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She Hopes Parker's Words Will Strike Some Chords

Feeling an affinity for the poetry of fabled wit Dorothy Parker, singer and songwriter Niki Lee set them to music.

April 24, 2001|RAFAEL ALVAREZ | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BALTIMORE — Imagine if Dorothy Parker had been a folk singer instead of a woman of letters. Nearly a quarter-century after Parker's death, the fabled wit is taking the stage in Baltimore through Niki Lee, a singer-songwriter determined to introduce the writer's work to a new generation and to remind an older one why it remains important.

Parker, pen fatale of the Roaring '20s, roaring back to life as a 21st century pop star!

"She's taken over my life," said Lee, who will unveil her one-woman show this Friday. "A year ago I didn't know who Dorothy Parker was." Didn't know that Parker was a major player in the man's world of American letters between the world wars; didn't know that Parker's long-forgotten ashes had made an improbable journey to Baltimore for final interment.

And surely did not anticipate selling her 15-year-old Toyota pickup truck to license the writer's work for her show.

What Lee, a 41-year-old ex-bartender turned lounge singer turned editor for an online investment newsletter, did know one bad night last May was that another relationship had ended and heartache had come to call again.

"I was so depressed, I went out to rent a movie that was just as depressing as I was," said Lee, who taught herself to play guitar after her second marriage ended five years ago. "I wanted to see a movie about a woman with a worse romantic life than mine."

Lee found it in "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle," a 1994 film directed by Alan Rudolph and starring Jennifer Jason Leigh in the lead role.

"The cover of the movie shows Dorothy sitting in bed smoking a cigarette with a guy lying next to her," said Lee. "You can tell it's not a good situation." As Parker's private life flickered before her--depression, alcoholism, attempted suicides, sex with men who didn't love her and love with men who wouldn't sleep with her--Lee shouted at the TV: "I am that woman!"

Even though she was still unsure who that woman was.

After watching the movie a second time, Lee bought a book of Parker's poetry. When the verse jumped out at her as song lyrics, she picked up a pen and a guitar and didn't put them down for a week. "I sat in my pajamas writing in a trance. I forgot what time it was, forgot to eat," said Lee. "That had never happened to me before. It was coming from somewhere."

When the binge ended, Lee had relief from her heartache and 13 new songs culled from the work of Dorothy Parker: complete poems set to music, composites of other poems and pieces of prose, such as "Advice to the Little Peyton Girl," fitted to the pop form.

Seeking permission to perform the work in public, Lee was led to NAACP headquarters in northwest Baltimore, where Parker's ashes have been interred since 1988. After the writer's fatal heart attack on June 7, 1967, her modest assets and voluminous papers were left to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whom Parker admired but did not know.

With King's murder the following year in Memphis, the Parker estate became the property of the NAACP, and her ashes languished in the filing cabinet of a Wall Street attorney. They were forwarded to Baltimore when the civil rights group moved its headquarters there from New York in the 1980s.

Ned Himmelrich, an attorney with the Gordon, Feinblatt law firm assigned to the Parker estate by the NAACP, said he "gets a couple of requests every week" from people who want to use the words of Dorothy Parker.

Requests range from off-Broadway producers to high school drama clubs to people who think they can make a buck by putting Parker's quips on napkin rings.

The NAACP charges accordingly, Himmelrich said, with the producers of the movie "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle" paying significantly more than the price quoted community theater groups.

Lee wanted permission to perform selected works for small audiences. She raised the $400 she was charged by selling her ailing pickup truck to a man who said he was going to use it to haul wood.

Transforming Writings Into Song Lyrics

What of the leap Lee takes with Parker's words, the leap to lyrics?

At the Algonquin Hotel in New York City, where the Round Table wits gathered, a portrait of the group hangs on the wall. In it, Parker is holding a menu on which is written: "Drink and dance and laugh and lie . . . love the reeling midnight through for tomorrow we shall die, but alas we never do . . ."

These could be the lyrics of hard-living musicians like Janis Joplin and Billie Holiday.

Yet, even among admirers, folks knocked out by lines like "brevity is the soul of lingerie," Parker's verse does not strike everyone as especially passionate. "Dorothy's no soul singer," said Michelle Madigan Somerville, a fellow Gotham writer and author of "Wise Gal," an epic poem published this month by Ten Pell Books of New York.

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