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Dorothy Parker
She May Have Said It

Dorothy Parker

Dorothy Parker
But probably not.

"Be wary of quotes by Dorothy Parker unless a primary reference is given."

      - Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, 1863

Abe might have added something else.

It's well known that many famous quotes are - and we put this in quotes - "edited for brevity and clarity". That's because the quotes are extracted from longer writings and were never intended to be delivered as bon mots.

For instance, consider this oft-quoted quote by Dorothy:

The House Beautiful is the play lousy.

The full quote from her 1931 review in the New Yorker is:

The House Beautiful is, for me, the play lousy.

Now it may seem that we're quibbling. But notice how even an extra two words make the quote lose its sharp epigrammatic quality. Brevity is indeed the very soul of wit.

Even more problematical is the reverse situation. That is, a quote given absolutely verbatim from a famous author may not be a quote from the author at all!

Ha? (To quote Shakespeare). That's impossible! If a quote is exactly what the author wrote or said, then it must be an authentic quote!

Weeeeeelllllllll, not quite.

Consider this quote, given absolutely rigorous and verbatim:

"Women are never to be entirely trusted - not the best of them."

      - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

This rather disparaging remark was indeed written by Sir Arthur in 1890. But there is no way we can honestly call it a quote by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Why not? Well, Conan Doyle fans will recognize this as an excerpt from The Sign of (the) Four which is the second Sherlock Holmes story.

But we repeat. It is still not a quote by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Instead it is a quote by a fictional character, Sherlock Holmes. So the proper and correct reading should be:

"Women are never to be entirely trusted - not the best of them."

      - Sherlock Holmes (The Sign of Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle).

Remember. When you quote someone, there is the understanding that you are representing the author's philosophy and beliefs. But there's no indication that Sir Arthur ever had such a condescending attitude toward the ladies. And indeed in the next sentence and from the guise of Sir Arthur's alter-ego, Holmes's philosophy gets rejected completely:

"I did not pause to argue this atrocious sentiment."

      - Dr. John H. Watson (The Sign of Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle).

So this discussion leads us to a particularly famous quote by Dorothy:

Love is like quicksilver in the hand. Leave the fingers open and it stays. Clutch it and it darts away.

You see this quote posted everywhere and as an example of Dorothy at her most poignant. But you might find yourself spending a lot of time looking for the source. And during your search you may stumble on a book printed in England that lists the quote as attributed to Dorothy - and attributed quotes should always make us leery.

So what to do?

In tracing originality, the first thing to do is to see if the quote - or at least the same sentiments - are expressed by someone else. And yes, there's the following passage from a 1957 article in the magazine Park Practice Grist. There you read:

A long-forgotten philosopher, when writing about that most important of all the human emotions, once said: "Love is like quicksilver; hold it in the open palm of your hand and it remains forever yours; tighten your fist and it slips quietly away."

So we read that an original Dorothy Parker quote is actually from some anonymous philosopher!

But - and it's a big "but" - can we confirm this quote is pre-Dorothy? After all, Dorothy was writing long before 1957. Can we find the quote from a time before Dorothy began to write?

Well, we can find an author likening love to quicksilver - i. e., the liquid metal mercury - before Dorothy was born. As early as 1889 (Dorothy was born in 1893) we have this passage from the novel Ten Minutes to Twelve by Margaret Greenway McClelland:

For a man's love is like quicksilver, and collects all the true metal of his nature and runs away with it into the receiving-pan of the woman's nature whom he loves, so that, all his gold being withdrawn, he can obtain an undiluted view of the grit, dirt, and rubbish of which he may be composed in which inspection may result in the removal of some portion of the unsightly mass.

Not the same quote by any means, but the love=quicksilver allusion is clearly not original with Dorothy.

So here the Quotemeister might go into spittle flinging diatribes. Clearly, he would say, Dorothy was not the inventor of the quote. It goes back to a long oral tradition. Once more a spurious quote spread by the Internet!

Nicht wahr?

But hold on there, Pilgrim.

In the olden days, for your ordinary Joe or Josephine Blow to find a source for a quote was an almost impossible task. To identify an authentic quote you had to be an expert on the author and be able to pull from memory the correct source. And there's always the caveat that, as we said above, not finding a quote doesn't prove the author never said it. It just means you haven't found it.

However, today there are databases covering literature starting from the beginning of the 19th century and even earlier. You can also now search specific volumes for words and phrases. So if Dorothy actually wrote at least something like the quote, then anyone should be able to find it.

Searching for authentic Dorothy Parker quotes from her writings is fairly easy to do. Although much of what she wrote is scattered through decades of magazines, publishers have also collected her output in a relatively few volumes which are still in print.

But where to look? Since the quote seems to have a bit of a rhyme (stays/away) you might check out her collected poems. But alas, it's not there.

So we turn to Dorothy's prose. But search as we might, there isn't the word "quicksilver".

So the quote must be spurious after all!

To quote Sportin' Life (not Dubose Heyward and Ira Gershwin), it ain't necessarily so. Remember you have to be careful. Searching data bases can be difficult. After all spelling conventions change. The famous African-American folk singer Huddie Ledbetter was first billed as "Lead Belly". But in later years this elided to the single word "Leadbelly". Unless a search has special error correcting algorithms, you might miss a lot of references about Huddie.

And sure enough, if you search for "quick-silver" - with a hyphen - you'll find Dorothy's quote. And here it is verbatim and as in the original printing:

Love is like quick-silver in the hand, Sylvie. Leave the fingers open and it stays in the palm; clutch it, and it darts away.

So what Dorothy wrote is actually pretty nearly what we find in the "Dorothy Parker Quotes" sites or books as long as we skip the name "Sylvie".

So we do have an "authentic quote by Dorothy Parker", don't we?

Uh, actually not. The quote is from the short story, "Advice to the Little Peyton Girl", first printed in 1933. In the story, the main character, Miss Marion, gives long winded advice to the nineteen year old Silvie - the "Peyton Girl". It seems Sylvie's beau had lost interest in her and she has been calling him on the phone and trying to rekindle his interest (actually, what's happened is the guy's taken a shine to some of the not-so-nice girls around the town). Miss Marion says a young man doesn't like young ladies fawningly throwing themselves at his feet. Give him his own space and not appear too grasping. As Miss Marion says:

      "And you must conquer your fears, dear child. A woman in fear for her love can never do right. Realize that there are times he will want to be away from you; never ask him why or where. No man will bear that. Don't predict unhappiness, nor foresee a parting; he will not slip away if you do not let him see that you are holding him. Love is like quick-silver in the hand, Sylvie. Leave the fingers open and it stays in the palm; clutch it, and it darts away. Be, above all things, always calm. Let it be peace to be with you.

The point of the story is that Miss Marion is simply dishing out treacly lumpfen she herself doesn't believe. And after Sylvie left, Miss Marion goes to the phone and desperately tries to contact a young man who obviously has lost interest in her.

For our concern, though, we see that Dorothy's "quicksilver" quote is an edited version of something that Dorothy did write. But since it's a quote by a fictional character we really can't claim it's a quote by Dorothy - any more than we can say Sir Arthur Conan Doyle can be quoted saying that women are never to be entirely trusted.

Whether what she wrote actually reflected Dorothy romantic feelings is really a moot point. She was certainly not a gushy-minded romantic. Instead she was a savvy and at times cynical satirist who tended to speak in a rather sardonic and cutting manner. Instead the quicksilver quote is part of some rather banal advice of a pathetic and not particularly sympathetic fictional character - a character who knowingly dishes out hypocritical dreck to a starry-eyed and naïve young girl.

Finally, if you want to list only parts of a longer quote, the omitted sections should be indicated by ellipses - that is, dots (...). Of course, you should make sure that the omissions do not distort the meaning of the quote. For instance, you shouldn't quote Albert Einstein as saying:

God does ... play dice with the universe.

... when the well-known quote is.

God does not play dice with the universe.

... particularly since this "correct" quote is itself a rather edited version of what Albert on a number of occasions really said.

So if we want to post the "quicksilver quote" we should really write it as:

"Love is like quick-silver in the hand ... Leave the fingers open and it stays in the palm; clutch it, and it darts away."

      - Miss Marion ("Advice to the Peyton Girl", Complete Stories, Dorothy Parker).

Sadly, not quite what you usually read.

A particular difficulty is that some famous Dorothy Parker quotes may indeed be authentic but were given in conversation which were in turn reported second or third hand. So there's no way to tell if they are real quotes, almost real quotes, simple paraphrases, or completely bogus. For instance, there is some indication that Dorothy really said something like "How can they tell?" when told that Calvin Coolidge was dead. And there is also evidence that she quipped to Alexander Woolcott - himself a writer of acerbicisms - that a performance of an actress "ran the gamut from A to B". But Dorothy's famous quote about attending a party where "one more drink and I'd have been under the host", is, alas, demonstrably spurious.

In the end we can see Dorothy might easily have borrowed a quote from Yogi Berra when he said, " I really didn't say everything I said."

Which believe it or not, it seems he actually said!


Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This?, Marion Meade, Villard Books, 1988.

"Stop Misquoting Leonard Cohen and Ernest Hemingway. Start Listening and Reading.", David Lovett, Books, Hemingway, What Would Bale Do, January 12, 2017.

Problem Solving, Ian Richardson, Psychology Press, 2001.

Quotable Quotes, The Editors of Reader's Digest, Readers Digest Assocation, 1997

Park Practice Grist, Volume 1 - 4, 1957.

Ten Minutes to Twelve, Margaret Greenway McClelland, Lippencott, 1889.

"Advice to the Little Peyton Girl", Dorothy Parker, Complete Stories, Penguin, 1995, Original Publication: Harper's Bazaar, February, 1933, pp. 46-57.

The Sign of Four, Arthur Conan Doyle, Spencer Blackett, 1890.

"How Can They Tell? Dorothy Parker? Wilson Mizner? Apocryphal? Anonymous?", The Quote Investigator.

"Martini Madness: Dorothy Parker didn't write the famous quatrain about martinis that's always attributed to her.", Troy Patterson, Slate, April 8, 2013.

While Rome Burns, Alexander Woollcott, Grosset and Dunlap, 1934.

The Quote Verifier, Ralph Keyes, St. Martins Griffin, 2006.

The Yale Book of Quotations, Fred R. Shapiro

"I Really Didn't Say Everything I Said", The Quote Investigator, December 30, 2012.

Ngram Viewer, Google Books.