Harry Crosby and unidentified woman, Four Arts Ball, Paris
Yet it was precisely in his character … to invest all his loyalty and energy in magic: at first the approved magic of established religion; later the witchwork of poetry and sun worship; finally the black mass of violence” -Geoffrey Wolf, Author of Black Sun: The Brief Transit and Violent Eclipse of Harry Crosby
Harry Crosby – self indulgent socialite, tortured poet, wealthy mystic …. a playboy who lived his life with reckless abandon – was a man both adored and reviled. He has been described by some as “a representative figure of the so-called Lost Generation”, the bohemian 1920s.
A godson of J.P. Morgan Jr., Harry was a Harvard graduate and a decorated war veteran, who had left school to become an ambulance driver in France with his upper-crust chums during World War I. He ended up with the Croix de Guerre for valor and, after a few frustrating years back in Boston, fled to Paris for the rest of his short life. Married in 1922 to Mary Phelps Jacob, known as “Caresse”, they lived the “ultimate Bohemian lives as poets, artists, and patrons in Paris in the 1920’s. To every adventure their answer was always ‘yes’.” Harry once sent a telegram from Paris to his father, the quintessential sober, patriarch, which read, “Please sell $10,000 worth in stock. We intend to live a mad and extravagant life.”
While living and writing in Paris Harry Crosby founded The Black Sun Press, one of the “finest small presses of the twentieth century”. In 1924, the Crosbys went public with their first book. The following year, they each published their first collections of verse. Harry commissioned Alastair – a “spectacularly camp” German creator of beautifully decadent and Gothic fantasies – to illustrate his second collection, Red Skeletons. Soon they were issuing works by other writers, including Poe, James, Wilde, Joyce and D. H. Lawrence.
Color plate from Red Skeletons, by artist Alastair
On December 10, 1929, Harry was found in bed with a .25 caliber bullet hole in his right temple next to his mistress, the newly married Josephine Bigelow who had a matching hole in her left temple, in an apparent suicide pact. Harry’s toenails were painted red and strange symbols were tattooed between his shoulder blades and on the soles of his feet. A lover of dark mysteries to the last, he left no suicide note. London’s Daily Mirror speculated on psychological motives, while New York’s Daily News blamed poetry and passion: “Death itself had been the motive, others speculated, just as aspiring poet Harry’s life had been his greatest artwork.”
We recently caught up with Erik Rodgers, founder of String and a Can Productions, and director of The Black Sun: The Life and Death of Harry Crosby, who provides his own insight into Harry Crosby’s strange, short life and speaks to what makes the man such a fascinating study.
How did you come to decide Harry Crosby might make good material for a play – what it was about him or his life that inspired you, or what aspect of him you were hoping to shed more light on? How did you come across him to begin with?
Erik Rodgers: I actually came upon Caresse first, while developing a project on Salvador Dalí. [My business partner] was intrigued by the idea of such an accomplished and independent female from that era, and started researching her life. Of course as soon as she began reading about Caresse, she discovered Harry as well. Their story captured her imagination, and she began relating to me some of the details as she read them. We both felt there was something vital and overlooked in their story, something that had been obscured by all the scandal and negative criticism.
Over the next few months, I sat down with Geoffrey Wolff’s incredibly well researched biography, as well as several works on Caresse. Time and again, I was struck by the incredible amount of negativity, dismissiveness and judgement that surrounded Harry and Caresse. Even Mr. Wolff felt it necessary to defend and explain away his decision to dignify Harry with the full biographical treatment. I felt disappointed by the apologia of an afterward he wrote for the nyrb edition. After all, from our contemporary vantage point, considering the near century of work and popular culture that has followed, Harry hardly seems shocking…
I didn’t immediately resolve to write about Harry, but he stayed in my mind for some time. Still a bit of an enigma, I felt the vital pulse of his life, his work, but had yet to find a context for it. It was several months later, when encouraged by Devin and some friends to develop a project for us all to work on, that the idea of the play struck.
image via String and a Can Productions, artist Egon Scheile
How did you find the process to be for this particular medium, translating Harry’s life/works into material for the stage? Are there any other projects you have in mind for Harry Crosby?
By limiting the play to three characters, Harry, Caresse, and Josephine, and using the stage as more of an abstract space, I set out to let the characters observe, confront and relive specific moments across time and space. It was a way, I felt, to do more than relate their story, or explore Harry’s personal mythos. It was a way to deconstruct, unlock, and hopefully reclaim them back into our collective consciousness.
I began reading Harry’s work in earnest once I resolved to write the play, including his diaries Shadows of the Sun. This era was a specialty of mine back in college (Lawrence, Hemingway, Joyce et al) and I was surprised that I hadn’t really encountered Harry’s work before. I found that the more I read, the more powerful … Harry’s vision became. It is indeed difficult to sum up Harry’s work by sharing a poem or a line here or there. There is a cumulative effect to the work, something remarked upon in Eliot’s essay on Harry. As a result, I used a lot of Harry’s own work as source material, crafting scenes from poems or diary entries. I did this not only to keep true to the story, but also to hopefully let Harry’s vision unfold over the length of the play. It was important to me to let them be taken on their own terms, by their own ambitions and their own vision. In many ways, to me that was what Harry’s life was about.
[…]In writing the play, however, I also wanted to wrestle with the very human aspect of their lives as well– the volatility of Harry, the toll that took on Caresse, the anguish in Josephine that found some answer in Harry’s elaborate mythos. Harry and Caresse’s own depictions of their lives are always a little unsatisfying to our modern sensibilities in that they don’t submit to easy psychological types. Questions linger about who they were, even after you’d heard all the juicy details. How much did the war or Harry’s Dad play into his tumultuous behavior? Were Caresse’s attempts to leave sincere? Was she a bit relieved at his final passing? Who pulled the trigger first, Harry or Josephine? How did that fateful meeting transpire, exactly? These are some of the mysteries that propel the story.
On a personal note, this last October, I had the pleasure of visiting the Athenaeum in Boston and arranging a viewing some of the original Black Sun Books. The experience was striking in two ways in particular. I was struck with the strange power of viewing such rare texts that had been made with such care. From the gold wrapping of Transit of Venus, to the uncut folio pages of Torchbearers, it was as if you were viewing something sacred. In an era of mass printing, it’s hard to imagine the power such handcrafted books can have. The other thing that struck me in viewing the books was a feeling of direct connection with Harry and Caresse, something I had strived for through the research and the writing. This reaffirmed my convictions about them that underlined the play, and reinforced for me the importance of their story.
I have also just completed composing a series of music inspired by Harry’s work and the play. You’ve heard some of the temp tracks on the page for the play, but I’ve now completed the cycle and am looking to make a live recording of it all.
In addition to the original site for the play, there’s also a larger effort underway to commemorate and honor the legacy of Harry and Caresse. Info on the nascent Black Sun Theatre Foundation can be found here.
Harry Crosby’s Black Sun was originally published at Coilhouse on March 16, 2010.