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Quick Draw: Does Dorothy Parker’s epitaph really read, ‘Excuse my dust’?

Read Tuesday, 21 Jun 2016

In Quick Draw, Sophie Quick answers obscure literary questions you never actually asked.

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Legendary wisecracker Dorothy Parker

‘The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue,’ Dorothy Parker once purred. But did the legendary New York satirist sharpen her tongue on her own tombstone? During her lifetime, Parker had joked that ‘Excuse my dust’ would make the perfect epitaph. These words – which epitomise Parker’s genius for snappy double entendre – do indeed appear above her official resting place today, but they’re not the only words that mark her memorial. The full inscription tells a little of the surprising and sad backstory of Parker’s estate:

Here lie the ashes of Dorothy Parker (1893-1967)
Humorist, writer, critic, defender of human and civil rights. For her epitaph she suggested ‘Excuse My Dust’. This memorial garden is dedicated to her noble spirit which celebrated the oneness of humankind, and to the bonds of everlasting friendship between black and Jewish people.

The memorial happens to be in Baltimore – a city with which Parker, the quintessential Jazz Age New Yorker, had no particular personal ties during her lifetime. Her ashes are buried there because, as a lifelong social justice campaigner, she decided to leave her modest savings and her royalties to Martin Luther King. Parker died in 1967 and King was assassinated a year later. In the ensuing legal confusion – and after a bitter dispute involving Parker’s literary executor, Lillian Hellman – Parker’s ashes ended up spending two decades in her former lawyer’s filing cabinet. Eventually they were rightfully claimed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which has its headquarters in Baltimore, and a fitting memorial site was created.

The NAACP’s sincere message celebrates Parker’s lifelong commitment to social justice, even if doesn’t capture much of what made her famous: her caustic wit. Still, in the end, it’s probably better to have something heartfelt on your gravesite, than an epitaph that reflects your carefully cultivated and acerbic artistic persona. Charles Bukowski’s reads, ‘Don’t try’.

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