Caresse Crosby (1891-1970): America’s First Girl Scout

It’s true! In 1910, Robert Baden-Powell came to America to help get the Boy Scouts going here and brought Lady Baden-Powell with him.  She somehow wound up at our  subject’s school  and had lunch with Miss Ruutz-Rees.

Mrs. Crosby writes:  “I am sure it was in exchanging modern ideas over the after luncheon coffee cups that they together with Miss Loundes and Miss Lewis (both as British as buns) brewed the scheme for instigation of a Girls Scout movement right there at Rosemary.”

Polly was chosen as the first initiate, and got the name Policumteenawa, signifying Little-Possum-By-the-Fire, or some such.

But we get ahead of ourselves.

Previously, we had left Caresse Crosby bereft of husband Harry who had died in a murder/suicide pact with his young lover.    Not an easy thing for anyone to bear.

Harry had left $100,000 in his will.  She didn’t get it.  His parents had the will nullified and let her have $2,000 a year, and a little something for the children, which, considering that they were not Harry’s was not ungenerous.

How had things come to such a pass?  She had been born Mary Phelps Jacob,  in New York, to a family comfortable in a horse and hounds sort of way – places in Connecticut, the house on 59th street and Fifth avenue in New York.  Robert Fulton of steamboat fame was an ancestor, and by the time Caresse came along, the family was still high enough rent that she would be presented to King Edward in 1914.

Early life was the social rounds of young Harvards and Yales,  one of whom, Richard Peabody, she went so far as to marry (the service was performed by his uncle Endicott Peabody, he of Groton).  Richard provided two children and then was off to France to fight the Hun.   A bad war for Richard, it seemed, for when he came back he had taken to drink, and a curious habit of chasing firetrucks just to see buildings on fire.  He was aided in this hobby by the local fire marshal who agreed to rig up an alarm bell in the Peabody household that rang in tandem with that of the firehouse.  No surprise that Mrs. Peabody should find other more congenial company in the young Harry Crosby, another veteran but not quite so incapacitated by the whole thing.

Fast forward to 1929, when Harry went out in a blaze of scandal.  What was the widow to do?   Two thousand was not a small amount back in ’29, but she hadn’t been a girl scout for nothing.   There was a good dose of gumption, even moxie. She had, after all, patented and manufactured the first American backless brassiere, which enterprise she sold off for a piddling amount to the Warner company.  Easy come, easy go.

So it was back to work for Caresse, in this case the Black Sun Press and a paperback arm called Crosby Continental Editions featuring a good number of names still familiar – Saint-Exupery, Jung, Hemingway, Dorothy Parker,  Faulkner.  It was a good idea executed at the wrong time.  She folded up the Continental Editions in 1933.

By 1936 she was back in America, picking up a Hampton Manor in Virginia where she set up a salon for the likes of Buckminster Fuller, Salvador Dali and Ezra Pound (he had written the introduction to one of the volumes of Harry Crosby’s poems, Torchbearers.  His own Imaginary Letters was published by Black Sun).

By now war was threatening and she founded Women Against War, and after that noble effort fell short against the reality of 1939, she founded the post-war Center for World Peace.

The following year, Henry Miller arrived back in town and was given a place in her rarely used apartment on 55th street.  Miller in low water was churning out pornography for a Texas oilman, but even he could not keep it up indefinitely.  Caresse had no difficulty taking up the slack (and certainly had a wealth of experience to draw upon. This was after all the woman who, while married, had had affairs with Lord Lymington, Jacques Porel, Canada Lee, and Cord Meyer,  the woman who had appeared at the Bal des Quatz’ Arts riding topless atop a baby elephant and wearing a turquoise wig, who had driven with two other couples to the Bois de Boulonge, circled the cars and then swapped partners.  No wonder Miller had a hard time keeping up.

As an after thought, she had picked up a new husband in 1937, a football player of all things Selbert “Bert” Saffold Young, some 18 years her junior. He was in Hollywood failing as an actor and yearned for the simple life.  This turned out to be Hampton Manor, a dilapidated estate of some 486 acres in Bowling Green, Virginia, and a brick house designed by Thomas Jefferson.  She cheerfully bought the place for the new husband.  He in return, drank to excess, crashed her car, and lived on her money.  She spend her days pounding out pornography.

The state of the marriage can be inferred by the fact that they split the yard in half. His half was let to grow wild, hers was clipped to British standard, and suitable for tea parties.  During the war, the manor served as a refuge for Salvador Dali and his wife Gala, and, briefly, Henry Miller and Anais Nin.

By 1941, after shedding the football player, it was off to Washington DC to open a modern art gallery.  It failed, partially because of the war, partially because of her being again before her time.   She also began a quarterly art review (no easy thing under war time restriction) that went south for lack of investors.

In 1950, she was off to Rome, then north the fifteenth century Castello di Rocca Sinibalda north of the city, which she also turned into an artist’s colony for  $US 2,600.  No electricity, impossible to heat – one must suffer for art.  She was also hoping to create a sort of salon for politicians and artists in Cyprus, the buildings to be built by Buckminster Fuller.  Local politics ground that idea to a halt.

She died in Rome in 1970 of pneumonia, complications of open heart surgery.  Shows what a life of unhealthy living can do for a person.

***

I could go on, but fortunately,  she and others have already done so.  To get (most of) the whole story, at least up to 1953, you need to read her autobiography, The Passionate Years.  See also The Cramoisy Queen: A Life of Caresse Crosby  and Caresse Crosby: From Black Sun to Roccasinibalda.

 

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