She wasn't an enigma, she was a drunk
Struck by the similarities between Dorothy Parker's life and her own, artist Christina Reihill has created an installation that draws on her own experiences
'Don't feel bad when I die," Dorothy Parker told a friend once, "because, I've been dead a long time." As Dorothy Parker witticisms go, this is no great shakes. Not a patch on "this is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force", or the almost haiku-like "brevity is the soul of lingerie". But it is far more revealing, more poignant, and more honest, than her much-lauded one-liners.
Because by the time she died, the high priestess of the Algonquin Round Table, celebrated wit, Hollywood screenwriter and journalist, had been largely alone for many years. She rejected the success of her youth - "These were no giants," she finally said of her Round Table days, "There was no truth in anything they said. It was the terrible day of the wisecrack, so there didn't have to be any truth..." - turned on her friends, distanced herself from former lovers and became increasingly reclusive, finally dying alone except for her dog, aged 73, at The Volney hotel in New York, surrounded by dog shit, empty bottles, overflowing ashtrays, and pages of writing she never wanted anyone to see.
As the Legend of Dorothy Parker, she had indeed been dead a long time. It's a curious kind of cautionary tale. Parker's inability to do what she most wanted - to write something of substance - is juxtaposed with the ephemeral nature of her triumphs so that she appears as a kind of grasshopper who sang all summer, finally, in her own eyes, unable to turn her talent into anything of real weight.
It's a tale that artist and poet Christina Reihill identifies with very strongly - the "extraordinary similarities between her life and mine" - are the basis for Christina's latest exhibition, Wit's End, a glorious mash-up of Parker, Dante and Christina herself.
Parker's biography, by John Keats, was the book Christina was reading when she finally checked herself into rehab in 1995, for alcohol and drug addiction after a decade of working on glossy magazines in London, and she has always shared a spirit of what she calls "her heroic defiance". Both Christina and Parker were children of privilege; Parker, born Dorothy Rothschild, grew up in the Upper West Side of New York, while Christina's childhood was spent at Deepwell in Blackrock, built by the Guinnesses and bought by Christina's father, John. Both went to finishing schools, and both lost their mothers very young - Parker was not yet five, Christina was 10. Their fathers married again and both had a tough time reconciling themselves to stepmothers.
Parker sent her first poem to Vanity Fair when she was 21, and began a career working for Vogue, the New Yorker and Life. Christina moved from Dublin to London at around the same age, and worked for British Vogue. Both were brilliant, creative and difficult. For both, there were highs and terrible lows - drinking, suicide attempts - and a strong urge to create something of value; something beyond the short-lived glory of boozy lunches dotted with clever bon mots. "The biographers are full of how difficult Dorothy Parker was," Christina says; "what an enigma she was. She wasn't an enigma, she was a drunk. And any drunk can relate to the alcoholic mindset."
And so, Christina refuses to be intimidated by the reputation. "Parker was a wonder, a mile-a-minute at the table, but what did she leave? There was a genius, and I don't want to take away from that - the show is an homage to her - but I want to step inside the psyche," she says.
For Christina, it is a journey both new and familiar. "It felt like being the walking dead," she says when I ask about the darkest days of her addiction. "Cold inside. Empty. The closest to annihilation. The closest to being exposed in Alaska."
Going back to the ever-tricky question of 'why' - 'Why does one person succumb and not another?' - Christina, also a trained psychotherapist, does the very opposite to what is, in a sense, the modern way with addiction. Instead of refusing to look for cause, she hones straight in on early childhood experiences. And she has a funny kind of enthusiasm for the job, what feels like a profound, even gleeful, intellectual curiosity over the 'whys' of her own troubles. "I was a twin, born, then five weeks into an incubator. I think it had a significant effect." More significant again was the death of her mother from cancer when she was 10, and the aftermath - the undoubtedly well-meaning but clumsy attempts of people around her to make the unbearable something 'all right.'
"My mother was sick, and I had made up a world that I could live in. And that was taken away from me," Christina says. "The death of a mother, dying for four years, gloom of that. I remember it very vividly, and then, overnight - that's what it felt like - everything changed. My mother's memory felt so forgotten.
"For an adult to sit in front of a child at 10 years of age and say 'your mother is much happier now…' They all said it, the adults around me." She is silenced at the enormity of anyone telling a child that her mother is happier without her, away from her, then says, "I'd say it is the rage of this that inspires all my work. Indignation that a child's heart be hijacked. I have a vivid memory of it, because it happened to me in a vivid way."
Later, she says that "one of the big decisions I made very early on - my opinion of adults was that they had no idea". But that decision didn't come without trauma. "I remember sitting at the dinner table, stoned, thinking, 'I know this isn't real, but I don't know how the hell it's not'. You feel like the world is telling you 'you're an utter failure'. You know it's all wrong, but I felt that it was I who must be wrong."
By 'it' she means her father's way of living in the world, her stepmother Ann's way. Neither of which was Christina's way. "My grandmother was a schoolteacher and a poet, and my mother had that side of creativity. And then I got lifted out of that and into this system that didn't work for me. For the girls, that meant school, finishing school, university, marrying well…" It was a perfectly good way to live, but it wasn't Christina's way, and going against it was hard. "My father, the successful businessman, Ann, the successful hostess, it was very difficult to contradict them, because of the affirmation the world gave them."
By the time she got to London, and Vogue, where she was retail editor for the south of England, in 1984, Christina was in a mess that would only get worse. "I left Dublin with 'I am a failure'. That's what I felt. You wouldn't have seen it because I was great at parties, I've always had friends, good survival skills, so I was able to play the game to a point, but I knew my life was fraudulent. I knew I wasn't living, in any shape or form, my truth. But at this stage I couldn't find my truth." From Vogue she moved to London Portrait Magazine, and then John Mulcahy's short-lived satirical magazine The Digger. She married Mark Inglefield in 1989, but the marriage was over by the early 1990s. "I think Mark and I married because we both knew marriage was rubbish," she says, recalling how they got into their car after the ceremony at Chelsea Registry Office, "there we were, lighting up cigarettes and saying 'what have we done?' and laughing together. That was the beauty - sharing it. There was a beauty in that, and a romance." It was a beauty and a romance based on truth, and it is this - the knowledge of being without any kind of truth - that still drives her. "This work is about desire," she says of Wit's End. "What is our deepest desire? How to find it? Live it?"
Dorothy Parker tried to kill herself several times, as did Christina. "A therapist once asked me, 'What was the most terrifying aspect of your addiction?' Not knowing there was a way out. I was fatalistic. My mother died, so I lived with the belief that, you died; if you're fucked up, you die… My mother died when she was 36. I was 34 when I came into recovery. Up to the age of 33, I wanted it to end. I tried, I had suicide attempts. Parker's attempts, how serious were they? She got herself found. Mine were after a night of drinking, taking the pills and hoping I wouldn't wake up. Disappear into the night."
And yet she didn't. This too, is part of the "heroic defiance" she shares with Parker. When she chose to get sober, Christina decided, "if I'm going to do this, I'm not going to get sober for a half-baked sobriety. I'm not going to get sober for a husband or kids. I am getting sober to make meaning of my existence, because it was the lack of meaning that had me suicidal." Christina moved back to Dublin in 1992, and worked for Irish Tatler for a time - more parties, lunches, launches. Finally, she started a 12-step programme, "because I felt like I'd stepped off the universe. There was no air left in me," then did six weeks in a residential rehab centre. Twenty-one years later, she still attends 12-step meetings.
And this, of course, is where Christina parts company with Parker. Because Parker never did get sober, she never did create the great book that she longed for. She did not, as Christina sees it, 'do the work'. "She drank all her life. She had a very strong idea of the persona she wanted to present, and she did it well. She's still doing it. But it trapped her. She was so strongly attached to her persona, and I think that's why she didn't give up the booze. Because that requires asking yourself: 'Who am I without the persona?' That's a very scary place to wake up; I've been there. 'I have no idea who I am? I'm an amoeba', is how I used to describe myself."
Not knowing, accepting that you don't know, and beginning the slow, difficult process of finding out, is all part of the journey towards a sober life. And it is a difficult one, without any real end. "I made a choice - I wanted to know what it was to feel personal freedom. I wanted to know 'what is love?'
"Alcoholism," she says, "is a low level search for spirituality," adding with a laugh "but it's false. You come down with a thundering hangover. You can't stay there. If you could, I'd still be drinking!" Even after 21 years, Christina is far from complacent. "You can't control addiction. I can only manage it, like I manage my diabetes. I'm only sober today, I'm not sober tomorrow."
Christina chose the long, hard path, guided by Dante's Divine Comedy. She published Soul Burgers, a book of poetry she describes as "a 12-year recovery story told in verse", and has created installations including WallWalks. Her work has been described as "the physicality of language", to which she herself says cheerfully "I am just being who I am. If the art world needs to come in and put a label on me, let them do it!"
For Wit's End, she has created an immersive journey through a physical space that is also a journey through Parker's life, and a journey for her spirit, guided by Dante. "I would say I am an architect of soul," she explains. "If I've done my job right, it is for you to step in and be hit through all your senses: sight, smell, intellect, emotions."
When Dorothy Parker died, she was cremated, but nobody wanted her ashes. They spent 15 years in a filing cabinet in Lillian Hellman's lawyer's office. In Christina's installation, the glorious conceit is that Parker rises from her own ashes, takes herself on the soul journey that is required if she is to face herself, and in facing herself, discover her heart's desire. "Dorothy Parker's heart's desire was to be considered a serious artist and write the book she never could; she was often asked 'why don't you?' and her answer was 'I don't know how'." As Christina knows well, "you don't know how to get out of hell. You have to learn".
Because those ashes, in that filing cabinet; "That's not going to be her end," Christina insists. "Don't try and define what the human spirit is capable of. Don't limit people. Who says you can't do something? And how dare they?" Wit's End is a fascinating kind of beyond-the-grave rescue mission, based on what is, for Christina, a conviction stronger than death - that we can.
Wit's End Installation will be opened by Patrick Murphy (Director of RHA) on March 13 and run until March 18. smockalley.com/wits-end
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