Dorothy Parker? Hudson Six Owner? Alexander Woollcott? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The famous wit Dorothy Parker was once asked to create an epitaph for her tombstone. Apparently, she crafted several different candidates for inscription over the years:
Are these really from the pen of Dorothy Parker?
Quote Investigator: QI plans to examine the five Parker attributed epitaphs listed above. As each analysis is completed the corresponding quotation will be converted into a link. Clicking the link will lead to the matching analysis. This article will discuss only the phrase “Excuse My Dust”, and separate articles will be written for other statements.
In 1925 artists, writers, and other prominent figures were asked by the periodical “Vanity Fair” to compose their own epitaphs for publication in the June issue. Parker complied, and her response was depicted together with other replies: 1
QI believes that many of the expressions in the article were meant to be comical and were not serious suggestions for inscription on memorials. In fact, some of the sayings may have been constructed as spoofs instead of being supplied by celebrities themselves. Fascinatingly, the words of Parker were included in a marker at her resting place as indicated further below.
The origin of the phrase selected by Parker was surprising to QI. The statement was already being used in the burgeoning realm of motorized transport in the 1910s and 1920s where it was affixed to the back of vehicles. Parker humorously repurposed the expression and shifted its semantics.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In June 1913 a story in the “San Francisco Chronicle” of California reported on the entrants to a road race and described the public’s fascination with automobiles. One owner had placed a distinctive sign on the back of his vehicle. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2
“Enthusiasm has taken an odd turn in the case of a facetious Bridgeport owner,” says S. G. Chapman, dealer in Hudson and Hupmobile cars. “He carries a conspicuous sign on the back of his new Hudson Six reading ‘Excuse my dust.’ This is an actual fact.”
In December 1913 the humor magazine “Judge” printed a cartoon of a bird kicking up a cloud of dust as it ran ahead of an automobile. The caption read: 3
“Please Excuse My Dust”
The illustration is shown on the left. QI believes the cartoon was a comical response to the signs on the backs of automobiles described in the previous citation.
In 1920 a popular film about automobile racing was released under a title that matched the expression under investigation. Advertisements for the motion picture appeared in many periodicals over a period of months. In addition, the title was used in reviews and in commentary about the stars: 4
Wallace Reid in The Fastest, Speediest Photoplay of Racing Cars Ever Made
“Excuse My Dust”
In 1925 Dorothy Parker selected an epitaph that embodied a form of wordplay using the vehicle slogan, and the expression was published in “Vanity Fair” as noted previously:
“EXCUSE MY DUST!”
In 1933 the influential cultural commentator Alexander Woollcott published a profile of Dorothy Parker in “Cosmopolitan” magazine, and he noted the epitaph selected by Parker. The expression was further disseminated when the profile was reprinted in the 1934 collection titled “While Rome Burns”: 5 6
. . . it would be characteristic of the sorrowing lady to stoop first by that waiting grave, and with her finger trace her own epitaph: “Excuse my dust.”
In 1952 the columnist Franklin Pierce Adams who was Parker’s friend included the statement in his compilation “FPA Book of Quotations”: 7
Excuse my dust.
—DOROTHY PARKER (1893- ) Her own epitaph
For complex reasons Dorothy Parker’s cremated remains were unclaimed for many years after her death in 1967. Finally, in 1988 her ashes were interred in Baltimore, Maryland. Interestingly, the plaque of commemoration did include the saying under investigation: 8
HERE LIE THE ASHES OF DOROTHY PARKER
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 NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT
OF COLORED PEOPLE.
OCTOBER 20, 1988.
In 1990 “American Literary Anecdotes” printed a variant of the statement with “pardon” instead of “excuse”: 9
It was for a Vanity Fair series called “Artists Write Their Own Epitaphs” that the Algonquin wits fashioned the famous mock epitaphs on themselves that include Dorothy Parker’s “PARDON MY DUST.”
In conclusion, in 1925 “Vanity Fair” collected and published self-selected epitaphs from celebrities. The inscriptions varied in sentiment, e.g., heartfelt, eccentric, poignant, and humorous. Dorothy Parker chose the comical expression under examination. Yet, the phrase was already in circulation in the automotive world, and Parker had cleverly reimagined its meaning. At last, in 1988 the phrase was placed on a plaque at her resting place.
Image Notes: Grave marker generated at tombstonebuilder website. Dorothy Parker picture from 1910 or early 1920s via Wikimedia Commons. Illustration of Dorothy Parker epitaph from June 1925 issue of “Vanity Fair”. Illustration of bird raising a cloud of dust from 1913 issue of “Judge”.
(Great thanks to my helpful local librarians in Florida for facilitating access to the 1933 “Cosmopolitan” article.)
Update History: On October 5, 2014 the 1988 plaque was added and parts of the article were rewritten.
- 1925 June, Vanity Fair, A Group of Artists Write Their Own Epitaphs, Start Page 50, Quote Page 51, Column 3, (Dorothy Parker tombstone epitaph illustration), Conde Nast, New York. (Verified on microfilm) ↩
- 1913 June 10, San Francisco Chronicle, Five More Cars in Big Road Race by W. H. B. Fowler, Quote Page 3, Column 5, San Francisco, California. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1913 December 13, Judge, Volume 65, Honk-Honk!! Do you motor? – or are you merely a person?, (Illustration of bird and automobile), Unnumbered Page, Published by Leslie-Judge Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1920 March 5, Fort Wayne News and Sentinel, (Film Advertisement for “Excuse My Dust”), Quote Page 16, Column 1, Fort Wayne, Indiana. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1933 August, Hearst’s International-Cosmopolitan, (Hearst’s International combined with Cosmopolitan), “Our Mrs. Parker” by Alexander Woollcott, Start Page 70, Quote Page 88, (Also see drawing on Page 71), International Magazine Co., New York. (Verified with photocopies) ↩
- 1934, While Rome Burns by Alexander Woollcott, Chapter “Some Neighbors: IV: Our Mrs. Parker”, Start Page 142, Quote Page 146, Viking Press, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1952, FPA Book of Quotations, Selected by Franklin Pierce Adams, Section: Epitaphs, Quote Page 296, Funk & Wagnalls Company, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- Website: Dorothy Parker Society at dorothyparker.com, Article title: “Dorothy Parker Memorial Garden, NAACP Headquarters, Baltimore”, Note: This website has a picture of the plaque, Date on website: No date given, Website description: “Dorothy Parker’s New York, aka Dot City, was launched in 1998 to create something unique online: a site devoted to Dorothy Parker’s life in New York.” (Accessed dorothyparker.com on October, 2014) link ↩
- 1990, American Literary Anecdotes by Robert Hendrickson, Quote Page 45, Facts on File, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩