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Marion Meade, biographer of Dorothy Parker, dies at 88

Marion Meade, who helped revive interest in Dorothy Parker, the celebrated writer and sardonic wit of the Algonquin Round Table, with her 1988 biography, died Dec. 29 at her home in Manhattan. She was 88.

Her granddaughter Ashley Sprague confirmed the death. She said Ms. Meade had recently had COVID-19 but a cause had not been determined.

Ms. Meade’s “Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This?” detailed the vibrant if difficult life of a major figure on the literary scene of the 1920s and ’30s.

Parker joined Vanity Fair magazine as its drama critic at 24; coined well-known lines including “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses” and “You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think”; and was a founding member of the round table at the Algonquin Hotel in midtown Manhattan where she, writer Robert Benchley, critic Alexander Woollcott, and others engaged in witty commentary.

But she drank too much, suffered from depression, had one failed marriage to Edwin Parker II and two marriages (and one divorce) to screenwriter Alan Campbell. She tried to take her own life twice. In 1930, when she could not finish a novel she had promised to her editor at Viking, Ms. Meade wrote, Parker “panicked and drank a bottle of shoe polish,” which sent her to the hospital.

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Parker died in 1967, having offered her own epitaph: “Excuse my dust.”

Ms. Meade had already published a biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine, who in the 12th century was queen of both England and France, when she decided to turn her attention to another personality. Her focus was initially on poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, but she soon learned that another writer was working on her biography. She shifted her attention to Parker — whom she called “one of the funniest women of the 20th century, whose wit and good sense never fail to entertain me,” in an essay many years later for Contemporary Authors.

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“From time to time readers will say to me, ‘Oh, she had such a sad life,’” she added. But she disagreed: While alcoholism and depression derailed her at times, she wrote, they “did not prevent her from being wildly successful, the multitalented author of verse, stories, plays, movie scripts and criticism.”

Reviews of the book were mixed. Writing in The Pittsburgh Press, Roy McHugh called it an “admirably straightforward biography” that “explains more than is possible and excuses nothing.” But in The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani wrote, “Parker’s cynical wit, of course, cannot have made it easy for friends or biographers to penetrate her defensive armor, but instead of attempting to really come to terms with her emotional life, Ms Meade simply settles for catchphrases, attributing her problems to insecurity or self-loathing.”

Kevin Fitzpatrick, president of the Dorothy Parker Society, said that the book elevated Parker’s profile enough to persuade Penguin Classics to rerelease collections of her short stories and poems in the 1990s. And, he said, Ms. Meade believed the screenplay of “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle” (1994), directed by Alan Rudolph, written by Rudolph and Randy Sue Coburn and starring Jennifer Jason Leigh in the title role, was based in part on her biography.

“She talked to a lawyer, but she did not sue,” Fitzpatrick said in a phone interview. “It was a low point for her.”

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Ms. Meade, with a poster in 1996 from Woody Allen's movie, "Manhattan," in the area where it was shot on the east side of Manhattan. Ms. Meade wrote a biography of Allen.FRED R. CONRAD/NYT

Marion Lolita Sidhu was born on Jan. 7, 1934, in Pittsburgh. Her father, Surain Sidhu, an Indian immigrant, was a physicist who directed the X-ray laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh and later worked on top secret research at the Argonne National Laboratory. Her mother, Mary (Homoney) Sidhu, was a homemaker.

Ms. Meade studied journalism at Northwestern University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in 1955.

Arriving in Manhattan later that year to attend the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, she quickly headed to the Algonquin, sat on a settee in the lobby’s cocktail lounge, lit up a cigarette, ordered a Tom Collins, and soaked in the view that must have been familiar to Parker.

After receiving her master’s degree in 1956, she spent a year interviewing celebrities and checking facts for syndicated gossip columnist Earl Wilson.

Over the next two decades, Ms. Meade freelanced for publications including McCall’s, Cosmopolitan, and The Village Voice, and joined the New York Radical Feminists, a group that occupied the offices of Ladies’ Home Journal for 11 hours in 1970 and secured a promise, which was fulfilled, to put out a special “women’s liberation” supplement in a forthcoming issue. She was also a longtime editor at Aviation Week magazine.

Her first book, “Bitching,” was based on her conversations with women about the female experience and how they felt about men, was published in 1973. She followed that in 1976 with a biography of Victoria Woodhull, a leader of the women’s suffrage movement.

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Ms. Meade’s “Eleanor of Aquitaine” (1977) was praised by critic Robert Kirsch of The Los Angeles Times for her “almost uncanny empathy for her subject,” which he said made it appear as if “she can view the world through Eleanor’s eyes.”

She spent seven years researching and writing the Parker book. She followed it with biographies of silent-film comedian Buster Keaton in 1995 and Woody Allen in 2000. She returned to Dorothy Parker in 2004 with “Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties,” a joint portrait of four writers: Parker, Millay, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Edna Ferber.

In addition to Sprague, she leaves another granddaughter, Katharine Sprague; her daughter, Alison Linkhorn; and one great-granddaughter. Her marriages to Charles Meade, Forbes Linkhorn, and writer Milton Viorst, who died last month, ended in divorce.

Ms. Meade returned a few times to her best-known subject. In 2014, she expanded on a 2006 Bookforum article about Parker in a Kindle book, “The Last Days of Dorothy Parker.”

In that book, she touched on the saga of how the urn with Parker’s ashes ended up being stowed in Manhattan in a file cabinet belonging to veteran New York City politician Paul O’Dwyer, who was the lawyer for writer Lillian Hellman, the literary executor of the Parker estate. (The urn, after a circuitous journey, was finally buried in 2020 at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.)

In 1987, Ms. Meade called O’Dwyer to say she was going to visit the cemetery in Westchester where she thought the urn had been buried. With her biography of Parker complete and Hellman dead, she wanted to pay her respects.

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“Oh, she’s not there,” O’Dwyer told her.

“Of course she is,” Meade said.

“No, no,” O’Dwyer said, “I’m looking right at her.”