Last year at the the age of 56, I finally got around to having a will drawn up. Since I am clearly nearer to the end than the beginning, it was certainly time. The attorney I used specialized in this sort of thing and suggested that I put my funeral instructions in a separate document that could be easily changed. Apparently, his clients are prone to changing their favorite hymns or potential pallbearers as the years go by.
Procrastinator that I am, I have neglected so far my attorney’s instructions to take care of the details of my final rest and now I’m afraid I might end up in Baltimore like Dorothy Parker. Or in a file cabinet, also like Dorothy Parker, since that’s where she spent her first fifteen years après death.
Like me, Parker had a will. Like me, she also had instructions that she be cremated and also like me, she gave no instructions as to what was to become of the ashes resulting from that cremation. I just found out yesterday that because of this neglected detail, she spent 15 years in a filing cabinet and is now waiting out eternity in Baltimore, a final resting place that I believe she would find no more appealing than I do.
All because Parker made the mistake of choosing Lillian Hellman as her executrix. According to the NPR story I heard this week, Hellman couldn’t be bothered with picking up Parker’s ashes from the crematorium where they sat until the mortuary threatened to throw them out and Hellman’s lawyer put them in his filing cabinet where they resided for the next 15 years.
By that time, Lillian Hellman had died. Perhaps realizing what a poor choice she had been as an executrix, she did not choose one of her fellow writers to perform that duty for her. She named her trusted personal assistant to dispose of her worldly goods. Perhaps that trust was misplaced as a great many of Hellman’s collected accoutrements wound up in the Brooklyn basement of that personal assistant.
I know this because eight years after Hellman died and four years after Parker made her way from Hellman’s lawyer’s filing cabinet to Baltimore, my little sister married the assistant’s son and did the bulk of her antique shopping for their first home from the basement filled with Hellman’s effects. In fact, through a series of circumstances which I would rather not go into, one particularly nice bronze torchiere lamp made its way to my living room.
I would like to say that I treasured that piece of literary history and cherish it among my prized possessions to this very day but that would be a lie. In fact, when I moved from that apartment, the 50-or-more-year-old wiring of the lamp had long since shorted out and there wasn’t enough room on the moving van and this is hard to admit, but I left it behind.
I abandoned Lilian Hellman’s bronze torchiere in a Staten Island garden apartment from which it did not have very far to travel to end up in its most likely final destination, the Fresh Kills landfill. I would like to think that some intrepid dumpster diver rescued the lamp and is still enjoying its beauty despite being completely unaware of its distinguished provenance. I would also like to think that my sin of abandonment is less than Hellman’s since I only abandoned a lamp and she abandoned her friend. But that could just be denial.
Quite likely, the lamp got buried in the landfill just like Dorothy Parker got buried in Baltimore, neither of which was a satisfactory outcome.
How did Dorothy Parker end up in Baltimore? Like the rest of this story, it’s a little complicated. Parker left her entire estate to Martin Luther King Jr. which reportedly came as quite a surprise to him since they had never met. When he was assassinated a year later, her estate reverted to the NAACP which she had designated as the recipient if something happened to King. In fact, as the owner of her copyrights, the NAACP still collects royalties on her work and when her ashes turned up in the filing cabinet, they collected those as well.
There was some talk of placing Parker’s ashes in the Oak Bar at the Algonquin which would have been a fabulous idea but for some unknown reason, the hotel didn’t want them and preferred to remain a second rate hotel with a fabled past rather than to become a bona fide tourist attraction.
So the NAACP put a memorial garden at their Baltimore headquarters and even built a circle of bricks around Parker’s buried ashes to symbolize the Algonquin round table. That’s a nice touch but she belongs in New York. Perhaps if the NAACP ever moves its headquarters, they’ll send the ashes to her family burial plot in the Bronx. The cemetery was designed by the same landscape architect who laid out Central Park so she should feel at home there.
Meanwhile, if I should meet an untimely demise before I get around to completing my estate planning, please ask my daughter to take my ashes to Martha’s Vineyard and scatter them in Menemsha harbor at sunset. She can keep them in a filing cabinet until her mother passes if she wants to save a trip. If it was good enough for Dorothy Parker, it’s certainly good enough for me.
Even though I’m taking my sweet time writing down my final wishes, I’ve known for 20 years I wanted to spend eternity with Lynda in Menemsha after we spent a perfect afternoon there early in our marriage. Interestingly enough, Menemsha is just a few miles down the road from Tisbury where Lillian Hellman died at her beach house, perhaps under the soft light of her beautiful bronze torchiere.
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699 or on Twitter @BillColvard.