Parker.

Parker “had signed an affidavit that she was a plot owner, which is very important in cemetery terms,” Fitzpatrick said. “She had said in her lifetime that’s where she wanted to go. So I got all the documentation together for the organization, for the family, for the cemetery.”

Fitzpatrick, 54, said he has a file thick with all the records he accumulated, so no one could question his veracity.

“I’ve had a file in my apartment since 2007 that says ‘NAACP,’ and it’s all the paperwork, you know, because people come and people go. I have letters from Benjamin Hooks, from [former NAACP chair] Julian Bond, going back 14 years. They’re both deceased now. I’m still here.”

Coming Home to New York

After all the talk of moving and the research, the NAACP didn’t relocate in 2006 or 2007.  “So we waited,” Fitzpatrick said. “But now that they have moved out of their headquarters and into an office building in downtown Baltimore, now it’s time. Because she belongs in what we call the forever place, a cemetery. So once it became obvious that they moved out, that’s when plans fell into place that had started 14 years ago, to complete this journey to bring her back to be buried with her parents and grandparents.”

Fitzpatrick said he and the Parker family members finally reached an agreement with the NAACP board in January to move the writer’s remains. They still had details to work out, because court documents and other records were needed for the family to obtain legal permission to exhume Parker’s ashes. Besides the certificate of cremation from Ferncliff, Fitzpatrick said, they needed signed documents showing that the family members agreed to the move.

Throughout this period, he explained, the NAACP didn’t say anything about it publicly, at the family’s request.

“There was no secrecy,” he said. “There was no mystery. The family chose to remain private and that’s why none of us were talking to the press. It didn’t help me to get my name in the newspaper when I was trying to accomplish this task. The only thing I cared about was getting Dorothy Parker back to New York. I didn’t need to talk to any reporters. The NAACP didn’t need to talk to any reporters. It was just about bringing her back to her hometown.”

Behind the scenes, Fitzpatrick was making a strong push to get Parker’s remains as soon as possible.

After the agreement was reached in January, he said, “I was pressing them on an almost daily basis: When can we come? When can we come? Because we knew that she was alone and we knew that there was nobody looking out for her in the location where she was…I didn’t want to come across as the heavy, but I said, ‘You’ve already left, so let’s not delay any longer’.” 

Most of the arrangements were worked out by March, Fitzpatrick said, but “then the pandemic happened.”  The physical act of transporting Parker’s ashes emerged as an issue, he explained, because New York State had restrictions on people traveling from other states.

“It wasn’t safe to travel until August,” he said. “I mean, Maryland is still on Governor Cuomo’s s-h-i-t list. So I wasn’t even supposed to go to Maryland. That’s why the sisters didn’t…go to Baltimore, because of travel.”

As far as reporting about the new location, Fitzpatrick agreed to work exclusively with Laurie Gwen Shapiro, a writer for The New Yorker who was also a member of the Dorothy Parker Society. Fitzpatrick said he knew Shapiro because she had gone on a Dorothy Parker walking tour he led on the writer’s birthday five years ago.  In 2019, she took a tour of the Bronx with him after he wrote a book, 111 Places in Da Bronx That You Must Not Miss.

Fitzpatrick said he told Shapiro in confidence about his efforts to move Parker’s cremains to New York, and she expressed interest in going with him to Baltimore and writing an article. She told an editor at The New Yorker, and the editor wanted the story.

“That’s why she accompanied me,” Fitzpatrick said.

With all the papers signed and the travel details worked out, Parker’s ashes in Baltimore were scheduled to be exhumed on August 18 — just in time for burial in Woodlawn Cemetery on her birthday, August 22.

Fitzpatrick and Shapiro took a train to Maryland the day before and stayed overnight, then headed to the memorial garden to retrieve the cremains the next morning and take them back to New York on the 2:45 p.m. train. The whole time, Fitzpatrick said, they were careful not to let anyone outside the NAACP know what they were doing in Baltimore.

“We weren’t trying to pull one over on Baltimore,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s just that the family wasn’t consulted in 1988…about bringing her to Baltimore. They weren’t consulted with building a garden. And so they wanted to not have a media story about this because it didn’t help. They just wanted to bring her back and bury her next to her parents. That’s all.”

“Those who know me well know this is why my name was not in the news stories that came out in July,” he wrote on Facebook the day The New Yorker piece came out.  “I was negotiating directly with the organization and making plans for the family…I was just focused on bringing Dorothy home.”

Shapiro wrote afterward on Facebook that she didn’t want any information leaking out that would ruin her scoop. “I was sad I couldn’t drop in on a favorite cousin,” she wrote, “but you know, Loose Lips Sink Ships.”

Removing Parker’s remains required breaking through a layer of concrete without destroying the urn, which Fitzpatrick put in a wooden box he had brought for the occasion. The same rabbi who attended the 1988 burial service said a prayer.  They made it to the train on time, with Fitzpatrick giving Parker a seat on the ride north. He and Shapiro toasted her with gin-and-tonics made with Dorothy Parker American Gin.

Fitzpatrick said he was one year old when Parker died, so carrying her ashes was the closest he ever came to be with her, closer than anyone has been in a very long time. “Just to walk through [the train station], carrying that big heavy box, it was something I’ll never forget,” he said.

Traveling back to New York was both a relief and a chance to reflect, he said.

“It was a huge honor for me to represent the family in this way,” he said. “It was not something I ever expected I would do, and when the opportunity came, it was just something that I felt duty-bound to do as a Parker fan and also as a family representative.”

Despite the remarks about New York being Parker’s hometown, she wasn’t a New York native. She was born on August 22, 1893, at her family’s beach cottage in West End, a village in Long Branch, New Jersey, about 60 miles south of New York City. Her parents, Henry and Eliza Rothschild, were on vacation at the time. According to an essay she wrote in 1928 for McCall’s magazine, “My Home Town,” that was the only time she wasn’t a New York resident.

“I have always lived in New York,” she wrote. “I was cheated out of the distinction of being a native New Yorker because I had to go and get born while the family was spending the Summer in New Jersey, but, honestly, we came back into town right after Labor Day, so I nearly made the grade.”

Her Final Resting Place

Located at Webster Avenue and East 233rd Street in the Bronx, Woodlawn Cemetery & Conservancy has been a resting place for New Yorkers since it opened during the Civil War in 1863 when New York City was still part of Westchester County. With 400 acres, it’s one of the largest cemeteries in New York City and a National Historic Landmark.

Parker is the latest in a long line of well-known figures who are buried there, including some of her peers from the Jazz Age. The list includes George M. Cohan, Nelly Bly, Herman Melville, Irving Berlin, Miles Davis, and Duke Ellington. The cemetery gets thousands of visitors a year and welcomes them with concerts, maps, and, currently, a free “Hop Aboard Trolley” that stops at the gravesites of notables.  After Parker’s August 22 burial, the management posted a message on Facebook saying “Woodlawn Cemetery is proud to be the final resting place of writer Dorothy Parker,” and fans are already making visits.

 The cemetery is easy to reach by subway, and Fitzpatrick said “it’s surprisingly diverse because it’s non-denominational. So you have everyone from Celia Cruz to Irving Berlin. You’ll see visitors coming from everywhere to visit Miles Davis or Herman Melville. It’s a very interesting place to be because Duke Ellington is there and they have jazz concerts. Well, that goes in step with Dorothy Parker. George M. Cohan is there, so on July Fourth you can celebrate Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

Fitzpatrick said he hopes to have a big ceremony for Parker next year when her gravestone is unveiled, which is “what everybody would like to celebrate anyway.” Planning for the permanent marker is “up to the family right now,” he said. “It’s a historic cemetery, so there are certain things that you can and can’t do. So we have to respect the location, but I think it will be a nice one.”

Because of COVID-19 crowd restrictions, the burial at Woodlawn Cemetery was attended by only a dozen people. The grand-nieces couldn’t come, due to the pandemic. The NAACP was represented by former national president Hazel Dukes, 88. The New Yorker sent both Shapiro and a photographer, Joseph Michael Lopez.

For those who did attend, the internment was both a memorial service and a birthday celebration, planned down to the last detail.

A singer who also holds the position of “Secretary of Chaos” for the Dorothy Parker Society, Bill Zeffiro, sang two songs in Parker’s honor, “I Wished on the Moon,” a 1935 hit by Bing Crosby, with lyrics by Parker, and “Happy Birthday Mrs. Parker,” a song he composed for her.  To the pine box containing Parker’s cremains, Fitzpatrick had added a brass plate with a short inscription:

Dorothy R. Parker

1893-1967

“Excuse My Dust”

During the proceedings, Fitzpatrick spoke about moving Parker back to New York and read from her essay, “My Home Town.”

“New York is always hopeful,” she wrote. “Always it believes that something particularly good is about to come off, and it must hurry to meet it.”

For someone who could be so caustic and cutting, My Home Town was Parker at her most sentimental and optimistic. That made it a poignant choice for her homecoming, especially in today’s times.

New York “is always a little more than you had hoped for,” she wrote back then. “Each day, there, is so definitely a new day. ‘Now we’ll start over,’ it seems to say every morning, ‘and come on, let’s hurry like anything.’ ”

After years away, Dorothy Parker is finally ready for that new day.

Trump administration would take away funding from some schools that support LGBTQ rights

Previous article

Punkie Johnson becomes the latest out cast member on Saturday Night Live

Next article