July 29, 2020

No, we will not “excuse your dust,” Dorothy Parker. We’ll make a very big deal out of it, thank you very much.


Library of Congress Bain News Service photograph collection

Dorothy Parker left no instructions for her remains, barring the following utterance: “Excuse my dust.”

So, in the face of the gnomic wisdom of a dead writer, the people did what they did best: turned it into a weird hyper-real stand-off that completely misses the point.

Parker “left the bulk of her modest $10,000 estate to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and, in the event of his death, the N.A.A.C.P.” according to a story in Forward.

But aside from leaving her worldly goods to a cause she thought worthy, she did not make any grand designs for her ashes. So after her death in 1967 they were kept for a time in a crematory, but because of the storage costs, a lawyer for her longtime friend Lilian Hellman later relocated them to a filing cabinet in his office.

As for her estate, King of course did die shortly after Parker, so her money moved along to the N.A.A.C.P. Eventually in 1988, the then-executive director of the N.A.A.C.P. offered to also take in her ashes in light of her gift.

So the ashes stayed in the N.A.A.C.P. headquarters in Baltimore in a memorial garden dedicated to Parker for over thirty years.

Now, the N.A.A.C.P. is about to move to D.C. While organizations can change headquarters, the question of hauling someone’s ashes around is another matter, and apparently Parker’s remaining family members are split on whether or not they endorse it.

So, that’s the news! Dorothy Parker’s corporeal remains are in limbo. Would that dust really would go into dust. But alas. Urns. Gardens. Organizations. Headquarters. D.C.!

At least we now have a little more evidence that the afterlife can’t possibly be more purgatorial and hellish than the main event.



Athena Bryan is an editor at Melville House.