Dorothy Parker is back home in New York with family at last.
The witty poet’s remains spent over five years in the crematorium, followed by 16 years in a law office filing cabinet, and then 32 years in a Baltimore business park.
On what would have been her 127th birthday in August 2020, Dorothy Parker’s ashes were buried near the graves of her parents and grandparents at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx where she was given a memorial service.
“She’s back in her hometown,” said Kevin Fitzpatrick, president of the Dorothy Parker Society. “The temporary marker is in place. I just love that she’s back in her hometown, with her fellow New Yorkers.”
When Parker wrote her will in 1965, she had no children and no husband to whom she could leave her estate. Instead she left her estate to a man she deeply admired for his civil rights activism- The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. The will stated that if anything were to happen to King her estate would go to the NAACP which at that point was based in NYC.
In 1967 when Parker died, her wishes were followed, and when Dr Martin Luther King was informed that a woman he didn’t know had left her estate to him, King reportedly expressed that it was a sign that God will provide. Tragically King was assassinated the following year which meant that Parker’s estate then went to the NAACP.
Although Parker’s will expressed that she wished to be cremated, it didn’t say what should be done with her ashes. A burial site had been purchased and reserved for her in the Parker family plot at Woodlawn however, the lawyer who drew up her will neglected to mention it.
Playwright Lillian Hellman was the executer of the will and was reportedly annoyed that Parker did not leave her any money in the will so made no effort to collect her remains. No one else claimed them either so they remained at the Ferncliff Crematory in Westchester County.
After nearly six years Parker’s urn was sent to the office of her attorney, who had since retired, and the urn was placed in a filing cabinet by the firm’s remaining partner Paul O’Dwyer. In 1988, O’Dwyer told a gossip columnist about the unclaimed urn and an article was published urging the NAACP to collect “the ashes of their benefactress.”
The column drew a big response, so O’Dwyer threw a party to gather ideas for what he should do with Parker’s ashes, and NAACP executive director Benjamin Hooks was one of the guests. The organisation had moved from New York City to Baltimore, and Hooks offered to provide a space for the ashes there, which O’Dwyer accepted.
The ashes were held in a memorial space denoted by a circle of bricks, with the epitaph Excuse My Dust, however no one else was ever buried there, and no one visited.
“[O’Dwyer] failed her because he had the will and the will had an affidavit signed by Dorothy Parker’s niece that said they weren’t making any claims on the estate, so the name and address of the niece were right there,” Fitzpatrick said. “If he had only contacted her, she would have said, ‘Oh, my grandparents are in Woodlawn Cemetery.’ Instead, he had a media event at the Algonquin. That’s how she was taken away to Baltimore.”
He added: “It was her attorney who screwed that one up… Oscar Bernstien. When he did the will, he didn’t put in where she wanted to go. He left out the part about the final resting place. I have a copy of the will. It says cremation and no funeral, but it doesn’t say anything about Woodlawn Cemetery.”
After Parker was laid to rest with her family’s plot, Fitzpatrick was relieved and happy: “It was a huge honour for me to represent the family in this way. It was not something I ever expected I would do, and when the opportunity came, it was just something that I felt duty-bound to do as a Parker fan and also as a family representative.”