Beyond the Sea

Eugene McCown, the Rogue of the Roaring Twenties

Thirty dollars. That is all Eugene McCown (1898-1966) had in his pocket when he arrived in France in July 1921. Nevertheless, the young, Missouri-born American felt he was set for a bright future. He was just 23, a wildly talented musician and artist, and through the eyes of others, he discovered that he was incredibly handsome.
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Portrait of Eugene McCown by Man Ray, 1922. © Man Ray 2015 Trust/ADAGP, Paris 2019

After World War I, thousands of Americans made the trip across the Atlantic every year. Having had their dreams of happiness stunted by the overarching puritanism of the United States, they came to Paris in search of easy living and a freedom their country could not offer. This drift towards Europe was also driven by an extremely attractive exchange rate. Hemingway once remarked that excellent wine could be found in France for next to nothing – hardly negligible for Americans in the grips of Prohibition.

The Heartthrob of Paris

McCown was quickly welcomed to the Montparnasse neighborhood, the artistic center of the City of Light. The young man was a true bon vivant, interested in the French, the British, and American expats, and turned heads with his appealing physique, erudition, and caustic humor. A series of different encounters soon worked their magic. In January 1922, McCown became the star of Parisian nightlife. He was hired as a jazz pianist at Le Bœuf sur le Toit, the most fashionable cabaret of the Roaring Twenties. Every evening, famous artists, socialites, and music hall celebrities would meet up to have fun and be seen. McCown was a rampant heartbreaker among both men and women, and had the pick of a whole host of admirers. After all, why choose just one?

Jean Cocteau, the self-proclaimed leader of the literary avant-garde, had his heart set on the young, pouting American. Nancy Cunard, the great-granddaughter of the founder of the Cunard Line transatlantic shipping company, made him her protégé. And Countess Alice de Montgomery, née Van Rensselaer-Thayer, had a real soft spot for him. The young man’s life was soon filled with extravagant gifts, pocket money, dandy-style clothing, and trips to the finest palace hotels in Europe. Even the usually discreet writer André Gide seemed fascinated by this phenomenon from across the ocean, and often expressed his affection for McCown. The rumor mill did the rest; the word on the street was that some had taken their own lives after being rejected by this American Don Juan.

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The carefree Roaring Twenties: A group of revelers cheers to the new year in a Montmartre cabaret, 1928. © Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Excess, Success, and Immoderation

A born drinker, anything but shy, and a connoisseur of artificial paradises, McCown was the archetypal Roaring Twenties young man. In Paris, Deauville, Biarritz, Cannes, Toulon, and Venice, people would literally fight to be in his company. Young Surrealist poet René Crevel was desperate to stand out from the crowd. For three years, he tried to tame the wild McCown and become a long-term part of his life. But Crevel emerged exhausted and bitter from this doomed endeavor. His book, Difficult Death, serves as a testament.

Drunk on his notoriety, McCown surged ahead. Convinced of his Midas touch, he decided to step back from music and start a career as a painter. The March 1925 exhibition of his works at the Léonce Rosenberg gallery proved his prowess. The press was in raptures, and all his canvases were sold within a week. But was his success too sudden? Had the storm of flattery finally tarnished his innocence? Either that, or his almost daily drinking and drug-taking had begun to take their toll on his health…

After the Party

McCown’s name was soon on everyone’s lips – but this time for his scandals: making scenes in the cafés of Montparnasse with American poet Hart Crane, unbridled revelry in the jazz clubs of Montmartre, and burning his most recent paintings in a bout of depression. Gertrude Stein, who once wrote a literary profile of him, had grown tired of his constant debauchery. Cocteau had begun telling whoever would listen that “Eugene is a tart […]. He wants to be loved by everyone, but never gives his love back.” Photographs of the young man taken by Man Ray and Berenice Abbott no longer featured a cherubic face, but rather a prematurely haggard, bloated figure darkened by disappointment and cynicism.

However, his charm continued to serve him for some time. English journalist Raymond Mortimer, who had close ties to the Bloomsbury group, became infatuated with McCown. He moved him into a superb Art Deco atelier designed by André Lurçat, a disciple of Robert Mallet-Stevens, a stone’s throw from the Montsouris Park. Meanwhile, Helen-Louise Porter Simpson, a flawless, faithful companion in New York, did every-thing she could to remotely finance her temperamental friend’s expensive lifestyle. 

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Eugene McCown, L'Espagnole, 1924.
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Portrait of the American journalist Janet Flanner by Eugene McCown, ca. 1925.
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Eugene McCown, Sieste, ca. 1923-1925.

The End of an Era

The 1929 financial crash sounded the death knell for this gilded age. The ensuing crisis deprived France of wealthy Americans, who were forced home after losing unprecedented amounts of money. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Caresse Crosby, E.E. Cummings, Archibald MacLeish, Virgil Thomson, Gerald and Sara Murphy, and Cole Porter were just some of McCown’s friends, patrons, and even creditors who were obliged to leave Europe behind. Life in Paris became increasingly diffi-cult, and exhibitions of McCown’s latest works barely drew a reaction from the press. “Overly inspired by Picasso, Tchelitchew, and Chirico,” said one of the few critics who still bothered to follow his career.

The myth of the child prodigy slowly collapsed against the backdrop of the Great Depression. In an attempt to flee his debts, McCown found refuge in London, where Raymond Mortimer and Patrick Balfour, 3rd Baron Kinross (the American had always had a penchant for British aristocrats), were beginning to lose patience. In November 1933, McCown was forced to face the music and made the trip back across the Atlantic. Settled in New York, but with his eyes firmly fixed on France – his former Eden – he struggled to build a future at the age of 35. For the generation that had decided to live in the fast lane, it was seemingly easier to cross an ocean than to barrel through the madness of the Roaring Twenties unscathed.

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Eugene McCown, démon des Années folles by Jérôme Kagan, Editions Séguier, 2019.


Article published in the Octobre 2020 issue of
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