Were Dorothy Parker’s Ashes Kept in a Filing Cabinet for Two Decades?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends related to poetry and poets and whether they are true or false. Click here for an archive of all poetry legends featured so far.

POETRY URBAN LEGEND: Dorothy Parker’s ashes sat in a filing cabinet for nearly two decades.

Dorothy Parker was one of the leading humorists and wits of the 20th Century.

After selling her first poem to Vanity Fair in 1914, Parker eventually went to work for that magazine as well as Vogue as she became famous for her presence as a founding member of the gathering of New York wits known as the Algonquin Round Table.

In 1925, Harold Ross founded the New Yorker and Parker was one of his star writers. She wrote more than 300 poems for the magazine, specially in viciously dark poems, with suicide being a common topic. In 1926, Parker released the first volume of her poems titled ENOUGH ROPE : POEMS. It sold well.

Eventually, Parker moved to Hollywood where she became a successful and acclaimed screenwriter. Her left-wing politics though resulted in her eventually becoming blacklisted.

She returned to New York City where she worked for various magazines, perhaps most famously doing book reviews for Esquire. She had two separate “stints” being married to fellow writer Alan Campbell that ended with Campbell’s suicide in 1963 (from a drug overdose). However, her later years were mostly noted by her problems with alcoholism and after Campbell’s death, Parker did not have very many close friends.

This, therefore, led to the sad, strange fate of Parker’s ashes.

She died in 1967 of a heart attack at the age of 76. She left her entire estate to Martin Luther King (King amusingly did not know who Parker was when he was informed he inherited her estate). When King, himself, was killed a year later, her estate passed to the NAACP (as per her will). The NAACP still holds the copyrights on Parker’s works.

Interestingly enough, though, Parker never specified what to do with her remains after her death. Thus, Parker’s lawyer, Paul O’Dwyer, kept Parker’s ashes in his office for nearly TWO DECADES! At first, it wasn’t a matter of people forgetting, per se, so much as no one could agree exactly on what to do with them, so they just stayed there while people figured it out. Eventually, though, the last FIFTEEN YEARS of her ashes’ time in O’Dwyer’s office were spent in a filing cabinet.

Eventually, the NAACP heard about the situation and built a memorial garden in 1988 at their national headquarters in Baltimore for Parker. A plaque read:

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. Dedicated by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. October 28, 1988.

Eventually, though, the NAACP moved their headquarters and Parker’s ashes were moved in 2020 to Woodlawn cemetery to be buried next to Parker’s parents and grandparents.

The legend is…


Thanks to the New Yorker for the updated burial place for Parker’s ashes.

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

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