Photo: Courtesy of the author
Gill Paul takes on Dorothy Parker’s Bridge Club in Prohibition-era New York
In "The Manhattan Girls," the London-based writer imagines the lives of four brilliant women who bonded over cards, whiskey and fraught romances / BY Rosemary Counter / September 19th, 2022
London-based author Gill Paul is obsessed with badly behaved women who often make history. Among her fictionalized stories, her real-life subjects include Wallis Simpson, Princess Diana, Jackie Kennedy and Elizabeth Taylor. Now Paul is taking on what might be the loudest, rowdiest, drunkest and wittiest circle of bold women, ever: The female members of New York’s Algonquin Round Table in mid-Prohibition (as if that stopped the flowing booze for a minute).
The Manhattan Girls is Paul’s imagined take on the little-known 1921 bridge group of New Yorker founder Jean Grant, Broadway superstar Winifred Lenihan, brilliant aspiring novelist Margaret Leech and, obviously and of course, iconic satirist Dorothy Parker. Was Paul apprehensive to tackle Parker, the wittiest woman who ever wise-cracked? Yes and no, explains the bestselling historical fiction writer. In an interview from the backroom of a North London restaurant that was filling up with people in full flapper garb, Gill Paul talked to Zoomer about the fab four women who make up The Manhattan Girls.
Rosemary Counter: I can hear your launch party happening in the background. Tell me about it?
Gill Paul: It’s just getting started here. I’m wearing an original 20s headdress with feathers, with a vintage black dress covered in beads and fringes that I picked up at a vintage fair. It’s really nice, the way that it moves, which is good because two months ago, I stupidly posted on social media that I was going to learn the Charleston to do at the launch. I’m not a good dancer, number one, and two, I had no idea how hard it is! I’ve been watching online videos that show the steps, but you have to twist your feet, too. But I’m not nervous, because everyone here is a friend. We met here all the time on the patio all throughout COVID.
RC: It’s like your own little Algonquin Hotel in London! I should confess I was surprised to learn you were English; I just assumed you were a New Yorker for sure.
GP: I went to school in the States, and I studied American history and literature, so I have a great fascination about American subjects. I dared to write about Jackie Kennedy a few years ago, and Dorothy Parker had been on my list for years and years. I always thought, ‘Oh no … how can I possibly write dialogue for the wittiest women in the world?’ I almost can’t wait for the irate emails from Dorothy Parker fans telling me how wrong I’ve got it. But I decided that, even though she has so many fabulously witty quotes, even Dorothy Parker must have made small talk and general conversation about the weather. Once I let go of the idea that every piece of dialogue from Dottie had to be genius, everything got easier.
RC: That said, what’s your very favourite Dorothy Parker zinger?
GP: I love, “If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at who he gave it to.” That’s so modern, so astute, even now. Dorothy was very forward thinking for her era. She wasn’t bigoted, she wasn’t racist, she believed in women’s rights. All the women in the book did. They were trailblazers seeking fulfilling careers and pushing the glass ceiling. They were renting apartments, drinking whisky, taking lovers outside marriages. Back in England at the same time, the aristocracy still had chaperones every time they went out.
RC: Even though it’s a century ago, the four women face a lot of the same issues we’re talking about now: The actress Winifred deals with lots of #MeToo stuff, for example, and Dorothy has an illegal abortion.
GP: In the Winifred situation, she wouldn’t have had any recourse or she couldn’t have called anyone out like we can now, so at least something has changed in that respect. She kind of abruptly retired from acting, which made me wonder why, but there’s not much info on Winifred Lenihan besides the reviews of her plays. As for Dorothy Parker’s abortion, that’s true, though she probably only got it by stressing her mental health problems and danger to the child. All these issues are topical, again, still.
RC: How do you balance Dorothy Parker, the icon, who writers like me worship, with Dorothy Parker, the real person, who could be really mean and cruel?
GP: That’s exactly it, and I’m fascinated with the juxtaposition of her absolute rapier tongue with her huge emotional fragility. Presumably, this came from her background of so much loss. In relationships, she was very needy, she always picked the wrong men, she was a functional alcoholic who got worse as the years went on.
RC: I think you should write a sequel to this book where Dorothy’s in L.A. with her second husband, who became her third husband after they divorced and remarried.
GP: I would absolutely love to! I have another book on the go, but I’m enjoying promoting this one at the moment. Oh gosh, it’s getting busy in here now!
RC: You better go party then. Not quite as hard as Dorothy Parker.