Harry Crosby was an American heir, a bon vivant, poet, publisher, and for some, epitomized the Lost Generation in American literature. He was the son of one of the richest banking families in New England, a member of the Boston Brahmin, and the nephew of Jane Norton Grew, the wife of financier J. P. Morgan, Jr.. As such, he was heir to a portion of a substantial family fortune. He was a volunteer in the American Field Service during World War I, and later served in the U.S. Ambulance Corps. He narrowly escaped with his life.
Profoundly affected by his experience in World War I, Crosby vowed to live life on his own terms and abandoned all pretense of living the expected life of a privileged Bostonian. He had his father's eye for women, and in 1920 met Mrs. Richard Peabody (née Mary Phelps Jacob), six years his senior. They had sex within two weeks, and their open affair was the source of scandal and gossip among blue-blood Boston.
Mary (or Polly as she was called) divorced her alcoholic husband and to her family's dismay married Crosby. Two days later they left for Europe, where they devoted themselves to art and poetry. Both enjoyed a decadent lifestyle, drinking, smoking opium regularly, traveling frequently, and having an open marriage. Crosby maintained a coterie of young ladies that he frequently bedded, and wrote and published poetry that dwelled on the symbolism of the sun and explored themes of death and suicide.
Crosby's life in Paris was at the crossroads of early 20th century Paris literary and cultural life. He numbered among his friends some of the most famous individuals of the early 20th century, including Salvador Dalí, Ernest Hemingway, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. In 1927 Polly took the name Caresse, and she and Harry founded the Black Sun Press. It was the first to publish works by a number of struggling authors who later became famous, including James Joyce
, Kay Boyle
, Ernest Hemingway, Hart Crane
, D. H. Lawrence
, René Crevel, T. S. Eliot
, and Ezra Pound
. Crosby died scandalously at age 31 as part of a murder–suicide or suicide pact.
Harry Crosby was born as Henry Sturgis Crosby (his parents Stephen Van Rensslaer Crosby and Henrietta Marion Grew later changed his middle name to "Grew") in Boston's exclusive Back Bay neighborhood. He was the product of generations of blue-blood Americans, descended from the Van Rensselaers, Morgans, and Grews. His father's mother was the great-granddaughter of Alexander Hamilton. Also among Harry's ancestors were Revolutionary War General Philip Schuyler and William Floyd, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
He had one sibling, a sister, Katherine Schuyler Crosby, nicknamed Kitsa, who was born in 1901. They moved shortly after his birth to a home with a dance floor that could accommodate 150 people. His parents instilled in him a love for poetry. He would toss water bombs off the upper stories of the house onto unsuspecting guests. The family spent its summers on the North Shore of Massachusetts at a second home in Manchester, about 25 miles (40 km) from Boston.
As a child, he attended the exclusive Noble and Greenough School. In 1913, when he was 14 years old, his parents decided it was time to send him to St. Mark’s School, which he graduated from in 1917.
World War I
Crosby tired of the rigidity of everyday life in Boston. He said he wanted to escape "the horrors of Boston and particularly of Boston virgins." Like many young men of upper-crust American society, he volunteered to serve in World War I with the American Field Service in France. A number of writers whose works he would later publish also served in the ambulance corps, including Ernest Hemingway, Malcolm Cowley, and Hart Crane.
When America officially entered the War, the American Field Service ambulance corp was integrated into the U. S. Army Ambulance Corps and Harry enlisted. During the Battle of Verdun he was a driver in the dangerous ambulance service. On November 22, 1917, as Crosby transported several wounded soldiers, including his best friend, Way "Spud" Spaulding, to a medical aid station, his ambulance was hit by an artillery shell that landed 10 feet (3.0 m) away, sending shrapnel ripping through his ambulance. Miraculously, Crosby was unhurt, and was able to save Spud's life. Harry declared later that that was the night he changed from a boy to a man. From that moment on he never feared death.
During a battle near Orme, his section (Section Sanitaire 641, attached to the 120th French Division) carried more than 2000 wounded and was cited for bravery in the field. Crosby became in 1919 one of the youngest Americans to be awarded the Croix de guerre.
Meets Mrs. Richard Peabody
After returning from World War I, Harry attended Harvard under an accelerated program for veterans. Harry's mother invited Mrs. Richard Rogers Peabody (née Mary Phelps Jacob) to chaperone Harry and some of his friends at a picnic on July 4, 1920, including dinner and a trip to the amusement park at Nantasket Beach. During dinner, Harry never spoke to the girl on his left, breaking decorum. By some accounts, Harry fell in love with the buxom Mrs. Peabody in about two hours, confessing his love for her in the Tunnel of Love at the amusement park. Two weeks later they went to church together in Manchester-by-the-Sea and spent the night together. Their public relationship was the gossip of blue-blood Boston.
She was 28, six years older than Harry, with two small children, and married. No matter what Harry tried, Polly would not divorce Richard and marry him. Harry took a job in Boston at the Shawmut National Bank, a job he disliked, and took the train to visit Polly in New York. In May 1921, when Polly would not respond to his demands, Harry threatened suicide if Polly did not marry him. Polly's husband Richard Peabody was in and out of sanitariums several times fighting alcoholism. In June 1921, she formally separated from him. Later that winter, Polly accepted weekend visits from Harry, who would take the midnight train home to Boston afterward. In December, Polly's husband Richard offered to divorce her, and in February 1922, the marriage was legally ended.
After eight months at the Shawmut National Bank, Harry got drunk for six days and resigned on March 14, 1922. Polly intervened with Harry's uncle, J. P. Morgan, Jr., who agreed to provide a position for Harry in Paris at Morgan, Harjes et Cie. Harry already spoke and read fluent French and moved to Paris in May. Polly preceded him there but in July, angry and jealous, returned to the United States.On September 2, 1922, Harry proposed to Polly via transatlantic cable, and the next day bribed his way aboard the Aquitania for New York which made a weekly six-day express run to New York.
Polly and Harry Marry
On September 9, 1922 Harry and Polly were married in the Municipal Building in New York City, and two days later they re-boarded the RMS Aquitania and moved with her children to Paris, France. There they joined the Lost Generation of expatriate Americans disillusioned by the loss of life in World War I and the moral and social values of their parents' generation. Harry continued his work at Morgan, Harjes et Cie, the Morgan family’s bank in Paris. They found an apartment overlooking the Seine, at the Quai d'Orléans on the Île Saint-Louis, and Polly would don her red bathing suit and row Harry down the Quai d'Orléans in his dark business suit, formal hat, umbrella and briefcase to the Place de la Concorde where he would walk the last few blocks to the bank on Place Vendôme. As she rowed back home, Polly, who was well endowed, would enjoy whistles, jeers and waves from workmen. She said the exercise was good for her breasts.
Harry barely tolerated Polly's children. After their first year in Paris, her eight-year-old son Billy was shipped off to Le Rosay, an elite boarding school in Gstaad. At the end of 1923, Harry quit Morgan, Harjes et Cie and devoted himself to the life of a poet, and later, publisher. Polly would attempt to create a family Christmas each year, if only in a hotel, but Harry regularly boycotted these events, making it clear that he would be looking for flirtations instead.
Life as Expatriates
Both of them were attracted to the bohemian lifestyle of the artists gathering in Montparnasse. Even by the wild standards of Paris in the 1920s, Harry was in a league of his own. The couple lived a hedonistic and decadent life, including an open marriage and numerous affairs.Harry was a gambler and a womanizer; he drank "oceans of champagne" and used opium, cocaine, and hashish.They wrote a mutual suicide pact, and carried cremation instructions with them.
His inheritance, multiplied by the favorable exchange rate the American dollar enjoyed in postwar Europe, allowed them to indulge in an extravagant expatriate lifestyle. Harry's trust fund provided them with US$12,000 a year (or $162,419 in today's dollars). Still, Harry repeatedly overdrew his account at State Street Trust in Boston and at Morgan, Harjes, in Paris, which in blue-blood Boston was like writing graffiti on the front door of a church. Harry wired to his father several times asking him to put more money from his inheritance into his account. In January 1929, he told him "to sell $4,000 worth of stock to make up for past extravagances in New York". In May, he sold another $4000 worth "to enjoy life when you can". In 1929, Harry sent a drunken cable home to his father, an investment banker, who was not pleased by it
PLEASE SELL $10,000 WORTH OF STOCK. WE HAVE DECIDED TO LIVE A MAD AND EXTRAVAGANT LIFE
His father complied but not without rebuking his son for his spendthrift ways.
Polly and Harry purchased their first race horse in June 1924, and then two more in April 1925. At the end of 1924, Harry persuaded Polly to formally change her first name to Caresse, as he felt Polly was too prim and proper for his wife. They briefly considered Clytoris before deciding on Caresse. Harry suggesting that her new name "begin with a C to go with Crosby and it must form a cross with mine." The two names intersected at right angles at the common "R," "the Crosby cross."
In 1924, they rented an apartment in the Faubourg St. Germain for six months from Princess Marthe Bibesco, a friend of Harry's cousin Walter Berry, for fifty thousand francs (the equivalent of $2,200, about $29,835 in today's dollars. When they moved in, they brought with them "two maids and a cook, a governess, and a chauffeur."
Harry and Polly rented a fashionable apartment on 19, Rue de Lille on November 19. They became known for hosting small dinner parties from their giant bed in their palatial townhouse on Quai d'Orsay, and afterward everyone was invited to enjoy their huge bathtub together, taking advantage of iced bottles of champagne near at hand.
They took extended traveling tours. In January 1925 they traveled to North Africa where they first smoked opium, a habit to which they would return again and again. Harry had tattoos on the soles of his feet—a cross on one and a pagan sun symbol on the other.
Harry developed an obsessive fascination with imagery centering on the sun. Harry's poetry and journals often focused on the sun, a symbol to him of perfection, enthusiasm, freedom, heat, and destruction. Crosby claimed to be a "sun worshiper in love with death." He often added a doodle of a "black sun" to his signature which also included an arrow, jutting upward from the "y" in Crosby’s last name and aiming toward the center of the sun’s circle: "a phallic thrust received by a welcoming erogenous zone."
Crosby met Ernest Hemingway on a skiing trip to Gstaad in 1926. In July 1927 Crosby and Hemingway visited Pamplona for the running of the bulls. Crosby wrote of Hemingway that "H. could drink us under the table." Harry and Caresse published the Paris edition of Hemingway's The Torrents of Spring.
In early 1928 they traveled to the Middle East, visiting a number of countries. Later in the year they secured a 20 year lease on a medieval mill outside of Paris in Ermenonville, France, for living quarters, which they named "Le Moulin du Soleil" ("The Mill of the Sun"). There they hosted wild parties, including drunken polo on donkeys, and entertained famous guests like Salvador Dalí. He would spend hours sunbathing naked atop the mill's turret. Contrary to fashion of the day, Harry would not wear a hat. He often wore a black carnation in his lapel, and was known to color his finger- and toenails.Harry once hired four horse-drawn carriages and raced them through the Paris streets. He would frequently drop in at Drosso where he would smoke opium. He would stay away from home for days.
Harry experimented with photography and saw the medium as a viable art form before it was widely accepted as such. In 1929, Crosby met Henri Cartier-Bresson at Le Bourget, where Cartier-Bresson's air squadron commandant had placed him under house arrest for hunting without a license. Crosby persuaded the officer to release Cartier-Bresson into his custody for a few days. They found they both had an interest in photography, and they spent their time together taking and printing pictures at Crosby's home, Le Moulin du Soleil.
Harry also learned to fly solo in November, 1929 when the aeroplane was so new that its spelling had not been agreed upon.
In 1923, shortly after their arrival in Paris, Caresse introduced Harry to her friend Constance Coolidge, also a member of the Boston Brahmin, an American expatriate and French countess, with whom he immediately began an open sexual relationship. In Morocco during one of their trips to North Africa, Harry and Caresse took a 13-year-old dancing girl named Zora to bed with them. His seductive abilities became legendary in some social circles in Paris, and he engaged in a series of ongoing affairs, maintaining relationships with a variety of beautiful and doting young women.
In July 1925, he met a fourteen-year-old girl named "Nubile." He slept with a 13-year-old Berber girl in North Africa and a young Arab boy in Jerusalem. His wildness was in full flower during the drunken orgies of the annual Four Arts Balls (Bal des Quatz' Arts). One year, Caresse showed up topless riding a baby elephant and wearing a turquoise wig. The motif for the ball that year was Inca, and Harry dressed for the occasion, covering himself in red ocher and wearing nothing but a loincloth and a necklace of dead pigeons.
Embracing the open sexuality offered by Crosby and his wife Caresse, Henri Cartier-Bresson fell into an intense sexual relationship with her that lasted until 1931.
Black Sun Press
In April, 1927, they founded an English language publishing company, first called Éditions Narcisse, after their black whippet, Narcisse Noir. They used the press as an avenue to publish their own poetry in small editions of finely made, hard-bound volumes.
They printed limited quantities of meticulously produced, hand-manufactured books, printed on high-quality paper. Publishing in Paris during the 1920s and 1930s put the company at the crossroads of many American writers who were living abroad. In 1928, as Éditions Narcisse, they printed a limited edition of 300 numbered copies of "The Fall of the House of Usher" by Edgar Allan Poe with illustrations by Alastair.
In 1928, they found they enjoyed the reception their initial works received, and decided to expand the press to serve other authors, renaming the company the Black Sun Press, following on Harry's obsession on the symbolism of the sun. The press rapidly gained notice for publishing beautifully bound, typographically flawless editions of unusual books. They took exquisite care with the books they published, choosing the finest papers and inks.
They published early works of a number of writers before they were well known, including James Joyce's Tales Told of Shem and Shaun (which was later integrated into Finnegans Wake. They published Kay Boyle's first book-length work, Short Stores, in 1929. and works by Hart Crane, D. H. Lawrence, Ezra Pound, Archibald MacLeish, Ernest Hemingway, Laurence Sterne, and Eugene Jolas. The Black Sun Press evolved into one of the most important small presses in Paris in the 1920s. After Harry died in a suicide pact with one of his many lovers, Caresse Crosby continued publishing into the 1940s.
The Fire Princess
On July 9, 1928, Harry met 20-year-old Josephine Noyes Rotch, the daughter of Arthur and Helen Ludington Rotch in Boston. Ten years his junior, they met while she was shopping in Venice at the Lido for her wedding trousseau. She had belonged to the Vincent Club and the Junior League and graduated from Lee School before she had attended Bryn Mawr. After only two years at Bryn Mawr she left because she planned to marry Albert Smith Bigelow."She was dark and intense... since the season of her coming out in 1926-7, she had been known around Boston as fast, a 'bad egg'...with a good deal of sex appeal."
They met for sex as often as her eight days in Venice would allow. He would later call her the "Youngest Princess of the Sun" and the "Fire Princess." She was also from a prominent Boston family that first settled in Provincetown on Cape Cod in 1690. Josephine would inspire Crosby's next collection of poems which he dedicated to her, titled Transit of Venus. In a letter dated July 24, 1928, Crosby detailed the affair to his mother, in whom he had always confided:
I am having an affair with a girl I met (not introduced) at the Lido. She is twenty and has charm and is called Josephine. I like girls when they are very young before they have any minds.
Josephine and Harry had an ongoing affair until June 21, 1929, when she married Albert Smith Bigelow. Their affair was over—until August, when Josephine contacted Crosby and they rekindled the affair as her husband became a first year graduate student of architecture at Harvard. Unlike his wife Caresse, Josephine was quarrelsome and prone to fits of jealousy. She bombarded Harry with half incoherent cables and letters, anxious to set the date for their next tryst.
Visit to United States
In December 1929, the Crosbys returned to the United States for a visit and the Harvard-Yale football game. Harry and Josephine met and traveled to Detroit where they checked into the expensive ($12 a day) Book-Cadillac Hotel as Mr. and Mrs Harry Crane. For four days they took meals in their room, smoked opium, and had sex. On December 7, 1929, the lovers returned to New York where Josephine said she was going to return to Boston and her husband. On the evening of December 7, Crosby's friend Hart Crane threw a party to celebrate his completion after seven years of his poem, The Bridge, which was to be published by the Black Sun Press, and to bid Harry and Caresse bon voyage, since they were due to sail back to France the next week. Among the guests present were Margaret Robson, Malcolm Cowley
, Walker Evans,E. E. Cummings
, and William Carlos Williams
. The party went on until nearly dawn, and Harry and Caresse made plans to see Crane again on December 10 to see the popular Broadway play Berkeley Square before they left for Europe.
On December 9 Josephine, who instead of returning to Boston had stayed with one of her bridesmaids in New York, sent a 36-line poem to Harry Crosby, who was staying with Caresse at the Savoy-Plaza Hotel. The last line of the poem read:
Death is our marriage.
On the same day, Harry Crosby wrote his final entry in his journal:
One is not in love unless one desires to die with one's beloved. There is only one happiness it is to love and to be loved.
Lovers found dead
On the evening of the play, December 10, 1929, Caresse, Harry's mother Henrietta Grew, and Hart Crane met for dinner before the play, but Harry was a no-show. It was unlike him to worry Caresse needlessly. She called their friend Stanley Mortimer at his mother's apartment, whose studio Harry was known to use for his trysts. He agreed to check his studio. Mortimer had to enlist help to break open the locked door and found Harry and Josephine's bodies. Harry was in bed with a .25 caliber bullet hole in his right temple next to Josephine, who had a matching hole in her left temple, in what appeared to be a suicide pact. Harry was still clutching the Belgian automatic pistol in one hand, Josephine in the other.
The steamship tickets he had bought that morning for the return to Europe with Caresse were in his pocket. The coroner also found in his pocket a cable from Josephine addressed to Harry on the Mauretania before they arrived in New York: "CABLE GEORGE WHEN YOU ARRIVE AND WHERE I CAN TELEPHONE YOU IMMEDIATELY. I AM IMPATIENT." A second cable from another girl simply said, "YES." A picture of Zora, the 13-year-old girl he had sex with in Egypt, was reportedly found in his wallet. The coroner reported that Harry's toenails were painted red, and that he had a Christian cross tattooed on the sole of one foot and a pagan icon representing the sun on the other.he coroner concluded that Josephine had died at least two hours before Harry. There was no suicide note, and newspapers ran sensational articles for days about the murder or suicide pact—they could not decide which.
Harry's wedding ring was found crushed on the floor, not on his finger, where he always promised Caresse it would remain.Caresse refused to witness the carnage and begged Archibald MacLeish, who was in town from his farm, to take charge. Harry's suicide was cited by later writers as emblematic of the Lost Generation.
The next day the headlines revealed all: Tragedy and Disgrace. As Josephine had died at least two hours before Harry, and there was no suicide note, newspapers ran articles for many days speculating about the murder or suicide pact. The New York Times front page blared, "COUPLE SHOT DEAD IN ARTISTS' HOTEL; Suicide Compact Is Indicated Between Henry Grew Crosby and Harvard Man's Wife. BUT MOTIVE IS UNKNOWN He Was Socially Prominent in Boston—Bodies Found in Friend's Suite." The New York newspapers decided it was a murder-suicide.
Gretchen Powell had lunch with Harry the day of his death. Her memory of the luncheon supported the notion that Josephine was one of Harry's many passing fancies. She related that Harry had told her "the Rotch girl was pestering him; he was exasperated; she had threatened to kill herself in the lobby of the Savoy-Plaza if he didn't meet her at once."
The deaths polarized the several prominent families affected. The Rotch family considered Josephine's death to be murder. Josephine's erstwhile husband Albert Bigelow blamed Harry for "seducing his wife and murdering her because he couldn't have her."
Harry's poetry possibly gave the best clue to his motives. Death was "the hand that opens the door to our cage the home we instinctively fly to." His death mortified proper society. Harry's biographer Wolff wrote,
He had meant to do it; it was no mistake; it was not a joke. If anything of Harry Crosby commands respect, perhaps even awe, it was the unswerving character of his intention. He killed himself not from weariness or despair, but from conviction, and however irrational, or even ignoble, this conviction may have been, he held fast to it as to a principle. He killed himself on behalf of the idea of killing himself.
Crosby's death, given the macabre circumstances under which it occurred, scandalized Boston's Back Bay society.
Harry's friend Hart Crane committed suicide less than two years later. Malcolm Cowley, whom Harry had published, wrote in his 1934 book Exile's Return that the death of "Harry Crosby becomes a symbol" of the rise and fall of the Jazz Age. He recited the excesses typified by Harry's extravagant lifestyle as evidence of the shallowness of society during that era. When he edited and reissued the book in 1951, he softened his opinion of Crosby somewhat. "I had written at length about the life of Harry Crosby, who I scarcely know," he wrote, "in order to avoid discussing the more recent death of Hart Crane, whom I know so well that I couldn't bear to write about him."
After Harry Crosby's suicide, Caresse continued the work of the Black Sun Press. She also established, with Jacques Porel, a side venture, Crosby Continental Editions, that published paperback books by Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Dorothy Parker, among others. The paperback books did not sell well, and Crosby Continental closed in 1933. The Black Sun Press, however, continued publishing into the 1950s. The Black Sun Press produced finely crafted books in small editions, including works by, among others, D. H. Lawrence, Archibald MacLeish, James Joyce, Kay Boyle, and Hart Crane.
In 1931, Caresse also published Torchbearer, a collection of his poetry with an afterward by Ezra Pound, and Aphrodite in Flight, a seventy-five paragraph-long prose-poem and how-to manual for lovers that compared making love to a woman to flying planes. Caresse published a boxed set of Harry's work titled Collected poems of Harry Crosby containing Chariot of the Sun with D. H. Lawrence's intro, Transit of Venus with T. S. Eliot's intro, Sleeping Together with Stuart Gilbert's intro and Torchbearer in 1931. It was hand-set in dorique type; only 50 copies were printed.
Caresse Crosby edited and published Harry's diaries and papers. She wrote and published Poems for Harry Crosby in 1931. She also published and translated some of the works of Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Dorothy Parker among others. The Black Sun Press enjoyed the greatest longevity among the several expatriate presses founded in Paris during the 1920s. Through 1936, it published nearly three times as many titles as did Edward Titus through his Black Manikin Press.
Books printed by the Black Sun Press are valued by collectors. Each book was hand-designed, beautifully printed, and illustrated with elegant typeface. A rare volume published by the Black Sun press of Hart Crane's book-length poem The Bridge, including photos by Walker Evans, was sold by Christie's in 2009 for US$21,250. In 2009, Neil Pearson, an antiquarian books expert, said that "A Black Sun book is the literary equivalent of a Braque or a Picasso painting—except it’s a few thousand pounds, not 20 million."
A new collection of Harry Crosby's poetry, Ladders to the Sun: Poems by Harry Crosby was published by Soul Bay Press in April 2010.
In 2004, Fine Line Features optioned Andrea Berloff's first screenplay "Harry & Caresse." Lasse Hallström was initially attached to direct and Leslie Holleran was attached as a producer.