Harry Crosby (1898 -1929): Rich and Different

Mrs. Allen contends that the let-it-all-hang-out generation of the sixties was not all that revolutionary and really was not a patch on the nineteen twenties.

Reading the life of  Harry Crosby, I’m inclined to agree with her.

Short version, he was a connected Boston boy of privilege gone to the bad.  He prepped at St. Marks and was to go to Harvard (of course), but he found the lure of World War One more attractive and so went off to join the American Field Service Ambulance Corps. Not exactly soft duty – he was nearly killed by an artillery shell, for which he was awarded the Croix de Guerre.

After an experience like that, Harvard seemed a bit staid, as did Boston itself.  Another case of how to keep them down on the far once they’ve seen gay Paree.   He took his degree, then took a job in Shawmut National Bank – a comedown from the side walk cafes, accordions, and allegedly laxer morals he had come to know in France.

He also fell in love, and found his love requited.  Unfortunately, the improbably named Polly Peabody was already married with two children and in their social circles, such things were frowned upon.  Uncle J. P.  hustled Harry off to Paris to be branch manager for one of his banks, confidant that the city of light would shake this absurd obsession.

It did not.  Impassioned letters, both ways, crossed the Atlantic, and occasionally so did the principles.  Amor vincit omnia, and eventually Mr. Peabody granted his wife a divorce and she was off to Paris with the two small children to form a new life.  (Also a new name – in keeping with the alliterative theme, she needed something with a C.  Among the suggestions was Clytoris, which was, for whatever reason, discarded in favor of the more genteel if hardly less absurd Caresse.  They resurrected Clytoris when they needed a name for the family dog.)

The couple started out this unconventional life conventionally enough.  He still had his job, and every morning he and Caresse would leave their apartment on the Ile Saint-Louis,  he in his banker’s business best, she in her red bathing suit. Together they would paddle to the Place de la Concorde,  where he got off to head to the bank, she to return home with a good upper body work out.

Quirky, but not quirky enough.  Harry felt stifled.   He quit the job in order to live the life of a free man, a  project aided by the trust fund that brought him a clear thousand dollars a month at a time when the French franc had been sharply devalued.  A man could live quite nicely on a thousand 1924 dollars US in Paris.

With his days now free, he was able to follow his dreams.  The more respectable of these were literary.   He was in awe of the likes of James Joyce and the rest of the ex-patriot Smart Set,  and was soon following his vocation of poetry. Caresse meanwhile took up sculpting.

As befits a poet and an artist, he, and she,  threw themselves into the entire bohemian life-style.   Whatever might shock the bourgeoisie figured largely in the operation.     There were liaisons;  Harry had a taste for casual sex, and as an attractive man of ready cash and what we must assume was a  smoldering intensity was able to get a lot of it.  Caresse seems not to have minded.   Indeed, when the encounters grew larger than two,  cheerfully took part in them.   Late night spouse swapping in the Bois de Boulange on at least one occasion.   For the less outdoorsy, the couple had a sunken bathtub, big enough for four, in which they received guests,  champagne and caviar at the ready.   Larger groups were also welcome, young art students by preference,  and any of their willing and attractive friends.

Sex must be balanced by death,  and death was another of Harry’s obsessions.   He kept a picture of a dead soldier on his study door as a momento mori.    Among the apartment’s decorations was a skull he claimed to have stolen from the Paris catacombs,  reportedly used as a drinking vessel by one of those art students.    More legitimately Crosby had bought from a medical supply shop the skeleton of a young girl, which he dressed in a yellow raincoat.   Yet another skeleton was said to have had a prophylactic hanging from between its teeth,  a ghost of its tongue.

Harry was however serious about the poetry,  aping his idol James Joyce by writing from nine to noon and then again one to four, a schedule which guaranteed quantity if not quality.  And he was free with his patronage,  preferring to keep his favorites topped up with gold.  Real gold.  He liked shiny things.

In 1927 the couple roused themselves enough to found the publishing house of Éditions Narcisse, named after the other family dog.   It was a small operation, first intended to publish his own works.  If his own poetry was not all that memorable,  the press can be credited with publishing the works of his new found friends – James Joyce, Kay Boyle, Hart Crane, Dos Passos,  D.H.Lawrence, Ezra Pound, Hemingway, Laurence Stern, Archibald MacLeish – that crowd.

This was no slapdash vanity operation, or quick buck enterprise to make money on cheap pornography- Harry was a genuine bibliophile and took great trouble over all aspects (paper, typeface, binding, boxes)  of what were high quality limited editions.  He published Tales Told of Shem and Shaun,  those being the first extracts from Finnegans Wake. (Coincidentally, but in one of those touches that novelists so enjoy,  their pressman, chosen for the quality of his work, had never done books before – his specialty had been funeral notices.)

That same year, the couple took a trip to Egypt.   There he took to casual drug taking (opium, of course, later hashish and cocaine),  and a bit of sun worship (Lawrence’s influence, we can presume).   Sex with underage girl who captivated both him and Caresse.   For a souvenir,  he had a black sun  and a cross tattooed on the soles of his feet. (Caresse had the same done one her shoulder.) On their return to France, they renamed the company the  Black Sun Press.

It was now that he sought to simplify his life.   The heavy collection (eight thousand volumes) of rare books he inherited from his cousin Walter Berry became a burden to him.  He began to give them away, piecemeal and eccentrically – to waiters, cabbies, and, with pathetically low prices penciled in,  stashed them into the old bookseller’s boxes along the Seine.

The following year they took out a lease on a medieval mill in Ermenonville, not far from Paris.  Harry indulged his sun worship with a touch of nacktkultur, exposing himself to the skies on the roof of the newly dubbed Moulin de Soleil.

More vigorous past times included polo on donkeys, preferably while drunk.

In 1928 also, he  ran into Josephine Noyes Rotch, a “fast” girl ten years his junior, also from Boston, who was in Venice shopping for her wedding trousseau.   They had their fling, and the next year she married Albert Smith Bigelow.

Like the Summer of Love, the twenties couldn’t last forever, and Harry seems to have sensed it. In 1929, he was cabling his father to sell stock to pay for his exotic lifestyle, first in January, then May, and July.  Come November, he and Caresse were back in America, in part, they say, to watch the Harvard-Yale football game. (Harvard won, by the way.)

It might have been a time to sober up – he was now over thirty, after all, a good age to put away childish things – but such was not to be.   Josephine got in touch with him, and in early December, she and Harry went off to the four star Book-Cadillac Hotel in Detroit (the Paris of the Midwest as it then was) for a long weekend sex and opium and scotch and presumably jazz music.

The two lovers were back in New York as if nothing had happened.  There appeared no obvious change in the man, and he and Caresse made the rounds of various parties.  He was still seeing Josephine on the side, usually in the art studio of Stanley Mortimer, a family friend.  One night, Harry failed to make a dinner appointment and Stanley Mortimer  was deputed to find him.

He did, in that studio.   Harry was lying  on the bed, a gun in his hand, a bullet hole in his temple.  Josephine was by his side,  also dead.

Timing is everything,  and as a death knell for the roaring twenties, this one is hard to beat.

And Caresse, what happened to her?  A good deal,  as it happens, and we’ll get onto that story next time.


Black Sun: The Brief Transit and Violent Eclipse of Harry Crosby (New York Review Books Classics)

5 thoughts on “Harry Crosby (1898 -1929): Rich and Different

  1. In my college years I read an embarrassing number of Anais Nin’s diaries, and the Caresse Crosby came up a lot. So I’m waiting with interest for Part 2, which I hope follows the aforementioned Caresse (what a name, though it’s not a patch on Clytoris).

    • Could never make much of La Nin. Nor Miller, for that matter. Starts off interesting, quickly goes flaccid. You will, however, enjoy Caresse’s memoirs. Too much good good stuff to fit in a mere blog post.

  2. Pingback: Caresse Crosby (1891–1970): America’s First Girl Scout | A History Blog by Bruce Ware Allen

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