Beyond the Sea

Harry & Caresse Crosby: A Life of Transatlantic Scandal

At the height of the Roaring Twenties, there were an estimated 20,000-30,000 Americans in Paris. Alongside the businessmen, diplomats, and titans of industry, a tiny minority turned their back on economic growth to take full advantage of French art de vivre. Among these aesthetes and epicureans, the Crosby couple perfectly embodied the extravagance of the 1920s.
Harry and Caresse Crosby, 1927. © Special Collections Research Center, Morris Library, Southern Illinois University Carbondale

Stephen Van Rensselaer Crosby couldn’t believe it. How could his son, Harry, barely 22, have fallen for this “Polly,” a woman seven years his senior, married with two children? No one in Boston had ever heard of such a thing. The young man was offered a job at the Shawmut National Bank in an attempt to distract him. Harvard could wait. As everyone knew, numbers and hard work are a solution for many things – even heartbreak. The Crosby family seemed to forget somewhat hastily that Harry, underneath his airs of a daydreamer, was no longer a child. In 1917, he had signed up for the American Ambulance Field Service. For two years, he danced with death as he traveled across the French countryside, sometimes just a couple of miles from the front. This trip to hell and back afforded him nerves of steel under any circumstances and a gaze fraught with silent pain.

Despite the family’s veto, the young man continued to diligently court Polly Phelps Peabody, née Jacob, neglected by her alcoholic husband. The beautiful woman initially claimed she would never succumb to his advances. Harry doubled his efforts and even threatened to take his own life. Polly Peabody finally gave in, as did her husband and the Crosby family. On September 9, 1922, at the end of a fanciful love story that kept the entire East Coast on the edge of its seat for more than two years, Polly divorced and married Harry in New York. Two days later, the young newlyweds, accompanied by Polly’s children, set off for Europe. First stop: Paris.

Harry Crosby and Polly Phelps Jacob on their wedding day, in New York, September 9, 1922. © Special Collections Research Center, Morris Library, Southern Illinois University Carbondale
The jet set before the jet age: On a whim, the Crosbys could leave Paris and hop on a plane to Venice, North Africa, or England, like here in 1925. © Special Collections Research Center, Morris Library, Southern Illinois University Carbondale

An Unusual Couple

The City of Light already had its fair share of original characters. But the Crosbys were more than a match. In the mornings, Polly would put on a striped bathing suit while Harry donned his business attire. The pair would leave their immensely expensive rental apartment on the Ile Saint-Louis and climb aboard their boat, which would take them to Place de la Concorde. From there, Harry was only a few steps from the Morgan, Harjes & Co. bank, where his uncle, J.P. Morgan, Jr., had found him an honorary role. In an effort to battle the boredom of his days at the office, Harry smoked heavily and drank even more painted his toenails and fingernails, and spent extortionate amounts of money on horse races. The rest of the time, he enjoyed finding out if the women of Paris were as wild as everyone said.

Polly, whose new husband had nicknamed “Caresse” (and christened their dog “Clytoris”), spent time at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière art school and entertained several lovers. As for the children, they were soon sent away from Paris to make the couple’s lives easier. After all, the Crosbys were untenable. On a whim, they could hail a cab and set off with no destination in mind, stopping 130 miles later in Deauville. A sudden craving for a change of scenery was enough to justify a split-second decision to leave for Venice or North Africa, where the couple developed a pronounced taste for opium and hashish. In short, while far away from Boston, the Crosbys sought to live in total freedom.

A party at the Crosbys’ in Ermenonville. Among the guests were the count Armand de la Rochefoucauld, the German prince of Hohenlohe, and the American writer Louis Bromfield, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1927. © Special Collections Research Center, Morris Library, Southern Illinois University Carbondale

Bohemian Paris

As it is rarely easy to combine a successful career with domestic chaos, Harry resigned from the bank in late 1923. After all, why should he have worked to earn more when spending his money was already a full-time job? Despite what some may have thought, the Crosbys were aesthetes and put considerable time and energy into everything they did, whether choosing a bottle of wine, organizing horse-drawn carriage races through the streets of Paris, designing extravagant outfits for masked balls, or dreaming up the most harebrained challenges to amuse their friends. Their search for excellence also led them to constantly change apartments (they moved seven different times in three years), which led them from the sixteenth arrondissement to 19 Rue de Lille in the seventh.

It was in their home that they enjoyed receiving guests, generally under the covers or in their giant bathtub. In 1925, they fell in love with a mill at the Château d’Ermenonville, which they renamed the Moulin du Soleil (the Mill of the Sun). Some 30 miles from Paris, Harry spent all his time pursuing his new favorite pastime: sun worshipping. As the months went by, his devotion grew to almost religious proportions. Every day, perched naked on a hillock, he would indulge in lengthy meditation sessions before his new god. Literature was the only thing that would momentarily overshadow his obsession with the sun, the image of which he had tattooed on the sole of his foot.

The mill at the Château d’Ermenonville, northeast of Paris. © Special Collections Research Center, Morris Library, Southern Illinois University Carbondale

A Love of Risk and Literature

While many of the Crosbys’ contemporaries saw them as affable maniacs and quite unbalanced, Hemingway, Hart Crane, and many of their writer friends saw them as readers of sophisticated taste. Caresse and Harry had even begun writing poetry books in 1924. They then decided to found their own publishing house in 1927 to ensure the utmost care would be taken over their collection. With the help of Roger Lescaret, a master printer, Les Editions Narcisse was born. (Harry later renamed the company Black Sun Press.) Their sense of friendship, sensitivity, and generosity did the rest. They were soon publishing little-known authors whose talent they admired, including D.H. Lawrence, Kay Boyle, Archibald MacLeish, and James Joyce.

Much like the Roaring Twenties, Harry Crosby’s life came to a brutal end in 1929. On December 10, while on a trip to New York, Harry was found dead in his room at the Hotel des Artistes. A revolver was clutched in his hand, and he laid next to Josephine Bigelow, a young married woman he had fallen in love with in 1928. She too had been shot dead. Caresse continued to direct Black Sun Press alone. In 1930, she published her husband’s journal under the title Shadows of the Sun, taking care to remove the final entry: “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.”

Article published in the January 2021 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.