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Dorothy Parker’s Ashes

23 September 2011

From the Dorothy Parker Society:

If you think your best friend will look out for your best interests after you check out of this life, then listen to the tale of what happened to Dorothy Parker’s ashes after she died in 1967. We all know Parker had a deep affection for death-inspired imagery. She was asked once to compose her epitaph: “Excuse My Dust,” she wrote. Later, she penned another: “This Is On Me.”

Her ashes are in Baltimore, Maryland. What is the true Parker epitaph? Read on…

Four suicide attempts never succeeded for Dorothy Parker. When she turned 70, she told an interviewer who asked what she was going to do next, “If I had any decency, I’d be dead. All my friends are.” But death waited until she was 73, and a fatal coronary came on June 7, 1967. She was living in the Volney; a residential hotel located at 23 East 74th Street between Fifth and Madison avenues on New York’s fashionable Upper East Side.

Her will was plain and simple. With no heirs, she left her literary estate to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She’d never met the civil rights activist, but always felt strongly for social justice. She named the acerbic author Lillian Hellman as her executor.

Parker didn’t want a funeral, but Hellman held one anyway, and made herself the star attraction. Her memorial ceremony was held at the Frank E. Campbell funeral home, on the corner of East 81st Street and Madison Avenue, just seven blocks from the Volney.

Within a year of her death, Dr. King was assassinated, and the Parker estate rolled over to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. To this day, the NAACP benefits from the royalty of all Parker publications and productions.

She was cremated, and this is where the story takes a sharp right turn. Parker was cremated June 9, 1967, at Ferncliff Crematory in Hartsdale, New York. Hellman, who made all the funeral arrangements, never told the crematory what to do with the ashes. So they sat on a shelf in Hartsdale. Six years later, on July 16, 1973, the ashes were mailed to Mrs. Parker’s lawyer’s offices, O’Dwyer and Bernstein, 99 Wall Street. Paul O’Dwyer, her attorney, didn’t know what to do with the little box of ashes. It sat on a shelf, on a desk, and for 15 years, in a filing cabinet.

Hellman went to court to fight the NAACP over Parker’s literary estate. Hellman lost in 1972 when a judge ruled that she should be removed from executorship. Hellman was adamant that she get Parker’s money, and came out of the mess painted as a racist. She was sure the will was supposed to give her a huge sum. Hellman said, “she must have been drunk when she did it.”

And from The Baltimore Sun:

Excuse her dust — again. The NAACP’s desire to move its headquarters from Baltimore to the nation’s capital not only surprised city officials earlier this month, but it also seized the attention of writer Dorothy Parker’s admirers. Through an unlikely set of circumstances, Parker’s ashes are buried in a memorial garden at the civil rights organization’s Northwest Baltimore headquarters.

Fans of Parker, the oft-quoted, quintessential New York writer, wondered if she would make the trip to D.C. with the civil rights group.

“I hope things turn out well for her,” says Kevin Fitzpatrick, president of the 3,000-member Dorothy Parker Society in New York.

How Parker’s ashes came to be buried in Baltimore — under a plaque that includes the epitaph she wrote for herself, “Excuse my dust” — is a something of a twisted tale. In life, the famed wit of the Algonquin Round Table was not particularly fond of the city.

In the early 1920s, Parker traveled here to see her play, Close Harmony, open and close in two weeks. She took the opportunity to visit another writer and social commentator of the day, H. L. Mencken, whose work she respected and who had published many of her short stories. But the social call did not go well, according to Marion Meade’s biography, Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell is This?

“On this particular evening, she was disappointed to find him coarse and insensitive,” Meade wrote. “When he began to tell jokes about blacks, Dorothy bristled and decided to leave. She refused to spend the night in Baltimore.”

It is unclear whether Parker visited the city again.

Parker bequeathed her estate to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Meade wrote that a “puzzled” King graciously accepted the $20,000 estate, but “he had no idea who Parker was.” King died 10 months after Parker’s death in 1967. Over executor Lillian Hellman’s protests, Parker’s estate then passed on to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (as Parker had requested in the event of King’s death), which inherited and still holds the copyrights to Parker’s collected works.

“This sounds crass,” Meade says, “but she is their property.”

In her will, Parker did not say where she wanted to be buried. While researching Parker’s life, Meade interviewed the writer’s attorney, Paul O’Dwyer. He nonchalantly opened a filing cabinet in his New York office to show her the box of Parker’s ashes, which remained there for 15 years because O’Dwyer had no idea what to do with them. Meade says suggestions for a final resting place included painting Parker’s ashes into a mural at New York’s Algonquin Hotel, where she and a band of New York literati held court in the 1920s.

The mural idea died, mercifully. In the meantime, the NAACP, which was based in New York, moved to Baltimore in 1986. Executive Director the Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks heard about the unceremoniously filed ashes and thought Parker’s remains deserved a more distinguished resting place. A $10,000 memorial garden was created at the group’s headquarters on Mount Hope Drive in 1988.

“It was,” says Fitzpatrick, “one of the nicest things … that any group has done for an author.” Parker, beyond her reputation for acerbic book reviews and quotable one-liners, was also a champion of social justice who wrote about race relations in the 1920s, Fitzpatrick says.

. . . .

If no memorial garden setting can be found, Fitzpatrick and Meade say a more appropriate location for Parker’s remains would be New York’s Woodlawn Cemetery, where Parker’s parents are buried. Parker, who was blacklisted by Hollywood studio bosses in the 1950s for allegedly being a Communist Party member, would probably have recoiled at the thought of relocating to the nation’s capital, says her biographer.

In a grove of pine trees on Mount Hope Drive, walkways lead to a small, circular brick memorial behind an office building. The bricks have bowed a bit at the Dorothy Parker Memorial Gardens, but the centerpiece urn and epitaph are unmoved.

“Here lie the ashes of Dorothy Parker. Humorist, Writer, Critic. Defender of Human and Civil Rights,” reads the NAACP’s 1988 inscription, which included the writer’s suggested epitaph. “Excuse my dust” is a quintessential Parkerism.

Link to the rest at The Dorothy Parker Society here and here. Thanks to Kris Rusch for the tip on Dorothy’s estate.

Passive Guy has written about What Happens When an Author Dies and Yet Another Reason to Die as an Indie Author.

Authors can take several lessons from Dorothy Parker’s postmortem experiences.

Sometimes people suggest you should specify your funeral arrangements in your will. PG disagrees.

During the few days (usually) between someone’s death and burial, there’s a mad scramble among family and friends to travel, get the funeral put together, etc. Sometimes nobody thinks to look at the will until the funeral is over and sometimes nobody is quite certain where the will is.

A better practical approach is to send a letter to several family members who are likely to survive you saying what you want the funeral and burial arrangements to be.

If you’re done moving from place to place and want to make advance plans with a mortuary, you can do that. The mortician will mention lots of decisions you never thought about. The mortuary will recommend that you pay for your funeral in advance. If you do so, that will pretty well lock in the arrangements, but you don’t need to go the prepaid route to decide how you want your funeral to happen. Most states have insurance regulations to prevent mortuaries from taking advance payments then disappearing with the money. (Yes, it is a species of insurance.)

Per Dorothy’s experience, specify things like burial or cremation and what should happen with your remains. PG doesn’t think many laws will interfere with spreading ashes, but if you opt for burial, your heirs can’t hire a guy with a backhoe and plant you in the backyard.

If you die a long distance from your anticipated burial location, transport of a body in a temporary coffin can be expensive and both a sending and receiving mortician will probably be involved and charge for their services. By all means, retire to Costa Rica, but to spare your heirs, keep some money set aside to get yourself back to Anchorage for burial in case you pass on watching the sun set over the Pacific.

Choose someone dull and reliable to be your executor.

One of the advantages of a well-written will and/or trust is that it will lock down the question of who gets what and make fights a losing proposition. Plus, there is also the in terrorem clause.

What is an in terrorem clause? It’s a provision that says anyone who contests your will is automatically disinherited and receives nothing from your estate. Enforceability varies from state to state.

Don’t try to write your own will.

PG knows you are an author, but if you want to leave inspirational or humorous last words, do so in a letter or a separate document, not your will. Like your executor, your will should be dull and reliable, so it looks like most of the other wills that pass through probate court without hitting any speed bumps.

If decide to modify your will, don’t cross out some words and write new provisions in the margin. Scribbled changes were the basis for a 17-year will contest PG managed to wind up a long time ago. Think Bleak House.

Instead, go back to your attorney and have him/her either revise the will or prepare a codicil – lawyer talk for an amendment to your will. In the age of word processing, PG usually prefers a new will to prevent the codicil from being separated from the original will.

If you get a new will, don’t keep the old one around for sentimental reasons. Destroy it as soon as you’ve signed the new one. If you’ve sent a copy of the old will to anyone, tell them to do the same thing when you send them a new copy.

There is a very practical reason for only having one version of your will in existence. When you die 50 years from now, someone or several someones will start looking for your will. The tendency of searchers is to stop looking when they find a will. If the will they find first is one of your old ones, the searchers will be glad to get down out of the attic and things won’t go the way you want them to go.

Which leads to PG’s last bit of advice – tell someone where your will is. PG always kept a copy of a client’s will in his law office when he handled estate planning (while PG is happy to help estate planning attorneys understand issues involved in publishing contracts and copyrights, he doesn’t write wills any more). If an original will couldn’t be found, with some legal hocus pocus, the probate court would accept PG’s the office copy.

PG didn’t keep a duplicate original in his office because of the first-will-found syndrome described above. A client might have PG write a will, then go to another attorney at a later time to have a new will written.

In submitting PG’s office copy of a will for probate, the executor will have to swear that he/she looked all through the attic and the desk and the safety deposit box, asked every relative, talked to every attorney, etc., but was unable to find the original. The executor submits the copy and the the witnesses to her signature swear the copy is exactly the same as the will she actually signed.

Just a few ideas to help make sure nobody writes the kind of story about you that we’ve read about Dorothy Parker.


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12 Comments to “Dorothy Parker’s Ashes”

  1. I love the idea of the in terrorem clause. How much unseemly wrangling that would do away with. People seem to act peculiarly where legacies are concerned. Does it work if the will is challenged by someone who is not a beneficiary but thinks he ought to be?

    Lillian Hellman was not a nice woman in any way.

  2. What a story. Most of us have seen some family ugliness at one time or another around a death, but I think we always believe it won’t happen to us.

    Somehow all of that is such a wrong ending for DP’s story. Good lesson here.

  3. But it isn’t the end of the story.

    DP may very well have a better setting and more appreciative extant fans than H.L. Mencken. I find that to be a fine posthumous one-up.

    In addition, she has been traveling, posthumously, which she might also have appreciated.

    Who knows, she could eventually end up in Central Park.

    As long as one has fans, one is not exactly dead, and a sequel could happen.

  4. Here’s a link to Mencken’s grave. It sounds far less interesting than DP’s, and it does seem his fans are, ahem, not too active.

  5. Oops! Pushed send before inserting link. I need an editor, even for a few words.



  6. My dad passed away last month, and one of the greatest gifts he gave us before his death was to tell us clearly what he wanted done. We held a family meeting – his wife (my mother) and his four children, no in-laws, no grandkids, no one but the immediate family – and discussed end-of-life issues for him and for Mom. We all were there, we all heard the same thing, and we were able to do what he asked.
    Yes, it’s a difficult thing to do. Yes, it means talking about a subject most of us would rather avoid. But it has saved so much second-guessing and potential argument that it was well worth the effort.
    Now I am planning to do the same thing with my children in a couple weeks, and then take that understanding to an attorney to have it formalized.
    And writers need to carefully consider a literary executor in addition to an estate executor. Find one, hire one, or train one – it’s an absolute necessity.
    Do it. In the end, you (and your heirs) will be glad you did.

  7. As an Indie author, you should also plan for passing on web sites and passwords–or at least the web sites for your accounts. These days with everything done electronically, bills can be difficult to reconcile. If you’re the executor, don’t expect them to come in the mail. Getting Amazon to start re-routing your royalties may be difficult. Thankfully I haven’t had to deal with that problem yet, but can see it coming. Of course the Feds are still paying for quite a few dead people according to a recent news story, so there’s an upside too ;).

    Then there’s the whole cyber space estate. With so much online content that authors (and even The Passive Guy) post in cyber space, how do you want it handled? Does anybody know how many dead people there are on Facebook? 75 years after you’re dead is a long time.

    To say nothing of whom to leave your “second best bed” to.

    • Excellent point, Frank.

      At some point the executor would send a formal notice to all your online account holders informing them of your demise and what should happen to the money on an ongoing basis.

  8. *Never* put the instructions for your funeral into your will. Do not file them with your will either.

    The will is usually opened a long time after the funeral, finding the instructions after the fact won’t change a single thing.

    If you have specific ideas and wishes for your funeral the single most successful way to get them actually implemented is to pay for them before you die.
    “He who pays the piper calls the tune.” and so on and so forth.

    There are obviously some pitfalls to this.

    You have to make sure that someone who will be involved as early as possible in your funeral knows about the arrangements. Talk to your relatives about your wishes, tell them and maybe your neighbors that you already have made arrangements and with whom. Carry a something with your ID that states the same (some funeral parlors have CC sized cards). Also include this information in the paperwork you take to a hospital, retirement home, ….
    Simply sure that people who will be involved in your funeral know about the arrangements.

    Not getting scammed is a problem.
    There will be a few accepted and proven ways to solve this in your nation. In Germany often saving accounts with both a restriction note and a special power of attorney, that is still valid after death, are used. (A normal power of attorney ends with the death of the principal.) Pretty much to the effect of “The money in this account may only be payed out to company Y in case of death of the X. Company Y has to bear a true copy of the the death certificate to claim the money.” The funeral contract itself obviously also contains the special POA to keep it in valid beyond the death of the principal.

    The contract with the funeral parlor should also have provisions for both updates and cancellations.
    Updates are necessary since things change over the years, this may be a problem if very specific items were specified. If nothing else the prices will go up and it may be necessary to add money or reduce the amount of things ordered. Cancellations and cancellation fees will come into play if you decide move, in Germany 10-15% of the total value are considered acceptable as cancellation fee.

    Not a complex topic but one that is rarely talked about.

    • Chasm – Thanks for sharing. It’s interesting to read how this is handled in Germany.

    • On an adjacent note, there is a quite popular “Undertaker blog” in Germany on all topics and stories in and around funeral parlors.
      Over 6100 articles and almost 110000 comments in 4 and 1/2 years make clear that it is a quite popular topic. Well, maybe not popular but attractive none the less.

      The blogger is nowadays also an author. Sales seem to be quite ok, the following is definitely there. 😉

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