NANFWRIMO #3: Where “Confidential To” Comes From

If you’re my friend on Facebook, you know that I’ll often tag informative posts with “Confidential to” and then a friend’s name. (Sometimes I do it on Twitter, too.)

Because of that, I’ll occasionally get an e-mail from someone, gently explaining that I should be careful, my posts aren’t really confidential because they saw them, and maybe I should check my privacy settings. Then they tenderly pick me up, put me back on the turnip truck, and I motor away.

The thing is, it’s a joke. I know the posts aren’t confidential. I know they’ll go to not only my friend but all the friends of my friends. But I’m getting a little tired of explaining “It’s a joke” every time someone expresses concern about my understanding of Facebook. So I’m taking advantage of NaNFWriMo to explain where the joke comes from.

The TL;DR is this: I stole it from Dorothy Parker. The funny part is I stole it incorrectly.

I think many women who redirect their intelligence and anger into the more socially-acceptable channel of humor want to be Dorothy Parker. I was no exception. If you’re familiar with La Parker only through wisecracks posted on Facebook, or quick, easily-remembered poems, you’re missing out. She was a tremendous fiction writer when she could be bothered (two words: Big Blonde) and a very, very funny critic.

When I was younger I devoured all the Dorothy Parker I could find. I enjoyed the poetry and the short stories but oh, the reviews. They mentioned people and events I knew nothing about (I fixed that) but they were cool and acerbic and sliced through my consciousness like the first pass of a razor blade – leaving no trace until, looking again, you see the blood welling up.

Dorothy Parker’s early reviews (late 1910s – early 1920s) strike me as gentler, more earnest, funny but dedicated to the idea of honestly reviewing the performances she’s watched. Later, she’s got a sharper focus on pulling off just the right zinger. The performances are an excuse for her wit. You get the impression she’s aware of her reputation and the need to live up to it. The words are a little too big, a little too loud. Brassy is a good word.

So is isolated. The thing about Dorothy Parker is that her humor is tremendously funny — if it’s not pointed at you. If it is pointed at you, it’s going to sting at least, and at the height of her fame you had to wonder if you would be remembered only via what she said about you. Being around her must have been like playing Russian Roulette. Only instead of a bullet, you might end up on the wrong end of a bon mot that lasts for decades.

In other words, Dorothy Parker at the height of her fame made people cringe. Laugh yes, but also cringe. And it’s hard to get emotionally close to people who make you cringe, and who make you fear social ridicule. La Parker, at times, must have felt very alone.

In 1931 Dorothy Parker was writing for The New Yorker and took over the theatre criticism from her good friend Robert Benchley for a while (I believe he was in Hollywood.) Her reviews, during that period, ended in little notes to him, italicized at the end of thin columns of pleasant venom:

Personal: Robert Benchley, please come home. What do you think I am, anyway?

Personal: Robert Benchley, please come home. Whimso is back again.

Personal: Robert Benchley, please come home. Light on in the window for you.

Eventually I realized that, while Dorothy Parker lived a life with many accomplishments, the way she lived it was probably better to read about than actually live, and my Parker-mania eased off. Over time, though, I often remembered those little notes she left to Robert Benchley. He in California, she in New York, writing from a tower constructed of fame and wit and (I suspect) rage, still trying gamely to connect.

And that’s the image that I first thought of when beginning my habit of tagging people on Facebook. Isolated by distance and work and my own varied neuroses I try to make as entertaining as possible, tossing out little virtual paper airplanes that I think might help or inform or amuse. Confidential to: I want you to know I’m thinking about you. Confidential to: I am tagging you in front of all your friends with words that mean the exact opposite.

Confidential to: I want you to listen but for God’s sake, don’t take me seriously.

But, as you see from the lines I quoted, Dorothy Parker didn’t write “Confidential” at all. She wrote “Personal”. I remembered it wrong. I made it slightly more formal, slightly more distant. And I’m wondering what that says about my memory and the impact her writing had on me.

Of course I am not Dorothy Parker. I don’t drink, don’t live in New York, don’t have her genius for fiction. However I feel a kinship with that continuing need she had to connect, humorously or absurdly, with her good friend far away, even in the midst of the dragons and drama and absurdity of her life.

(I promise the next thing I write will actually be about Internet searching.)

Categories: Rants

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10 replies »

  1. You may be mis-remembering your source. Ann Landers used to tag a “Confidential to:” at the end of a column for a one-line answer to a letter she couldn’t publish. Or a personal note to someone she knew.

  2. More of this – not that I don’t love ResearchBuzz – I do – but this kind of writing is wonderful too. Headed to the shelves for Big Blonde.

  3. Brilliant! I felt the same about La Parker when I was younger, although I never tracked down as much of her writing as you have. She’s still on my ‘to read’ lists, but like you, I eventually found myself thinking more about her victims and feeling quite uneasy about that. But what a talent. Thanks for bringing back the fun I used to feel around her!

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