My last blog post was about heroes, in particular, one of my favorites, Houdini. As one who believes that without personal freedom, there is nothing, the world’s most famous escapologist is naturally right up there for me.
This post … well, Harry Crosby, as you may have guessed by that quote, was the Jazz Ages answer to Lord Byron: mad, bad and most definitely, dangerous to know. There is a great biography of him, Black Sun: The Brief Transit and Violent Eclipse of Harry Crosby, which I first read in my teens and thus began my Harry fixation. He is not a hero of mine, but he does still fascinate me, because he is, ultimately, unknowable.
I’m not alone in that fascination. Lisa St Aubin de Teran wrote a novel based around Harry, Black Idol, wound around opium, orgies and death, and I don’t think she is the sole writer or creative intrigued by his elusive, no-boundaries life and personality.
He was from a blue blood Boston family but volunteered as an ambulance driver in France during World War 1 and survived Verdun. Whatever his natural eccentricities were, by war’s end he was also probably suffering – as a massive amount of those veterans were – from PTSD, which was scarcely even conceived of at that point.
Either way, he arrived in Paris at the perfect time, the nineteen-twenties, with his wife, Caresse (and yes, that was not her original name. Rather, it was Polly). They set up the Black Sun Press which they ran as a serious enterprise, publishing early, in exquisite editions, some of the literary superstars of succeeding years including James Joyce and Hemingway.
But what he, and to a degree, Caresse, were famous for, was their headlong dive into sex, drugs and rock and roll– before rock and roll. He was outrageous, pushed every boundary, broke every rule, was a complete arsehole, entitled, spoilt rotten in world of shattered postwar survivors, and yet had a ferocious personal charm, allure and spirit of adventure. Later, having survived Harry himself, Caresse Crosby became known as a patron of the arts.
It all ended in 1929. Harry and a mistress he named the Fire Princess were found dead in what was probably a suicide pact. It was the perfect time for Harry to have checked out. With the stock market crash, the expat party scene in Paris was over.
If Harry had not met that bullet, exactly what would have happened? So much of his legend revolves around his early death– he was 31. And so he stays enigmatic. Whatever promise he had, stays simply that. It is the force of his personality, an extraordinary life as art, that holds attention rather than a body of work as the poet he saw himself as.
For anyone interested in that era, especially Paris in the twenties, reading about him is essential. Along the way you’ll encounter, as Harry did, just about every known literary and artistic figure on the scene from Hemingway to Dali and Cartier-Bresson and many others. No small feat. And if you can work out just exactly what made Harry tick, kudos to you.