+ The Hedonistic Harry and Caresse Crosby

harry crosby

  • He had gifts that would have made him an explorer, a soldier of fortune, a revolutionist: they were qualities fatal to a poet.
    –Malcolm Cowley’s summary of Harry Crosby
  • Having studied the works of the likes of Ernest Hemingway, D.H. Lawrence, and James Joyce at university, I was really surprised that I hadn’t heard of their mutual friends, Harry and Caresse Crosby earlier. I’m currently reading Lucy Moore’s Anything Goes: A Biography of the Roaring Twenties, a portrait of American society in the 1920s, and it introduced them as a unconservative couple who emigrated to Paris, where they launched their own publishing house, the Black Sun Press. Lucy Moore’s book really drew me into their hedonistic, scandolous and unrestrained lifestyle in Paris, where they had lived from 1922 onwards. Harry Crosby’s life came to a premature but self-imposed end with an apparent murder-suicide pact aged just thirty-one – his body was found alongside his mistress Josephine Bigelow on the twenty-seventh floor of the Savoy-Plaza Hotel, their temples adorned with bullet-holes.

    After reading about him I felt compelled to write a post about him, not so much for his contributions to literature but just purely because he seems to be such a fascinatingly enigmatic character. I wanted to write a post to capture his unrelenting quest for adventure and his rare approach to living. As his friend Stuart Gilbert commented, Harry ‘feared the terre à terre, the normal, as most of us fear celestial heights’. He believed life was ‘futile’ and that ‘passionate memories are the utmost gold; poetry is religion [for me]‘ and ‘one should follow every instinct no matter where’ it led.

    His suicide might be seen as the ultimate symbol of his defiant grab on his own destiny, a fearless desire to experience in the life after death he so vehemently believed in. Below are just some of the interesting details I’ve read about the couple… I had to share them in their entertaining glory:

    • On a whim, Harry once hired four horse-drawn carriages and raced them through the streets of Paris.
    • At one of the annual Beaux Arts costume ball, Harry, naked to the waist, wore a string of dead pigeons around his neck. Caresse went topless and sat astride a baby elephant. She led the parade down the Champs after the ball.
    •Caresse Crosby held a surrealist picnic that included Henri Cartier-Bresson snapping pictures, random gunshots, and a symbolic suicide by painter Max Ernst.
    •Interestingly, under her real name Mary Phelps Jacob, Caresse Crosby patented the first modern bra!

    I’m definitely going to read up more on the 1920s literary scene in Paris in the future. As well as that the internet is full of recommendations for Geoffrey Wolff’s biography of Harry Crosby, and his published memoirs Shadows of the Sun, said to have been written in syntax inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses.

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