What Fresh Hell Can This Be?

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 her earliest known linkage to the phrase 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:[ref] 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)[/ref]

“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 1836 a precursor appeared in a novel by Charles Dickens titled “The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club” or simply “The Pickwick Papers”:[ref] 1837 (First published 1836), The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club by Charles Dickens, Chapter: The Old Man’s Tale About the Queer Client, Quote Page 223, Chapman and Hall, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

‘What now, what now?’ said the old man—‘What fresh misery is this? What do you want here?’

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:[ref] 1906 July 8, The Anaconda Standard, Section 2, News Values, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Anaconda, Montana. (NewspaperArchive)[/ref]

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:[ref] 1928 June 29, Olean Times, “New York Day by Day” by O. O. McIntyre, Quote Page 5, Column 1, Olean, New York. (NewspaperArchive)[/ref]

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 1936 “Vanity Fair” published a short story by Heywood Broun titled “Fresh Easterly Winds” which depicted a doctor who responded to the interruption of his sleep by using the expression:[ref] 1936 February, Vanity Fair, Volume 45, Number 6, Fresh Easterly Winds by Heywood Broun, (Short Story), Start Page 41, Quote Page 41, Conde Nast Publications, New York. (Google Books Full View) [/ref]

And so the doctor groaned and cursed as he awoke to the persistent ringing of the telephone beside his bed. He looked at his watch and noted that it was three a. m., before he picked up the receiver.

“What fresh hell is this, George?” said Dr. Bonnard to the night clerk.

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:[ref] 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)[/ref]

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.[ref] 2006, Brewer’s Famous Quotations, Edited by Nigel Rees, Section Dorothy Parker, Quote Page 352, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London. (Verified with hardcopy)[/ref]

In conclusion, the testimony of Vincent Sheean in 1970 was plausible; hence, QI believes Dorothy Parker did employ the saying. The 1928 and 1935 citations indicated that the interrogative of despair or 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.

Image Notes: Flames from PublicDomainPictures at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.

(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. Further thanks to discussant Kelly Locke at the Quora website and to Pete Morris who both pointed to the instance in “Vanity Fair” magazine. Additional thanks to David Schrieberg at the Quora website who pointed to the precursor in “The Pickwick Papers”.)

Update History: On September 16, 2022 the 1936 and 1837 citations were added to the article.

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