Monday, April 10, 2006

The Bizarre Fate of Dorothy Parker's Ashes, Plus Muzak's Founder

In Fort Mill, South Carolina, you can find the corporate headquarters for Muzak -- equipped, we hear, with an "awesome" sound system that quite purposely does not pipe tunes into the elevators. Guess you'll need that iPod after all ...I know all this because I caught that fascinating piece on the evolution of the Muzak company in The New Yorker recently - anyone else see it? Apparently, it's not your father's Muzak anymore. Heck, it's not even the Muzak of the early 1990s: they're hip now, with a digital menu of over 1.5 million songs (with everything from Led Zeppelin to 50 Cent and Miles Davis) and chances are you hear it regularly in retail stores everywhere, and never notice. I have to say I haven't thought much about Muzak in a long time -- though one of my neighbors, whose living room was recently overhauled to make it look up-to-date circa 1958, apparently works at Muzak, to judge from the van parked outside his house -- so it was quite an eye-opener to learn about Muzak's founder (What? Muzak had a founder?), a career Army officer born in (yes) 1865. Talk about a guy who moved with the times.

Back when Muzak actually was Muzak, instead of a musical chameleon crafting soundscapes to express a corporate image, the writer Dorothy Parker died. This would be the famously sharp-tongued Dorothy Parker, author of the often-anthologized "Big Blonde," and recently the subject of a movie starring Jennifer Jason Leigh. --Actually, that's a terribly demeaning way to speak of a serious writer, but the truth is that I haven't read anything by her, not even "Big Blonde," and while that may speak to my own shortcomings as a person and as a reader, it's also true that Parker has either been neglected, her work has grown dated, or she's been terrifically underappreciated, because not many people my age have read her. I can't judge why her work has fallen into obscurity, given my unfamiliarity with it, but a piece in Bookforum pointed to one reason why Parker might have missed out on some attention, and that reason's name was Lillian Hellman. Hellman was Parker's literary executor, and exercised such repressive control over it that almost none of the biographers or publishers who might have touched off a renewal of interest in Parker after her death in 1967 were allowed to go forward, and by the time Hellman lost interest, in the early 1970s, so had much of the rest of the world. Even Parker's remains were neglected: her ashes sat in the file drawer of a law office on Wall Street for fifteen years before they were finally interred on the campus of the NAACP, to whom she'd willed her entire estate. Alas, poor Yorick!

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