Dorothy Parker? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The well-known wit Dorothy Parker brought forth laughter from others, but personally she experienced episodes of depression. Apparently, when her doorbell rang she would sometimes proclaim:
What fresh hell is this?
Is this an accurate claim?
Quote Investigator: Dorothy Parker died in 1967, and the earliest evidence known to QI appeared in the 1970 biography “You Might as Well Live: The Life and Times of Dorothy Parker” by John Keats. The book records the testimony of journalist Vincent Sheean who was Parker’s friend: 1
“When it came time to leave the apartment to get a taxi, you could see this look of resolution come on her face,” he said. “Her chin would go up and her shoulders would go back; she would almost be fighting back fear and tears, as if to say to the world, ‘Do your worst; I’ll make it home all right.’ If the doorbell rang in her apartment, she would say, ‘What fresh hell can this be?’—and it wasn’t funny; she meant it.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1906 the editorial page of a newspaper in Anaconda, Montana entertainingly employed the phrases “fresh hell” and “warmed-over hell” while discussing the imperative of news organizations to generate a constant stream of material: 2
But journalism proverbially is fertile in expedients and when there is no fresh hell to serve, it does the next best thing and dishes up some warmed-over hell. The associated press, for instance, sends along about 10,000 words a night. Rain or shine, in war or peace, in time of excitement or period of world-wide stagnation and dullness, along come the 10,000 well-edited words a night.
In 1928 the widely-syndicated New York columnist O. O. McIntyre published a stream-of-consciousness piece that included an instance of the phrase under examination: 3
There’s an idea—bathtub bookracks. More entire glass building fronts. What’s become of feather boas? Brass sign. “Pituitary Science.” What fresh hell is that?
In 1970 the biography of Parker by John Keats ascribed the expression to her as mentioned at the beginning of this article:
If the doorbell rang in her apartment, she would say, ‘What fresh hell can this be?’—and it wasn’t funny; she meant it.
In 1988 a version of the saying appeared in the title of this biography: “Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This?” by Marion Meade. The introduction included the following passage: 4
Her way of looking at life was incurably pessimistic. Confronted by the unknown, she immediately prepared for the worst. Ordinary occurrences—the doorbell or a ringing telephone—made her wonder “What fresh hell is this?”
The 2006 reference “Brewer’s Famous Quotations” by expert Nigel Rees pointed to the occurrence of the expression in the 1970 and 1988 references above. 5
In conclusion, the testimony of Vincent Sheean in 1970 was plausible; hence, QI believes Dorothy Parker did employ the saying. The 1928 citation indicated that the interrogative of mock despair was in circulation in the 1920s. Thus, Parker may have adopted a pre-existing expression. Alternatively, O. O. McIntyre heard the saying directly or indirectly from Parker.
(Great thanks to Fred R. Shapiro and Denkof Zwemmen whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Also, thanks to discussants Jonathan Lighter and Mark Mandel.)
- 1970, You Might as Well Live: The Life and Times of Dorothy Parker by John Keats, Chapter 7, Quote Page 124, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified on hardcopy) ↩
- 1906 July 8, The Anaconda Standard, Section 2, News Values, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Anaconda, Montana. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1928 June 29, Olean Times, “New York Day by Day” by O. O. McIntyre, Quote Page 5, Column 1, Olean, New York. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1988, Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This? by Marion Meade, Section: Introduction: The Algonquin Hotel, Quote Page xvi, Villard Books, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 2006, Brewer’s Famous Quotations, Edited by Nigel Rees, Section Dorothy Parker, Quote Page 352, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩