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b2ap3_thumbnail_parker.jpgA Story of A Bequest Gone Wrong

"The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue." - Dorothy Parker

People who were close to the wisecracking writer Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) were not surprised (well, maybe a few were) that she would leave her estate to Martin Luther King, Jr., a man she had never met. She has been a keen defender of civil rights and social justice for most of her life. What did surprise them, however, was that she even had a will at all. Dottie was famously bad with her finances and she frequently borrowed money from friends.

There wasn't much to leave after years of living in reduced circumstances. Her cash assets at death were around $20,000 but the real value of the bequest came from the copyrights and royalties to her literary work – a gift that keeps on giving. Her will specified that in the event of King's death, the estate was to go to the NAACP which is what happened when King was assassinated in 1968. That's when the trouble really started.

The first red flag should have been the funeral. Parker didn't want one but her executor, Lillian Hellman, had one anyway. Several attendees remarked afterward about how much she would have hated it. Nothing was left to Parker's family, an assortment of nieces and nephews, and they were disappointed to be sure. When they asked where Parker was buried, Hellman apparently never responded. As it happened, it would be 21 years before the cremated remains of Dorothy Parker found a final resting place.

Such neglect from an executor, a woman who had a 30-year friendship with Parker, seems inexcusable. Even though Hellman was a celebrity author in her own right and was financially well off, behind closed doors she was furious.

"That goddamn b*tch Dorothy Parker," she said to a friend, "You won't believe what she's done. I paid her hotel bill at the Volney for years, kept her in booze, paid for her suicide attempts – all on the promise that when she died, she would leave me the rights to her writing … But what did she do? She left them directly to the NAACP. Damn her!"

According to Parker's biographer, Marian Meade, these assertions are not true and Hellman did not support Parker financially. Hellman spent the next few years acting like a woman scorned. She assumed complete control of Parker's belongings and most copyright requests were denied. She actively blocked biographers in their research. The NAACP had to take Hellman to court to get control of the estate finally succeeding in 1972.

In 1988, the NAACP claimed Parker's remains from Hellman's lawyer's file cabinet and interred them in a memorial at their Baltimore headquarters.

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Image: dorothyparker.com/Kathy Gadziala

Sources:

How Dorothy Parker Came To Rest In Baltimore (via NPR) >

Estate of Mind by Marian Meade >

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