Caresse Crosby, Patron of the Literary Lost Generation
By Francis Booth | On June 8, 2021 | Updated November 17, 2021 | Comments (0)
Caresse Crosby (born Mary Phelps Jacob; April 20, 1892 – January 24, 1970) was known as a patron to the Lost Generation and other expatriate writers in Paris of the late 1920s. With her second husband, Harry Crosby, she founded Black Sun Press, publishing early works of writers who would have a lasting impact.
And in an offbeat yet impactful turn of events, in 1914, Crosby became the first person to receive a patent for the modern bra in 1914. The following appreciation of Crosby’s Paris years is excerpted from Everybody I Can Think of Ever: Meetings That Made the Avant-Garde by Francis Booth, reprinted by permission.
Diarist and novelist Anaïs Nin on Caresse Crosby:
“Caresse Crosby enters with the buoyancy of a powder puff, caressing voice (was this how she gained the nickname of Caresse from Harry Crosby?), her fur hat, her eyelashes, her smile all glittery with animation. The word on her lips is always yes, and all her being says yes yes yes to all that is happening and all that is offered her.
She trails behind her, like the plume of a peacock, a fabulous legend. She ran the Black Sun Press in Paris, lived in a converted windmill, knew D.H. Lawrence, Ezra Pound, André Breton, painters, writers. At the Quatre Arts Ball she once rode on a horse as Lady Godiva.”
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Harry Crosby in 1919
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Caresse’s husband Harry was the Harvard-educated nephew of J.P. Morgan. Together Caresse and Harry ran the Black Sun Press and were publishers, supporters and patrons of many young writers, including Kay Boyle, D.H. Lawrence, Hart Crane, Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller, and Anaïs Nin; they published James Joyce’s Tales Told of Shem and Shaun and issued his Pomes Penyeach in a special edition, illustrated by James’ daughter Lucia.
As publishers and patrons they were magnificent, as writers less so, though it is hard to agree with Robert McAlmon when, with his usual sexist tone he describes Caresse as “an attractive, smartly-dressed woman but I did not take her literary interests or tastes seriously.”
The publishing house got its name because, as Caresse said, “black was Harry’s favorite color and he worshipped the sun.”
It was sun worship – in the atavistic sense not in the modern sense of sunbathing – that first led the Crosbys to D.H. Lawrence, an apostle of the sun himself. By 1929, Lawrence was looking for a publisher for Lady Chatterley’s Lover but without success; he was prepared to underwrite the costs himself but he was still having difficulty.
Lawrence was reluctant to leave his home in the warmth of the south of France in March, but decided he would have to go to Paris. While he was there the Crosbys invited him and Frieda to stay at their mill outside the city. Harry and Caresse had first seen and fallen in love with the mill, the scene of so many literary stories, while they were staying with the Duc de la Rochefoucauld in his château – being the nephew of J.P. Morgan assured Harry the best invitations.
Strolling around the vast estate they saw the old mill, semi-derelict but beautifully located. They immediately told the owner that they wanted to buy it; Harry did not have his check book on him so he ripped the cuff off the sleeve of Caresse’s white blouse and wrote him a check on that.
Caresse and Harry heard about James Joyce through his publisher Sylvia Beach, as did most people; they were just starting the Black Sun Press and they “yearned for a piece of the rich Irish cake then baking on the Paris fire.’
But when they first met him, “Joyce was uncommunicative and seemed bored with us, retreating behind those thick mysterious lenses until something was said about Sullivan’s concert the evening before, then suddenly he came to life – talking all the while about great Irish tenors.” Joyce was a tireless supporter of John Sullivan and the talk brought him to life. Harry and Caresse joined him in his enthusiasm, ostensibly anyway.
Joyce invited them back the next week for a concert and finally they worked up the courage to ask him if they could print some of what he was then calling Work in Progress, which eventually became part of Finnegan’s Wake. Joyce agreed, if only because they did not want many pages and they promised unlimited corrections – something Sylvia Beach had unwisely offered Joyce some years earlier. Caresse and Harry also agreed to pay Joyce whatever he asked for in advance; Joyce was always short of money.
The Crosbys began to visit Joyce regularly, when he gave them his ‘corrections and additions’. Harry noted in his diary “I liked the flash of triumph when Caresse asked him how much he enjoyed doing this new work, the same flash of triumph as when one is sleeping with a woman one loves, the same flash of triumph when one bets high on a horse and sees him gallop past the winning post a winner.”
Joyce signed a contract for the publication on April 3, 1929; the Crosbys paid him $1,000 as a half-payment. Joyce went through the proof sheets in mid-April, mostly at the Crosbys’ Paris apartment, but only after they had assured him that they would tie up and muzzle their dog Narcisse while he was there. He worked in their library which had a lamp with “an enormous lightbulb” in deference to the weakness of Joyce’s eyes. As he had been with Harry earlier, Joyce was always keen to show off his cleverness. Caresse wrote about this time in The Passionate Years:
“Now, Mr and Mrs Crosby,” Joyce said, “I wonder if you understand why I made that change?” All this in a blarney-Irish key.
“No, why?” We chorused, and there ensued one of the most intricate and erudite twenty minutes of explanation that it has ever been my luck to hear but unfortunately I hardly understood a word, his references were far too esoteric. Harry fared better, but afterward we both regretted that we did not have a dictaphone behind the lamp so that later we could have studied all that had escaped us. Joyce stayed three hours, he did not want to drink, and by eight he hadn’t got through with a page and a half. It was illuminating.
The Crosbys wanted to commission Picasso to do a portrait of Joyce for the book. Harry noted in his diary for May 3, 1929:
“C. spends the morning with Picasso I with Joyce. Picasso told her he wouldn’t do a portrait of Joyce because he never did portraits anymore but that sometime he would do a drawing for the Black Sun Press.”
Caresse asked the sculptor Brancusi for a drawing instead; he agreed and did several sketches. They were good likenesses but the Crosbys really wanted something more abstract. Brancusi agreed provided he was given complete freedom. The resulting “portrait” is just three vertical lines of various lengths and a spiral; not a literal portrait in any sense but the Crosbys and Joyce loved it, though Sylvia Beach thought it was “a bit too basic.”
When the book was finally ready for publication the printer had to come back to the Crosbys, very embarrassed, to tell them that the final page only had two lines; could Mr. Joyce perhaps provide an additional eight lines. Caresse was too frightened to ask him but the printer went behind her back directly to Joyce and got the lines; apparently Joyce had wanted to add more but was too frightened of Caresse to ask her.
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Caresse first met Picasso’s friend and patron Gertrude Stein in 1928; they were not received warmly.
“To Gertrude Stein’s we went but once. I do not recall that Harry ever met her again. We were only three or four. She wanted to look at our editions and we wanted to look at her Picassos. We did both. Her portrait is well-known now, but then it had not yet met the public. The story goes that a friend complained to Picasso, ‘it doesn’t look like her.’ ‘It will,’ he replied.”
Harry and Caresse did meet Stein again, in the Midi in France in 1934 when it was Alice Toklas who was the ‘star’ of the luncheon. ‘She was in top form and led us through many a merry adventure, as she told us tales of her travels with Gertrude while Gertrude sat smiling upon us all like a happy Buddhess.’
The last time Caresse met Gertrude “I liked her best of all.” It was autumn 1945, in Paris, immediately after the war; Caresse was one of the first Americans to return. She had brought over drawings by American artists that she arranged to show in a gallery on the Rue Furstemburg.
“Paris was starving for contact with the American world of art and everyone flocked. Gertrude Stein came stalking in with her white poodle at her heels. She sat in the centre of the tiny room and almost stole the show, my show, but even when she walked off with the best-looking G.I. in the place, I forgave her. As Picasso had foreseen, his portrait now looks just like her.”
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Caresse and her Whippet, Clytoris
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F. Scott Fitzgerald
In The Passionate Years, Caresse also tells a nice story of how she first met F. Scott Fitzgerald: she was passing through Baltimore on her way to the ship that would take her to Europe. She had never met him before but had been given his number and phoned him to introduce herself.
It went beautifully. He would wear a red carnation. He would meet me in the bar of the Lord Baltimore at twelve, he would take me to lunch, he would see that I reached the pier by two … I confidently entered the bar. It was 12:15 but no Scott – so I sat down and told the waiter I would order when the gentleman arrived – but no gentleman arrived.
Then someone who was no gentleman insisted on joining me. I got up flurried and went to the telephone. I had forgotten the number which I had had from a friend in New York. The operator could find no record of Scott Fitzgerald whatsoever. I was furious, and then I heard my name being paged. I was wanted on the telephone.
My barroom friend retreated. It was Scott full of apologies, he had been working he said, forgot the time etc. etc. Would I jump in a cab and come to the house. Did I like beer? I didn’t, but I answered, ‘Love it.’ If it hadn’t been for the barroom beau I’d have gone back and had a snifter myself.”
We drew up in front of a rather sinister-looking house, and as I remember, I had to go around to the back to get in. Scott answered the door in a flapping dressing-gown, hair tousled, but with a smile that unlatched my heart. “So you’re Caresse Crosby,” he said.
“And you are you.”
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Caresse Crosby’s patent. She was the first recipient of a patent for the modern bra,
patent number 1,115,674, granted on November 3, 1914, titled m. p. jacob–brassière:
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One of Caresse and Harry Crosby’s greatest successes as publishers came when they acted as midwives at the birth of one of the great American poems: they bullied, blackmailed and kidnapped Hart Crane into finishing his monumental poem sequence The Bridge – which, along with Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, is one of the great pillars of American twentieth century epic poetry.
Crane and the Crosbys were introduced in Paris by Eugène Jolas, Joyce’s French translator, whom they had met though Sylvia Beach and who had also introduced them to Joyce. Jolas published Crane’s poems in transition, including some early parts of The Bridge; he called the Crosbys the “mad millionaires.”
They were certainly eccentric; among other things, they had dogs named Clytoris and Narcisse Noir. Crane describes his first meeting with them in a letter to Malcolm Cowley dated February 4, 1929.
“Have just returned from a weekend at Ermenonville (near Chantilly) on the estate of the Duc du Rochefoucauld where an amazing millionaire by the name of Harry Crosby has fixed up an old mill (with stables and a stockade all about) . . . I’m invited to return at any time for any period to finish The Bridge, but I’ve an idea that I shall soon wear off my novelty.”
Crane’s novelty did wear off, though not immediately. By the time the Crosbys met Crane they had already read what then existed of The Bridge. They were impressed. But the poem still needed some additions; the Crosbys decided to help Crane finish it, whatever the cost, personal and financial. It turned out to be a high price to pay.
While they were in New York and planning to force Crane to finish The Bridge, Harry and Caresse had been decorating their daughter Polleen’s room ready for when she came home from Swiss boarding school. She was due home on the Monday but on Saturday Harry brought Hart Crane home for the night. They had no guest room so had to put him up with his ‘sailor’s duffel bag and his hobnailed shoes’ in Polleen’s newly decorated room. Caresse describes that night in The Passionate Years:
“We were aware of Hart’s midnight prowlings and also aware, to our dismay, of his nocturnal pickups. He said he’d go out for a nightcap so it was with great relief that I heard him come in about 2 am and softly close the stairway door. Thereafter it was quiet. But in the morning, what a hideous awakening!”
Crane had completely wrecked Polleen’s room.
“On the wallpaper and across the pale pink spread, up and down the curtains and over the white chenille rug were the blackest footprints and handprints I have ever seen, hundreds of them. No wonder, for I heard to my fury that he had brought a chimney-sweep home for the night.”
At least it made a change from sailors, who were Crane’s preferred partners. Caresse forgave him and stuck with him through to the publication of The Bridge, going so far as to lock him in and forcing him to write. The tough love strategy worked and Crane finally finished the poem. On December 7, 1930 they held a party to mark the completion of The Bridge under the shadow of the actual bridge which it celebrates. Harry and Caresse were due to sail for France on the 13th. They never made it.
The demise of Harry Crosby
During the night of December 8, 1929 Harry Crosby suddenly told Caresse he wanted them both to leap from their hotel window and achieve a “Sun-Death” on this winter day. Caresse ignored him; he was drunk. It was six weeks after the Wall Street Crash and many financiers did in fact jump from tall buildings.
On the 10th Harry met his mistress, whom Caresse called the Fire Princess. He was supposed to meet Caresse later at the Lyceum Theatre, with Hart Crane and others. When there was no sign of Harry the party went into the theatre but Crane left his number at the box office in case a call came. It did. Crosby and his mistress were dead in a hotel room. They each had a bullet to the head and Harry still had a gun in his hand. Harry’s last entry in his diary was December 9:
And again my Invulnerability is put to the test.
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
Caresse thought she was Harry’s beloved but she was obviously wrong. Their friends rallied around Caresse. Kay Boyle wrote to her on December 17, 1929 from Neuilly:
“dear darling child – I want to be near you and kiss you 1000 times and tell you how enormous how magnificent you are – I cannot say anything to you that is in my heart – but I see you like a fiery little steed and I worship you for it. Here is my devotion and my love and my homage forever and ever – your / Kay”
As if that weren’t enough for Caresse to bear, Hart Crane killed himself two years after Harry, on April 27, 1932, jumping from a boat on the way back to America from Havana.
After Harry’s and Hart Crane’s suicides Caresse Crosby continued her work and continued to meet new people. In her autobiography, The Passionate Years, she remembers meeting Ezra Pound for the first time; he had the same striking effect on her as on everyone else. It was in the early spring of 1930 and he had been living in Rapallo in Italy for some time. She had already had many letters from Pound ‘interlarded with his vivid designs and graphic flourishes’ but had not yet met him in person. Caresse found Pound interesting but socially awkward.
Anaïs Nin’s impressions
Anaïs Nin’s memories of first meeting Caresse, at a party at the surrealist painter Yves Tanguy’s house in the winter of 1939, with which we started this extract, continued:
“The life of certain women dresses them in anecdotes which become more visible than fur coats or silk dresses. Stories surround Caresse like a perfume, a necklace, a feather. She always seems fresher and younger than all the women there, because of her mobility, ease, flowingness. D.H. Lawrence would have called it her ‘livingness.’ A pollen carrier, I thought, as she mixed, stirred, brewed, concocted her friendships by a constant flux and reflux of activity, by curiosity, avidity, amorousness.”
In her journals for the winter of 1954/55, Nin is still in awe of Caresse Crosby:
“The dress is airy, winged. It is of black but transparent material, it is inflated and crisp by new chemistries, as organdy once was by starch and ironing. It gives her the silhouette of a young woman. Her hair, though grey, is glossy, and brushed and also starched and the opposite of limp, because the spirit in Caresse is airy and alive …
Age can wrinkle her face, freckle her hands, ruthlessly drop the eyelids over opened eyes, can tire her, but it cannot kill her laughter, her enthusiasm, her mobility.
Her second husband, Harry Crosby, committed suicide at the side of another woman (but Caresse had been invited first to share the suicide pact). Her adored son Bill died asphyxiated by a faulty gas heater in Paris. She lost two fortunes, but she wears at her neck a huge bow because dress and body and hair reflect the alertness and the discipline of her spirit.”
Nin had been sent to interview Caresse for the magazine Eve. She still thought Caresse was “an extraordinary woman.” Anaïs is obviously infatuated with Caresse, with her “lively and gay blue eyes, her constant sparkling laughter, a short humorous nose, a warm manner which wins everyone and a gift for making friends … She never commands, but whatever she asks is immediately accomplished.”
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More about Caresse Crosby
- The Extraordinary Life of Caresse Crosby, Inventor of the Bra
- Phelps Family History in America
- Inventing the Bra was the Least Interesting Thing This Blue-Blooded Bohemian Did
Contributed by Francis Booth,* the author of several books on twentieth-century culture:
Amongst Those Left: The British Experimental Novel 1940-1960 (published by Dalkey Archive); Everybody I Can Think of Ever: Meetings That Made the Avant-Garde; Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in the Mid-Twentieth Century Woman’s Novel; Text Acts: Twentieth Century Literary Eroticism; and Comrades in Art: Revolutionary Art in America 1926-1938.
Francis has also published several novels: The Code 17 series, set in the Swinging London of the 1960s and featuring aristocratic spy Lady Laura Summers; Young adult fantasy series The Watchers; and Young adult fantasy novel Mirror Mirror. Francis lives on the South Coast of England. He is currently working on High Collars and Monocles: Interwar Novels by Female Couples.
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