Caresse Crosby at a typically bohemian picnic at the Moulin de Soleil, 1928; the donkeys were used for donkey-polo.
THE PETTY XENOPHOBIA THAT FED THE REVIVED KU KLUX KLAN was anathema to one small but vocal section of American society: its writers and artists. Feeling themselves and their T values stifled by what they saw as the jingoism, philistinism and repression of their parents’ generation, these self-conscious rebels turned their backs on what the poet Harry Crosby called “all this smug self-satisfaction.”
“Red drug-stores, filling stations, comfort stations, go-to-the-right-signs, lurid billboards and automobiles swarming everywhere like vermin . . . How I hate this community spirit with its civic federations and its boyscout clubs and its educational toys and its Y.M.C.A. and its congregational Baptist churches,” wrote Crosby during a visit home to the U.S. from Paris in 1926, inadvertently describing the Klan’s heartlands. “Horribly bleak, horribly depressing.”
Harry Crosby had left America four years earlier, running from his respectable banking job and the expectations of his fond parents—all the pressures of what one of his contemporaries called “the American high bourgeoisie.” The family into which Crosby had been born in 1898 was American aristocracy. His uncle and godfather, J. P. Morgan Jr. (the financier John Pierpont’s son, known as Jack), epitomized the values of the American Establishment in all its “worldly Puritanism, class-consciousness [and] self-righteousness.” Jack Morgan was scrupulously Protestant, Republican, Anglophile, loyal to company and government and morally conservative. His staff at the Morgan bank were not permitted to divorce; money (despite his profession) he looked upon with a certain lofty disdain; brilliance and individualism he distrusted—even in his nephew, of whom he was very fond. But Harry wanted nothing in life but brilliance.
Like so many young men of his generation, he had spent the last year of the war driving ambulances in northern France. It was a bloody initiation into adulthood for a protected boy. By the time he arrived back in Boston in the spring of 1919 Harry had watched two of his closest friends die in action, as well as numerous others. Narrowly evading death himself had left him convinced that he had been saved by his already idiosyncratic faith in God.
Returning home, Harry reluctantly got back on to the time-honored treadmill where he had left off. Harvard was the accepted next step after prep school, and to please his parents Harry took a two-year wartime degree, honoris causa—the kind of diploma Jay Gatsby claimed to have received from “Oggsford.” In 1921 he moved to New York to start work at the Morgan bank, but the seeds of his flight had already been sown.
Two years earlier, soon after his return to Boston, Harry had fallen in love with Polly Peabody, a married woman seven years his senior. For both it was love at first sight, the kind of passion that sweeps away every consideration before it. Polly was struck at their first meeting by the vividness of Harry’s personality and his combination of wisdom and naïveté: “He seemed to be more expression and mood than man…he was taut as a tangent, his eyes blazed like mica, his mouth was large and it quivered ever so slightly when he was nervous, and his hands were like a musician’s hands, sensitive, compelling.”
Separated from Polly while she tried to repair her marriage—the scandal of a divorce was something neither the Crosbys nor Polly’s family relished—Harry barely made the effort to turn up to the office each morning. He drank so much that his mother offered him $100 to give up for the month of January 1922; the terse entry in his diary on 7 February reads, “Wasn’t worth it.” Finally he handed in his notice. Still hoping to save Harry from a rash match, his mother arranged a job for him in Paris. Harry, delighted to be set free, celebrated by drinking “to Excess” and crashing a friend’s new car “slap-bang into an iron fence.” This was the life he chose: intensity, exile, intemperance, destruction. As Polly said, “any ‘middle’ whatsoever was anathema to Harry.”
Polly—to whom Harry soon gave the invented name, Caresse—came to Paris to marry him later that year. She had found it impossible to return to her old life without him. “Once one has known rapture,” she wrote, “security is not enough.”
Their adopted city, devastated by the war, was battered but still beautiful. With almost an entire generation dead, arriving Americans remarked on how few young people they saw on the streets. But the Parisians, who had survived more than a century of revolutions and two German invasions, still knew how to live. Other refugees gathered in Paris—émigré Russians, rich and debauched Indian princes, discontented, pleasure-seeking English aristocrats, all belonging to crumbling orders of one type or another—and it was into this world of “sparkling cynicism” that Harry and Caresse flung themselves.
In contrast to Europe, America represented everything that was sordid and ugly: industrialized and “pustulant,” stinking of “bananas and cocacola and ice cream.” Harry was, he wrote elsewhere after lunch with two small-minded Americans, “Glad I am déraciné.” As Caresse put it, they were “escapists”: “I became a rebel the moment I married Harry.”
Caresse had two small children by her first marriage, six-year-old Billy and five-year-old Polleen, or Polly. Harry, who hated reality imposing on his life of fantasy and self-indulgence, bitterly resented their calls on his adored wife’s time and attention. The children were soon sent off to boarding school in Versailles and the Crosbys moved into a tiny apartment on the Île Saint-Louis.
At first Harry went through the motions with his job at Morgan, Harjes et Cie. Every morning, dressed in her bathing costume, Caresse paddled her husband up the Seine in a red canoe, dropping him off near the Tuileries gardens so that he could walk to the office in the Place Vendôme. He quit after eighteen months. Banal office work he neither enjoyed nor did well. Besides, it wasn’t worth it for $75 a month—less than the salary he paid his driver, and peanuts compared to his unearned annual income of about $12,000. He had decided to become a poet.
Their various relations brought them into contact with grand literary Americans-in-Paris like Edith Wharton and aristocratic French families in Saint-Germain who frowned on their eccentric evening clothes—a Vionnet man’s jacket and short skirt in cloth-of-gold for Caresse and a black silk gardenia in Harry’s buttonhole. The company they preferred was that of exiles, of artists and writers, émigrés from convention like themselves: the sculptor Alberto Giacometti, the poet Archibald MacLeish and his wife Ada, Frieda and D. H. Lawrence, a sprinkling of rich divorcees and bohemian wanderers.
Each year the Crosbys attended the art students’ riotous Bal des Quatz’Arts. After one ball, Harry wrote: “The room was hot and reeked with cigarette and cigar smoke, with fard [an archaic French word for cosmetics] and sweat and smell of underarms . . . there were shrieks and catcalls and there was a riot. I remember two strong young men stark naked wrestling on the floor for the honor of dancing with a young girl (silver paint conquered purple paint) . . . and in a corner I watched two savages making love.”
One year Harry recorded arriving home in a taxi completely naked, his toga “and even my drawers to which I had pinned a hundred francs” lost in the frenzy. Another year Caresse rode to the party on a hired baby elephant dressed as an Inca princess, stripped to the waist and wearing a long blue wig. She got home to find Harry in their huge bath with three girls, washing off each other’s body paint—and hated pink bubble bath from that moment on. There were seven sleepers in their bed that night.
Harry’s devotion to Caresse and the intensity of their relationship—“Your body is the golden spoon by means of which I eat your soul,” he wrote to her in one poem—did not curb his appetite for other women. He believed that “one should follow every instinct no matter where” it led. To save Caresse’s feelings he tried to be discreet but he could not accept restraints on his behavior or desires. Some of the relationships with his many mistresses were short-lived, women he met on the street or at the races and seduced over an afternoon or a few weeks; others were friends as well as lovers, and long-lasting. On these women Harry bestowed extravagant titles that fitted into his personal mythology: the Lady of the Golden Horse, the Sorceress, the Tigress, the Youngest Princess.
Soon after they were married Caresse tried to revolt “against sharing with anyone the queenship of my heart,” but Harry’s refusal to change forced her to accept his other women as long as she was preeminent among them, a queen (in his private lexicon) above the princesses. The fact that she too had other demands on her love was held against her. “He made me believe that my children balanced our account.” Ultimately she claimed to recognize only one real rival: Jacqueline, the Grey Princess, an imaginary woman Harry believed was his soulmate, whose name he had tattooed across his chest. “She was the dream—the girl of infinite mystery,” wrote Caresse. “No other loves were quite as true.”
Caresse consoled herself with her own cadre of admirers. Over the years her lovers included the Chilean painter Manolo or Manuel Ortiz; a glamorous war pilot, Cord Meier, whom Harry called “the Aviator”; an English lord, Gerard Lymington; and the duc de Doudeauville, Armand de Rochefoucauld, later their land-lord, whom she described as “short, sandy-haired, full of love and the devil.” Harry also insisted that Caresse occasionally join him in bouts of mutual promiscuity about which, according to a friend in whom she confided, she was loyally uncomplaining but less than enthusiastic. They and two other couples would drive to the Bois de Boulogne at night, draw their cars up in a circle with the headlights on (bizarrely recalling the Ku Klux Klan’s head-lit initiation ceremonies) and swap partners. On hashish-fueled trips to North Africa and the Middle East they paid young girls to dance for them, and sometimes took them to bed. “O God when shall we ever cast off the chains of New England,” Harry wrote after one such episode.
Drugs were another important part of Harry’s rejection of convention. Their circle in Paris was well acquainted with cocaine. Harry’s diary entries record days at Longchamp races accompanied by “much sniffing [cocaine] and taking of aspirin tablets” and Montmartre nights of “oysters and caviare, champagne and whiskey, cocaine and dancing.”
Opium, with its elaborate rituals, its literary heritage and its dreamily hallucinogenic qualities, was Harry’s favorite drug. He first tried it in 1924 and quickly became a regular user. In Morocco he and Caresse bought “four jars of the best brand of Opium” and when they got back to Paris stored them in little Polly’s toy chest. “And the bubbling sound of another pipe and another and another and the round contour of a breast and the touch of delicate fingers delicately gently snow upon snow and the metamorphose into oblivion beyond the beyond,” Harry wrote. “And all day across my soul red icebergs have been drifting like tombs across the sun.”
But for much of the 1920s the most important thing in either Harry or Caresse’s lives, more than the fleeting attractions of narcotics or lovers, was each other and their shared relish for the immoderate, unorthodox life they had chosen. Their black whippet, Narcisse Noir, had gold-painted claws and a gold collar; they named his pearl-pink mate Clytoris. They went on vacation stopping only in places with names of one syllable. To Harry, one friend said, getting lost was “the best hors d’oeuvre for the belated dinner, still far away, the spice of adventure. Any fool can find his way, a poet alone knows how to lose it.”
One spring they walked and hitch-hiked across Europe to Florence. Harry, lithe and elegant as a faun, carried a pack of books and wore his usual dark blue suit, patent pumps and soft shirt, always bareheaded at a time when no gentleman went hatless; Caresse traveled in a tweed suit and lisle stockings. They arrived dusty and ragged at the Grand Hotel on a straw-covered cart carrying Chianti. Thankfully the hotel was expecting them. Their Hermès luggage and a telegram from the Morgan bank with their reservation had arrived just before they did. Within minutes they were being served martinis in an immense marble bathtub.
Harry sought meaning in literary as well as in sensual debauchery, in the writers and works which helped form his own decadent, mystical views: Baudelaire, The Picture of Dorian Grey, Proust and especially Rimbaud. He loved books, words, certain colors, names, list-making. From 1922 he kept a diary, a mesmerizing portrait of his life but at the same time strangely detached and self-absorbed. It was dedicated to his obsessions—ritual, hedonism, gambling for high stakes, the sun and sunbathing, extravagance—and framed an increasingly complex personal philosophy that revolved around sun-worship and an impulsion towards the final, longed-for obliteration into the sun—death, the ultimate escape from reality.
“Life is pathetic, futile save for the development of the soul; memories, passionate memories are the utmost gold; poetry is religion (for me),” Harry wrote in an effort to define his own “Castle of Beauty.” Except for those closest to him, people were almost irrelevant beside his intense interior life. He was utterly elitist and misanthropic generally (“Je suis royaliste,” he wrote. “I hate the multitude”) but tenderly generous to individuals, bringing coffee daily to the old woman who sold him violets in the street and buying her a special folding stool with a seat-back.
Harry’s friend Stuart Gilbert never heard him speak harshly or ill of anyone and never saw him refuse a service to anyone. “His only enemies were Mrs. Grundy and Mr. Bowdler.” He was less arrogant than curiously remote, distracted by his unflinching gaze towards the sun. As Gilbert said, Harry “feared the terre à terre, the normal, as most of us fear celestial heights.”
In 1927 Harry and Caresse, who avoided politics and current events and had long since banished all newspapers and magazines except the Nouvelle Revue Française and transition, started their own tiny publishing house, the Black Sun Press. Over the next two years they brought out editions of their own poetry as well as works by friends including Lawrence, James Joyce and Hart Crane.
Harry’s own poems were mildly surrealist, richly decadent and heavily indebted to Rimbaud and e.e. cummings, a fellow rebel against the Bostonian Establishment two years Harry’s senior. The short prose poem “White Slipper” makes reference to several of Harry’s fixations: airplanes; symbolic colors; the sun; Harry’s favorite word, “Yes”: “A white aeroplane whiter than the word Yes falls like a slipper from the sky. You come dancing over the silver thorns of the lawn and by holding up the corners of your rose-and-white skirt you catch the white slipper which I kick down to you from the sun.”
Aware of how privileged he was to be able to afford to pursue his passions, Harry enjoyed supporting struggling writers and artists. The entirely undomesticated Hart Crane wrote much of his epic poem “The Bridge” at the Crosbys’ house just outside Paris, on a typewriter Harry had bought him, in between manic episodes of drinking, making aggressive sexual overtures towards male house-guests and destroying furniture. Later, Crane was arrested for brawling in Paris. Fuming at the fact that the police hadn’t allowed the poet pen and paper in his cell, Harry rushed to pay his fine and vouch for Crane’s good character. What he was most impressed by was the fact that it had taken ten gendarmes to bring the raging Crane in.
Friends unlucky enough not to have modern plumbing were invited over to sink into steaming Floris’s Rose Geranium-scented baths followed by feasts of caviar, alligator pears and champagne. When their friend Kay Boyle, another impoverished and as yet undiscovered writer, found herself unhappily pregnant Caresse hunted down a doctor and Harry paid for the abortion. They left her their grass-green Voisin motor-car, complete with monkey-fur throw for her knees and their notoriously inebriated driver Gus, “an incurable collector of contraventions,” when they went on vacation.
In the spring of 1928 Eugene Jolas, editor of transition, received the following letter from Harry: “I have inherited a little money, and if you approve, I would like to send you $100 (strictly anonymous) for you to send to the poet who in your judgment has written the best poem in the first twelve numbers of transition . But for God’s sake, don’t make a prize out of it. Instead of going to some fathead organization, I should like this small amount to go to someone who will spend it on cocktails and books rather than on church sociables and lemonade. If you accept this, please forget it as quick as possible.”
Tiring of city life in 1928, Harry and Caresse rented from Armand de la Rochefoucauld a mill-house outside Paris where Jean-Jacques Rousseau had once lived. They called it Le Moulin de Soleil. A caravan of glamorous friends arrived and left to a background of repeating jazz records imported from Harlem—“orchestras hot and sweet”—and signed their names on the staircase wall: “poets and painters and pederasts and lesbians and divorcees and Christ knows who,” as Harry gleefully described them. They included Douglas Fairbanks, the exquisite Maharani of Cooch Behar, another girlfriend of Arnaud’s who played baccarat for stakes as high as Harry did, Brancusi, the surrealist artist Max Ernst, Nathalie Barney, Picasso, the Mountbattens. At the Moulin they swam and played ping-pong and donkey-polo, or they drove, invariably drunk and far too fast, to the casinos at Deauville or to the Bois de Boulogne for the races. Exile had come to feel like home.
The Moulin was a fantasy world, as full of shadows as it was of the sun, and it did not enchant every visitor. The American writer Robert McAlmon spent the last night of 1928 there with the Crosbys and various other revelers and found it “too damned depressing . . . so depressing I can’t even get drunk. They’re wraiths, all of them. They aren’t people. God knows what they’ve done with their realities.” He should have known that reality was not something in which Harry dealt.
Even Caresse had moments of misgiving although she recognized the impossibility of questioning any aspect of her life with Harry. As he desired, she had molded herself to him and there could be no separation save a violent one. More and more they argued, about his lovers and hers, always making up but with the arguments increasingly bitter. “I knew it would be treason ever to wish for a simpler love,” she admitted.
Harry himself was living at an unsustainable peak of rapt intensity. As Kay Boyle said, when Harry was happy “every atom of him [was] radiant—for I’ve never known anyone who could shine with it as he does so absolutely.” In July 1929 he cabled his father: “PLEASE SELL TEN THOUSAND DOLLARS WORTH OF STOCK. WE HAVE DECIDED TO LEAD A MAD AND EXTRAVAGANT LIFE”—as if his life up until that point had been staid and dull. He was pursuing oblivion as ardently as he could: soaking up the sun as if it would absorb him, learning to fly stunts in an airplane, drinking and taking opium and making love with even more than his usual feverishness. “How fast the year has gone the fastest I can remember like a flash of lightning not one vibration of a clock since a year ago and perhaps now I can destroy time,” he wrote.
He was hurtling towards his longed-for destiny. “For the Seekers after Fire and the Seers and the Prophets and the Worshippers of the Sun, life ends not with a whimper [as T. S. Eliot suggested in ‘The Hollow Men’], but with a Bang—a violent explosion mechanically perfect,” he wrote. “While we, having set fire to the powderhouse of our souls, explode (suns within suns and cataracts of gold) into the frenzied fury of the Sun, into the madness of the Sun into the hot gold arms and hot gold eyes of the Goddess of the Sun!”
Harry’s friends indulged his manic eccentricities with varying degrees of tolerance and amusement. Ernest Hemingway sent him a clipping from the New York Times describing a new fad: sun-worship. “The sun is definitely de rigueur…The smartest girls come into town looking like figures molded in old Cordovan leather . . . This new version of an old cult has its fanatics, its would-be martyrs, its metaphysicians who would make philosophic systems out of personal desires.” Others took Harry’s plans for death more seriously. One said that by 1929 he could no longer bear to shake Harry’s hand—his friend had already become a corpse.
Harry had long been fascinated by suicides, drawing up a list of those he admired, including Sappho, Seneca, Jesus (Harry thought him self-martyred) and Modigliani, in a prose poem from 1929 entitled “Sun Death.” For him, choosing the moment one died was a privilege reserved for the strongest, the bravest, those who recognized “the point of finality, irrevocable as the sun,” when the spirit and the body were united in their desire “to be reborn, in order to become what you wish to become, tree or flower or star or sun, or even dust and nothingness.” He was not afraid to die because he believed so strongly in a world to come.
In his earliest letters to Caresse, Harry had spoken of the joy of lovers dying together. Three years after they married he persuaded her to set a date for their joint deaths, writing out a contract which they both signed and which he carried around with him for the rest of his life. On 31 October 1942, the day on which the earth would be in perihelion, closest to the sun, they were to fly over a forest and jump from the plane. Their bodies would be cremated—“purify me with fire,” Harry wrote—but there would be no funeral. “I want my ashes to be taken up in an aeroplane at sunrise and scattered to the four winds . . . Let there be no mourning or lamentation (what have I ever had to do with lamentation).”
He had even had their gravestone made, a plain slab carved with their interlocking names:
But for Harry, the obsession with choosing the moment of his own death and the way in which that death would inextricably join him to the person with whom he did it—for he had no intention of dying alone—was becoming more important than waiting for his Cramoisy Queen to say yes.
In November 1929 Caresse and Harry made one of their regular trips back to America. For Harry it was an opportunity to see the woman he called the Youngest Princess or the Fire Princess, Josephine Bigelow, a 22-year-old girl, newly married, whom he had met while sunbathing on the Lido at Venice the summer before. Their transatlantic affair had been as violent and ecstatic as Harry could have wished. She was waiting impatiently for him in Boston when they docked.
In early December Harry and Josephine went to Detroit for a few days away from everyone they knew in Boston or New York. They gorged themselves on opium and caviar and spent their time fighting and making love, or both at the same time. “All night we catapult through space, J and I in each other’s arms visions security happiness” reads Harry’s notebook. “Little Harlot . . . Little Animal . . . Little Yes.”
Glittering with mania, Harry returned to New York and Caresse. Twice over the next few days he invited her to jump with him from their window on the twenty-seventh floor of the Savoy Hotel. She refused. “I did not guess,” wrote Caresse later,
I did not guess
That madder beauty waited unawares
To take your hand upon the evening stairs.
Four days afterwards, Harry didn’t turn up for tea with Caresse, his mother and his uncle Jack Morgan. By dinnertime Caresse was frantic. One of their few articles of faith was never to miss appointments with each other. She rang Stanley Mortimer, whom she knew Harry had seen earlier that day. Harry had arranged to meet Josephine at Mortimer’s studio after lunch.
Mortimer went to the studio soon after 9.30 p.m. but the door was bolted on the inside. He and the caretaker broke down the door. Harry and Josephine were lying on the bed, dressed, facing each other, their left hands entwined and Harry’s right arm around Josephine’s neck. Harry was thirty-one, Josephine nine years younger. Neat bullet-holes adorned their temples. e. e. cummings wrote,
Holes in each other
Harry’s feet were bare, showing his red-painted toenails and the tattoos on their soles, a cross on one and a symbol of the sun on the other. In his pockets were the tickets he had bought that morning for himself and Caresse to return to Paris several days later; over $500 in cash; a telegram from Josephine that he had received on the Mauretania three weeks earlier; and a telegram from another mistress reading simply, “Yes.” According to the medical examiner Harry had waited two hours after shooting Josephine before shooting himself. The gun he had used was one he had been carrying for the past year, a little Belgian automatic that he had had engraved with the sun.
There was no note, but Harry’s diary was record enough of his inexorable ascent towards the sun. The last entry reads, “One is not in love unless one desires to die with one’s beloved” and, beneath that, “There is only one happiness it is to love and to be loved.” Neither Caresse nor Harry’s other great love, Constance Crowninshield (the Lady of the Golden Horse), had been willing to make the final sacrifice for him and trust in his belief that if they died together they would be together through all eternity, although he had asked them both. Josephine was bold and crazy and desperate enough to possess him that she said the “yes” he had been waiting to hear. As she wrote to him the day before they died, death would be their marriage—and Harry’s ultimate flight from reality.
D. H. Lawrence, depressed by the news of Harry’s death, wrote to his friend and publisher, Dino Oriolo, that Harry “had always been too rich and spoilt: nothing to do but commit suicide.” This was only partly fair. Harry Crosby’s ability to insulate himself from the real world may have been exceptional, but in life the things he was running from were far from unique and a fascination with death was common among his contemporaries.
Born around the turn of the century, the young men who would become the voices of their generation came to maturity during the First World War, when many of them served as soldiers or ambulance drivers. Not just Harry but friends and acquaintances including Ernest Hemingway, e. e. cummings, Malcolm Cowley, Louis Bromfield and John Dos Passos had watched their companions die in the bloody mud of northern Europe and glimpsed adulthood and freedom in the bars and brothels of Paris.
Stimulated by a rich new culture but disillusioned by the carnage and senselessness of war, in France these men felt the first stirrings of their distinctive identity: a “spectatorial attitude” to life, a sense of emptiness and detachment from reality; a feeling, because ultimately they survived the war, of being both chosen and undeserving; finally, a restless rootlessness that would color much of their subsequent work with a faint but unmistakable wash of nostalgia. “What shall we do tomorrow?” asked T. S. Eliot in The Waste Land. “What shall we ever do?”
Writers of the period didn’t want, as Malcolm Cowley put it, to “write stories in which salesmen were the romantic heroes.” They had to fight to find their own material. Even the one novel that did achieve Cowley’s improbable transformation, Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, expressed the same unformed yearnings, the unfocused nostalgia, that characterized their generation and sent so many into exile.
One way of turning their backs on the past was to celebrate modernity and the future. Hart Crane’s poetry, like Langston Hughes’s and Carl Sandberg’s, used experimental language to convey with a new immediacy the effect produced upon him by jazz, machinery, laughter, debauchery, alcohol, sex, slang. His most famous work—the one written at the Moulin de Soleil—was an ode to the Brooklyn Bridge. Crosby was fascinated by cars, airplanes and speed; Gerald Murphy’s paintings presented machines and engineering as works of art.
Believing their world had been wrecked by the generation that had preceded them, these writers set about wholeheartedly rejecting their parents’ values. “They give us this thing, knocked to pieces, leaky, red-hot, threatening to blow up; and then they are surprised that we don’t accept it with the same attitude of pretty, decorous enthusiasm with which they received it, way back in the ’80s,” wrote John Carter furiously in Atlantic Monthly in 1920, expressing the views of so many of his contemporaries. “We have been forced to live in an atmosphere of ‘tomorrow we die,’ and so, naturally, we drank and were merry.”
“They’re all desperadoes, these kids, all of them with any life in their veins,” said one of the maturer characters in Warner Fabian’s best-selling novel, Flaming Youth. The disenchanted younger generation strove to maintain their inner purity while living as dissolutely as they could, turning their backs on the complacency and conformity that sucked the vitality from life. “Depravity was their prayer, their ritual, their rhythmic exercises: they denied sin by making it hackneyed in their own bodies, shucking it away to come out not dirtied but pure,” wrote the poet William Carlos Williams of the English debauchees Iris Tree and Nancy Cunard, whom he met in Paris at this time. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald also saw their fast living almost as a dare, as if they were challenging something inside them to be tainted by their excesses.
Harry, too, was obsessed with purity. For all his womanizing, he was never attracted to the tawdry or the easily available. At Harvard he had declared that “he’d rather kiss a nice girl than screw a chippie” and his amours were defined by his being able to find something to venerate about the women with whom he became involved. On his thirtieth birthday he pledged (among other things) “to continue rites but to abolish superstitions…to be ascetic not hedonistic . . . to be bright and delicate and gentle and chaste to worship the Sun with a chaste heart and a chaste soul and a chaste body.”
And yet hedonism was what Harry’s generation would be remembered for. Fearlessly they embraced the sins Middle America blamed on immigrants and hoped the Ku Klux Klan would eradicate: adultery, profanity, homosexuality, divorce, alcohol, extravagance, perversity, drugs, individuality, liberty and libertinism. For to them there were worse sins, outlined by the critic Edmund Wilson in an essay on The Waste Land: “people grinding at barren office routine in the cells of giant cities, drying up their souls in eternal toil whose products never bring them profit, where their pleasures are so vulgar and feeble that they are almost sadder than their pains.”
Any catastrophe was preferable to living incarceration in a town like Sinclair Lewis’s fictional Zenith or the Lynds’ very real Middletown. Richmond Barrett wrote an essay in 1928, “Babes in the Bois,” satirizing a group of pretentious young lotus-eaters he met sailing from New York to Paris. “‘I may make a mess of my life,’ said one. It was obvious that he rather hoped he would—a glorious, passionate kind of mess. ‘But at least I won’t be a ready-made, the sort that’s turned out by hundreds. ’”
Security was stultifying. Only by challenging himself with danger and movement could the thrusting young intellectual of the 1920s find inspiration. The cost mattered naught; in fact the cost was part of the prize. As Harry wrote of two of his literary heroes, Byron and Edgar Allan Poe, “in these semi-madmen, these geniuses, lies the true aristocracy of mankind.” Talent was hardly talent if it didn’t burn you up entirely.
Youth, too, was exalted. Like moderation, experience and wisdom were apologies for those who could not keep up. Scott Fitzgerald saw youth as its own justification—the only one. He longed for life but hated the marks it left on him. Above all he feared losing the idealistic sheen that youth had bestowed upon him. “You remember I used to say I wanted to die at thirty,” he wrote to his editor as he was finishing The Great Gatsby. “Well I’m twenty-nine and the prospect is still welcome.” Part of this was bravado; part of it was what he thought an artist should feel; but part of it was genuine. “Youth is the only thing worth having,” said Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, poster-boy for the “Lost Generation.” “When I find that I am growing old, I shall kill myself.”
“They long to be doomed,” wrote Richmond Barrett of his immature shipmates. “If destruction threatens to be tardy, they’ll rush to meet it half-way by committing suicide.” Suicide was popularly thought to be a twenties malaise. Barrett referred to the “dozens of sensational scare-heads on the subject of suicide among American students” and admitted that the fact that people were brooding on self-destruction was a worrying social development.
Harry Crosby was not the only one. Hart Crane threw himself off a ship in the Gulf of Mexico in 1932. Harry had recognized their kinship: “He is of the Sea as I am of the Sun.” Members of a suicide club in Paris drew lots once a year to see which of their number was to take his life; for them, committing suicide was the purest, bravest expression of contempt for life and its futility. The heroine of Carl Van Vechten’s The Tattooed Countess traveled with a loaded gold-and-black Toledo-work revolver and a vial of bichloride of mercury tablets, just in case her acute sensitivity to life (and her desire for death) overcame her. Suicide had become a cipher for a kind of glamorous vulnerability, for clear-eyed courage, aestheticism and decadence.
Self-imposed exile of some other kind was an easier route for most. Rather than risk conforming to society or being rejected by it, intellectuals had no choice but to become, as the writer Glenway Westcott put it, “spiritual expatriates . . . a band of revolutionaries or a cult of immoralists.” Feeling like strangers at home, attached to the United States but in an obscure way rejected by it, they sought escape and refuge. Millions of Americans pursued the exotic in films like The Sheik or in mah-jongg tiles; the heiress and art collector Mabel Dodge Luhan fled to Mexico and the Southwest; Carl Van Vechten hailed a taxi to take him to Harlem.
Civilization in the United States came out in the same year that Harry and Caresse emigrated to France. The thirty contributors collected together by its editor Harold Stearns were unanimous in their view “that American civilization itself is responsible for the tragedy of American talent.” In a later article, Stearns asked himself, “What should a young man do?” and replied, “A young man had no future in this country of hypocrisy and repression. He should take ship for Europe, where people know how to live.” Stearns, who had left New York in 1921, had already followed his own advice—although with little success. Six years later Hemingway immortalized him in The Sun Also Rises as the failure, Harvey Stone, counting his pennies in a Montparnasse café.
At first, being in Paris made it easier to believe in “a patrie of the imagination.” It was, wrote Malcolm Cowley, another voluntary exile, “a great machine for stimulating the nerves and sharpening the senses. Paintings and music, street noises, shops, flower markets, modes, fabrics, poems, ideas, everything seemed to lead toward a half-sensual, half-intellectual swoon.” e. e. cummings said Paris continually expressed the “humanness of humanity,” as opposed to American cities prostrate before the machine. It was also wonderfully cheap: a dollar bought eight francs in 1919 and twenty-five in 1926.
“They were not in Paris because they were Americans,” wrote Archibald MacLeish of Gerald and Sara Murphy, another expatriate couple in the Crosbys’ circle. “They were in Paris because it was Paris. And not only the Paris of the damp, sweet-smelling mornings with their flooded gutters and their high-wheeled carts but the Paris of the difficult work—the work of art.” No one in America ever did things with the “vast, magnificent, cynical disillusion with which Gerald and Sara make things like their parties,” wrote Fitzgerald.
Harry Crosby was by no means the most talented writer of his generation, nor the most representative, but he encapsulates so many of the things that inspired his peers: the feeling of alienation, the desire for self-expression and freedom, the conflation of pleasure and happiness, the philosophy of living for the moment, the pagan worship of the body, the belief that by continuing to move one would find meaning. Even his suicide was part of a broader pattern. In a strange sort of way he achieved the “grace under pressure” that Hemingway said was all a man could hope for from himself. Harry found meaning in death; others would find it by returning home.
By late 1929, when Harry and the Fire Princess died, most Americans-in-Paris were already making their way back. The French had complained for years that they only heard American-accented English spoken in the boulevard Saint Germain and that high prices were driving them out of their favorite restaurants, but for the first time Europe-based Americans were beginning to get a sense that they were transplanting their own materialistic, progress-obsessed culture to Europe as much as absorbing that of Europe themselves. Writing in Harper’s magazine in March 1929, the historian Charles Beard spoke out against the Americanization of Europe: “prose against poetry; dollars against sacrifice; calculation against artistic abandon.” What was the point of having a patrie of the imagination if you turned it into a mirror image of the sordid reality from which you were trying to escape?
Bored, discontented exiles, running from themselves, had even managed to make Paris dreary. “From the Dome to the Rotonde, thence to the Select they march,” wrote Richmond Barrett of his weary “trail-blazers” doing the rounds of literary Montparnasse nightspots. “The next move is around the corner to the Parnasse; across the street someone beckons from the window of the Dingo. The dogged band leaves the Dingo at last for a round of Russian cocktails at the Viking. So the time passes—day after day, week after week, and still they congratulate themselves upon having escaped the rut!”
The more insightful among them recognized that, paradoxically, living abroad made it possible to look more clearly at the United States, to better judge and comment on what they had left behind. Their time away actually intensified their Americanness, rather than diluting it, and this became a powerful inspiration for many. Then, too, returning Americans found that they liked being back home—that the familiar had charms more potent than they remembered. Harold Stearns, finally back in New York after a decade away, rediscovered his homeland with a sense of wonder: “after all, there is a real world here.”