Beyond the Sea

Aimée Crocker, the Transatlantic Queen of Bohemia

In the polite, patriarchal society of the day, Aimée Crocker was synonymous with an abject lack of propriety and good manners for half a century. This unrepentant globetrotter, man-eater, and free spirit survived five mariages, one of which left her a widow, numerous lawsuits and blackmail attempts, and almost as many accidents across seven continents, living a carefree existence between her native America and France, where she spent almost 27 years.
Aimée Crocker in her third wedding gown, 1901. ©

Amy Isabella was born into the Crocker family of San Francisco in 1864. In her own words, she was born “with a golden spoon in her mouth.” Her father, Judge Edwin B. Crocker, helped build the first transcontinental railroad in the United States. His shares in the Central Pacific Railroad soon became a goldmine – much of which Amy inherited. Like all girls from good families, she was sent to Europe to continue her education. However, this trip was more about straightening out her whimsical character than polishing her good manners. In reality, her love of vulgarity and slang was matched only by her carnal curiosity.

Unfortunately, this European trip did little to calm her passions. After arriving back in California, Amy was as headstrong as ever. A few days after her 18th birthday, she ran away with a new beau and returned soon after with a ring on her finger. She told her mother that two suitors had been vying for her hand and, unsure of which one to choose, she had asked them to play poker so that she could marry the winner. As luck would have it, the groom, a certain Richard Porter Ashe, came from a respectable family. But Ashe soon began to wonder if he had won or lost. Life with Amy was a whirlwind and the young husband – a typical man of the time – refused to have his behavior dictated by his wife, even if she did have ten million dollars to her name (more than 300 million today).

Despite the birth of their daughter in 1885, their relationship deteriorated and they quarreled frequently. This was the first in a long series of trials and tribulations that would come to define the young woman’s life. After she left town one day, her husband – whom she was threatening with divorce – kidnapped their child. Amy fought tooth and nail to free herself from her marriage and win custody of little Alma. Unfortunately, Mrs. Ashe’s reputation was far from spotless, and the court ordered that the child be taken care of by her father. Amy had no choice but to draw on her immense wealth. This strategy would later become something of a trademark: “Aimée Crocker always pays.”

Aimée Crocker showing off the tattoos she had done while on a trip through the Pacific when she was 22. © Jacob Schloss/Crocker Art Museum
The San Francisco mansion where Aimée Crocker lived with Richard Porter Ashe, her first husband. ©

A Daring Gamble

At just 22, the young woman set out to conquer the Pacific to forget her troubles. She narrowly escaped death on 20 separate occasions, turned down a very advantageous marriage to the king of the Hawaiian Islands, and returned home covered in tattoos and drunk on freedom. What on earth was she thinking getting married again? As the man who had won her (poker) hand was clearly the wrong choice, Amy decided to marry the loser instead. The year was 1889, and the lucky suitor – a penniless clubman – went by the name of Henry Mansfield Gillig. The couple kickstarted their new romance with a ten-month tour of Europe, leaving little Alma in the capable hands of her grandmother. But alas, Amy quickly began to get bored…

She needed adventure, preferably in the plural, to feel alive. To relieve the ennui of long days spent by her husband’s side, Amy adopted two children, Reginald and Yvonne, followed by several dogs! She was actually the first person to introduce the French bulldog (a personal passion) to America. Less than 18 months after tying the knot a second time, the newspapers were gushing over the news of her divorce from Gillig. And, once again, to get what she wanted from her husband, Amy Crocker was forced to pay. What’s a few more dollars to a wealthy heiress? Within six months, the woman who marked “capitalist” under “occupation” on her passport had forgotten all about her costly misfortune.

On May 1, 1901, she married Jackson Gouraud, an amateur musician ten years her junior. It mattered little that he knew nothing about music theory and scraped by in New York City. “Jack” had a powerful trump card – he lived life to the full! The pair frequented elegant cafés and seedy bars, attended premieres and continued to explore the globe, from China and Japan to Java and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). And since happiness likes company, Amy managed to convince her daughter Alma to follow in her footsteps and marry Powers Gouraud, Jack’s brother! The press was in raptures. In an effort to stay cool, calm, and collected, Amy became a Buddhist and began practicing yoga and meditation. Meanwhile, the rest of her life was one long party! When they weren’t hosting extravagant soirées at their Manhattan residence at 46 West 56th Street, the Gourauds were indulging in “indecent” dancing in Paris and London – much to the bewilderment of their contemporaries.

Some 150 guests attended Aimée Crocker’s Dance of All Nations in New York City, ca. 1911. © Daniel and Lionel Milano Collection
Aimée Crocker with one of her many French bulldogs, ca. 1915. © Library of Congress

Amy in Paris

However, happiness is a fragile thing. On February 21, 1910, Jackson Gouraud died suddenly. In search of consolation, Amy fled New York City – which she considered deeply boring anyway – and settled in Paris. Her Indian outfits, her boa constrictor, the one hundred Buddhas in her Trocadéro apartment, and her all-Japanese staff were of course intriguing, but France was less quick to condemn this free-spirited woman. Artists such as Rodin and Matisse were drawn to her personality as well as her generosity. And when in the city of love… On June 11, 1914, Amy, who had changed her name to “Aimée,” was wed to Alexander Miskinoff, a Georgian 18 years her junior who claimed to be a prince.

This new idyll didn’t last long… The young man, who was neither handsome nor noble, was more attracted to Aimée’s adopted daughter Yvonne than to his 50-year-old wife (although she never admitted to being a day over 40). She ended up agreeing to marry her daughter to her soon-to-be ex-husband. However, the final straw came when Miskinoff demanded a lifetime pension. He argued that little Vera, a child who magically appeared in April 1915 and whom Aimée claimed was theirs, was actually adopted… But surely a false princely title deserved a false pregnancy. This time, Aimée refused to pay. Ever the optimist, she found solace in the arms of others, with an increasingly pronounced taste for men with titles. That being said, she did wait nine long years before taking Prince Mstislav Galitzine, 26, as her fifth husband, and almost two more before divorcing this whippersnapper!

The international press had a field day at the ups and downs of “Madame Crocker-Ashe-Gillig-Gouraud-Miskinoff.” Articles claimed that she had been married 15 times and had countless more lovers! Even Parisians began to raise eyebrows when crossing paths with this heavyset figure stomping down the street in outfits worthy of a Broadway show. In the twilight of her life, which came to an end in 1941 at the age of 78, Aimée replied to her critics by saying: “I have been accused of living adventurously… And if I have dared to stick my nose into trouble just because the game was fun, does it make me a brazen hussy? If I could live it again, this very long life of mine, I would love to do so!”

Article published in the March 2024 issue of France-Amérique.