In the 1930s, the FBI began keeping a file on Dorothy Parker.
One of wittiest voices of the 20th century, the prolific critic, poet and screenwriter became active in the political scene after Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were convicted of first-degree murder on shaky evidence in the 1920s. Parker herself was arrested in 1927 at a rally for Sacco and Vanzetti just months before their execution, where she was slapped with a $5 fine for “loitering and sauntering.”
“This,” writes Michelle Dean, in her new book Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion, was Parker’s first taste of protest and it “gave her an appetite for more.”
In the coming years, Parker would champion numerous political causes from unionizing to civil rights. She herself would help organize the Anti-Nazi League and the Screenwriters Guild, which were viewed by the FBI as “Communist fronts.”
As her political profile was amping up, an "anonymous outside source" reported that Parker contributed to the “Communist movement.”
For nearly a quarter of a century, the agency tracked her movements, The New York Times recounts — from every change of address to every public appearance. In total, the agency logged 1,000 pages on the writer, following her from event to event.
Now, MuckRock’s executive editor JPat Brown has successfully FOIA’d the National Archives and Records Administration to release the Parker files, making this the first time the files have been publicly available in more than a decade since they were removed from the FBI FOIA reading room.
Though she was not a member of the Communist Party herself, Parker associated with openly Communist organizations and was sympathetic to the cause.
It was because of this that she and her on-again-off-again second husband and writing partner Alan Campbell were both blacklisted from Hollywood during the notorious McCarthy-era House Un-American Activities Committee witch hunt.
Members of the Un-American Activities Committee had begun investigations into “Communist influences” in Hollywood in 1947. Though Parker was not subpoenaed by the committee in 1947, recounts “You Must Remember This” podcast host Karina Longworth, she attended the hearings in support of others.
Her career in Hollywood, meanwhile, was becoming red hot, and she was nominated for an Academy Award for the 1947 screenplay Smash-Up, the Story of a Woman, which she co-wrote with Frank Cavett. But this was the beginning of the end for Parker in Hollywood. By 1949 she was informally blacklisted, and by 1950, Parker biographer Marion Meade writes, she was named in the pamphlet Red Channels, "a rightwing compilation of 'Communist sympathizers' that the broadcasting and advertising industries adopted as a guide to employment and blacklisting."
The following April, she answered her door to find two FBI agents at her steps. “They started asking questions,” Longworth says. “Was so-and-so a friend of hers? Did she know that so-and-so was a Communist? What about such-and-such? Did she ever see such and such at a Communist Party meeting?”
When an agent asked if she had ever conspired to overthrow the government, Parker allegedly responded, “Listen, I can’t even get my dog to stay down. Do I look to you like someone who could overthrow the government?”
While Parker was never dismissed from a job, Meade writes Parker was aware that had she tried to find more work in Hollywood following the Red Channels publication, she wouldn't find it.
Finally, in 1955, the FBI decided the writer, who by then was in her 60s, was not a national threat. A memorandum to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover regarding the case of Parker "Security Matter—C," noted that though she was found to be associated with 33 groups that were allegedly "Communist fronts," "no reliable evidence of CP membership has been received."
Parker died 12 years later in 1967. For decades after her death, according to Kevin C. Fitzpatrick in his 2005 book, A Journey Into Dorothy Parker's New York, the government continued to keep "numerous sections of her file redacted for 'national security' reasons." As Fitzpatrick point out, what was available for research was "hardly damning," such as one letter from a high school student researching a term paper.
You can check out the file for yourself; nearly 200 pages have been uploaded by MuckRock, which cites its gratitude to NARA’s Jessie Hartman, and the National Security Archive’s Nate Jones and Emma Sarfity for their work making the documents available again.
Editor's note, 5/11/18: Due to an error in editing, an earlier verison of this piece incorrectly identified FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. The story has been updated.