Harry Crosby

On December 7, 1929 Hart Crane threw a grand party in his Brooklyn home near the great bridge of his most famous (at the time, unpublished) work. It was a farewell party for his publishers-to-be, Harry & Caresse Crosby of the Black Sun Press. The Crosbys were due to sail back to France on the 13th and Crane wanted to send them off with a lively & memorable event. By all accounts it was a terrific party and in attendance were William Carlos Williams, Malcolm Cowley, e.e. cummings, and Walker Evans. Toward dawn, as the Crosbys prepared to leave, someone proffered Harry a deck of cards and told him to choose one. He announced that he’d drawn the ace of hearts, crossed himself, and promptly drew that very card. Three days later, before sailing for France, Harry Crosby killed himself with his mistress in a borrowed hotel room in Manhattan.

Some 70+ years following his controversial death, the legacy of Harry Crosby remains unclear, his contributions to poetry, literature, and art still questioned by literary scholars and art historians. There are those writers on 1920s literary Paris who, when deigning to mention him at all, depict a “playboy”, a dilettante, a spoiled expatriate dappling in “the arts” because they amused him. The eminent critic Malcolm Cowley has used Crosby as a symbol of the rise and fall of the Jazz Age itself (see “Exile’s Return”), eagerly pointing out the many excesses of his short life as being indicative of the essential shallowness of the man, and by extension, the age. Others, however, see in the Crosby character a figure of great complexity, someone devoted to the arts, to poetry, to quality literature, and to the celebration of Creativity in all its guises. This brief article attempts to put down some of the facts of his life without joining too vehemently the debate on the literary merits of his written work or the sincerity of his character and enthusiasms. It will, however, place him squarely in the epicenter of 1920s Jazz Age Paris for that is where he lived from 1922 until his death in 1929.

Crosby was a native Bostonian, born into one of the city’s prominent banking families on June 4, 1898, and raised with all the comforts and expectations of privilege that wealth brings. By most accounts he was an unremarkable young man, excelling neither in the arts nor academia and, much to his father’s chagrin, demonstrating no interest in or penchant for business. Neither did he pursue sports with any fervor although he was a fine runner and participated in track at the St. Marks School. Like many of his equally well-off peers, his teenage years were basically carefree. With a good-natured personality and enthusiasm for hijinx, Harry could get away with such practices as hurling water balloons at pedestrians from the third floor windows of his home at 95 Beacon St.

Like tens of thousands of his generation, however, his life would be changed forever by participation in the single most devastating event the world had known to date, the Great War (World War I). With several of his close friends, Crosby joined the American Field Service Ambulance Corps and was sent to France as an ambulance driver. Though by no means as dangerous as the role of common trench soldier, being an ambulance driver was hazardous in its own right. The ambulances themselves were notoriously temperamental and slow-moving, and the roads to and from the front lines, in addition to being rutted, potholed tracks, were subject to artillery barrages on a frequent basis.

On November 22, 1917, one such barrage landed within yards of Crosby’s ambulance, completely destroying it and gravely injuring one of Crosby’s closest friends. Miraculously, Crosby himself was uninjured but the experience proved to be a turning point in his life. What had once been a great “adventure” had turned into something more of a nightmare and his inexplicable escape from death marked the moment when his inner world turned to the mystical and he began to chart a personal cosmology based upon sun worshiping and suicide. While the war in France had liberated him from the stuffy confines of Boston, surviving the destruction of his ambulance liberated him from a fear of death. From that time forward, Crosby would court death, almost taunting it, and extol the glories of suicide.

The boy who’d left Boston eager for experience, returned a man far older than his twenty-one years. Older, perhaps, yet no more responsible and even less inclined to settle into the role prescribed for him by his upbringing, that of a banker’s son. Youthful mischief gave way to drunkenness, scandal and family outrage. Though he acceded to his father’s demands that he enroll at Harvard and earn a degree, he didn’t fit into Boston society and eventually would accept a bank position in Paris, arranged for him via connections with his uncle, J.P. Morgan. Not, however, before becoming infatuated with, and pursuing with dogged persistence, a married woman several years his elder, Mary “Polly” Peabody. In May of 1921 he threatened suicide if Polly did not break off her marriage. Shortly thereafter, she began a formal separation from her husband and, eventually, she would marry Crosby. As both of them hailed from prominent Boston families, the outrage their union caused was shrill and predictable, but it didn’t bother Crosby in the least. Shocking the society mavens of Boston would become a sort of hobby of his.

In May, 1922 Crosby arrived back in France, in Paris, and took up his position with the Morgan, Harjes & Co. Bank. But, more importantly, he began the life that would ultimately place him firmly in the center of the extraordinary literary and artistic revolution that was unfolding in 1920s Paris. He quit the bank forever on December 31, 1923 and threw himself single-mindedly into the occupation of poet, reader, and, later, publisher. In the course of these new endeavors he came to know many of the artists and writers we associate most with that era, including, among many, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Kay Boyle, Archibald MacLeish, Hart Crane, Sylvia Beach, Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Crosby shared a number of similarities with the American expatriate community of France (similarities that Malcolm Cowley endeavors to exploit in constructing his theories of the age in his seminal early study of ‘Lost Generation’ writers “Exile’s Return: A Literary Odyssey of the 1920s” (1934)), among them WWI field service in the ambulance corps, a penchant for drink, a disdain for puritanical American values, and an appreciation of art & literature. However, Crosby differed from many of his comrades in at least two significant ways, differences not discussed by Cowley because, had he done so, Crosby would not have fit so neatly into his tidy symbolic package.

First of all, Crosby spoke and read French fluently. This alone sets him apart from nearly all the major American artists & writers of the time and it allowed Crosby to read Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and other giants of French literature in their original language. More importantly, it afforded him the opportunity to move in far wider circles than most of the American and Canadian expats, who by and large, socialized among themselves. Crosby’s range of contacts, friends, and acquaintances exceeded that of most foreigners and extended beyond English-speaking Bohemian circles.

Secondly, Crosby came from money. Whereas many of the expats who flocked to Paris did so because the exchange rate allowed them to live relatively comfortable lives on a fraction of the money it would require to live in the States, Crosby had no such concern. Despite his avowed dislike of Boston society and the culture of privilege he came from, he had no compunction about exploiting his family’s wealth to live a lavish, indulgent lifestyle and to pursue the artistic life he considered vastly superior to a life focused on the accumulation of money.

Many literary scholars portray Crosby as little more than a playboy on holiday but this is inaccurate. From 1925 on, he became an independent student of art, literature, and writing. Keeping disciplined working hours, he read widely and thoroughly, endeavoring to make up for all he’d missed in high school and at Harvard, and wrote with a singleness of purpose worthy of some of the more respected writers of the period. Weighing the literary value of his output is beyond the scope of this biographical essay but it is true that, in a short span of five years, he produced a considerable body of work consisting of poetry, journals, and essays, some of it published in various literary journals of the era (Transition, Hound & Horn), and much of it appearing under the imprint of the Black Sun Press. “Shadows of the Sun”, his collected journals, remains one of the great published diaries of the 20th century.

Crosby, however, defies simple titles like ‘poet’ or ‘publisher’ or ‘expat’. He was all of those things, of course, but moreover he was a character, one of those classic eccentrics whose charisma, charm, and audacity both attracted and repelled. As noted, Crosby emerged from WWI a changed man. Once he moved to Paris, he never looked back. And his companion, Polly, also once a staid practitioner of Boston social decorum, went along for the ride. At the end of 1924, the two of them, already committing themselves to the practice of writing and the exploration of art, decided that Polly needed a more literary name. They decided upon Caresse in part because, in conjunction with the name Harry, the two names formed a cross when joined (one vertical and one horizontal). This became their symbol and they would have the Crosby Cross stamped in gold on the leather spines of their hundreds of books. Naturally, the name change further scandalized their respective families but it also served notice that Caresse, too, had abandoned all pretext at Boston respectability. “‘Yes’ is my favorite word” she wrote in her autobiography “The Passionate Years” and it was this spirit of brash go-forwardness that served as the perfect catalyst for Crosby’s unflagging enthusiasms.

Together they founded what would ultimately be regarded as one of the finest small press publishing houses of the 20th century. It began as something of a vanity press as both of them wanted to see their writings in print but were skeptical of the process of mainstream publishing as well as of what they saw as the indignity of submitting their words to others for approval. How much easier it would be, they thought, to print their own books in small editions and be able to control not only what was printed but also the appearance of the works themselves. In April of 1927 they established Editions Narcisse which, after several books, was renamed the Black Sun Press. By mere serendipity they happened upon a printer’s shop not far from their apartment at 19 rue de Lille. The printer, Roger Lescaret, made his living printing wedding invitations & funeral notices and had never before produced an entire book. That didn’t dissuade the Crosbys from striking a deal with him and Lescaret would be the Black Sun’s master printer for the duration of the enterprise.

Whereas their initial thought was to publish their own work (which they did), it occurred to them as well to publish other writers that interested them, and they actively solicited work from their friends and from writers they admired. Their list, as it comes down to us today, is impressive by any standards. Over time the Black Sun Press would bring out works by James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Kay Boyle, Hart Crane, Rene Crevel, Archibald MacLeish, Marcel Proust, D.H. Lawrence, Henry James, Eugene Jolas, and Oscar Wilde. The books themselves are elegant yet understated and are marked by clean lines, sharp typeface, and fine inks and papers. Generally published in small editions (anywhere from 10 or 20 copies to several hundred copies), some works were published in both a “limited” edition (with more elaborate design and more expensive materials) and a “trade” edition, also limited in number but perhaps not signed by the author, or not numbered. Most were issued in slipcases.

The Crosbys life together in Paris was, by all accounts, hedonistic, indulgent, eccentric. It was not uncommon for them to host small dinner parties in their giant bed and for everyone to end up in their huge bathtub together, bottles of iced champagne near at hand. Harry was an enthusiastic user of hashish and opium (which he called “Black Idol”), and a profligate gambler. He loathed paper money and once paid D.H. Lawrence for a story in gold coins he had smuggled into France from the United States. He refused to wear a hat, often wore a black carnation in his lapel, and was known to lacquer his nails (fingers and toes). On a trip to North Africa in 1925, he had crosses tattooed on the soles of his feet. He loved books and had an extensive library, particularly following the death of the family friend Walter Berry who left his own library of 7000+ books to he & Caresse. However, at times feeling burdened by the excess of such holdings, he would amble through the used book stalls along the Seine and, when no one was looking, slip rare first editions of Rimbaud or Wilde into the stacks.

He also had numerous affairs and gave nicknames to the women in print – “The Lady of the Golden Horse”, “The Fire Princess”. It was a practice that was grudgingly accepted by Caresse and in time she would have her own lovers as well. He developed his own personal cosmology which revolved around the worship of the sun and he would spend hours sunbathing naked in the sun atop the turret at the estate they rented outside Paris. And finally, he extolled the idea of suicide, referring to it constantly in his diaries and even setting a date for a joint suicide with Caresse, October 31, 1942. He imagined his death occurring violently, an “explosion into sun”. In 1929 he began flying lessons and dreamed of crashing his airplane, the bright rays of the sun full in his eyes as he plummeted to earth.

It was not Caresse, however, who would finally share Crosby’s “sun death”, but one of his mistresses, Josephine Rotch Bigelow, “the Fire Princess”, and it would not come in the roaring descent of a plane but rather in the sharp crack of a pistol shot to the temple. The circumstances are disturbing and can be found in some detail in the one full-length biography of him, “Black Sun: The Brief Transit and Violent Eclipse of Harry Crosby” by Geoffrey Wolff. The date was December 10, 1929.

Crosby’s life and literary legacy defies easy dismissal, despite the unseemly nature of his suicide. The more one examines the details of his enthusiasms and the authenticity of his passions, the more one must devise a place for him in the literary and artistic canon of the 1920s. His most enduring contribution, most would say, was the Black Sun Press itself. With a list of authors representing the Crosbys’ literary foresight, even the most ardent dismissers of Harry Crosby the man reluctantly grant credence to Harry Crosby the publisher. The books themselves continue to elicit praise for their fine craftsmanship and their elegant design, and, now exceedingly rare, are highly coveted and command significant prices on the rare book market.

Less agreement among literary historians can be found regarding his other major contribution, the remarkable journals he composed and published in three volumes, “Shadows of the Sun”. The diaries date from January 1, 1922 to December 9, 1929 and are a compendium of Crosby’s eccentricities, enthusiasms, obsessions, poetic inspirations, affairs, indulgences, friends, mystical ruminations, etc. In addition, they chart a course through that remarkable time and place, Paris in the 20s, and many recognizable artists & writers appear, from Joyce to Hemingway to Kay Boyle to Alistair. The journals are rich in his personal cosmology of sun worshiping and references to suicide abound.

The diaries have been criticized by some for what they lack: psychological profiling, tortured introspection, documentary-style recording of events, etc. But the criticism is founded on critics’ expectations of what literary diaries SHOULD be. Read with an open mind, the diaries form an extraordinary narrative of vignettes and musings, written in a unique prose style that simulates Crosby’s own personality. It is a style of clarity and energy, with long sentences stitched together by the use of “and” evoking an extended exhalation, a long clean sharp breath of words and imagery.

One final aspect of the Crosby life, one that has been academically & biographically overlooked, was his enthusiasm for photography. He was an eager experimental photographer and perceived the medium as a viable art form. One unsubstantiated rumor holds that Harry Crosby gave Henri Carter-Bresson his first camera. While such an assertion is unlikely, it is true, nonetheless, that Crosby knew the young Cartier-Bresson and that they spent some time together making photographs and talking photography at the Mill the Crosbys rented at Ermenonville, outside Paris. The visual record of Crosby’s photographic output resides at the Morris Library, Southern Illinois University, in Carbondale, IL.

Anyone interested in learning more about Harry Crosby, Caresse Crosby, and the Black Sun Press is encouraged to consult Geoffrey Wolff’s biography (noted above), or to seek out “Shadows of the Sun” (now out of print but once put out by Black Sparrow Press in the late 1970s).

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