The Roaring Twenties
The Jazz Age’s Lost Leader: Harry Crosby
The life of the poet, publisher, and playboy defined the decadent decade but he has been largely forgotten during the last century.
Ernest Hemingway, Cole Porter, and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald famously lived fabulously and extravagantly during the Jazz Age. So much so, that their antics are still talked about nearly a century later and have come to define the period.
While less famous now, I think the life of poet, publisher, and playboy Harry Crosby actually personified the period best. Working on my latest book, A Drinkable Feast: A Cocktail Companion to 1920s Paris, I found he was one of the more compelling characters to write about.
Like Hemingway, E.E. Cummings and John Dos Passos, he served in the ambulance corps during World War I, and saw his share of carnage and “man’s inhumanity to man,” as he put it in his diary. He narrowly escaped death when his ambulance was blown apart during a German artillery barrage at Verdun. Perhaps, that is why he was so committed to living life to its fullest after the fighting was over. Crosby came from a wealthy Boston family (his uncle was none other than banker J.P. Morgan). He and his recently-divorced lover Caresse (née Mary Phelps Jacob, who also went by “Polly”) married in 1920 and, deciding that America had become too conservative, mundane and stifling, moved to Paris in 1922.
I don’t blame them, Prohibition had just begun in the U.S. after all. They founded the Black Sun Press, which published the early works of some of the era’s greatest writers, among them Hemingway, Archibald MacLeish, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Ezra Pound, and Hart Crane. But the couple’s open marriage, wild parties, and hedonistic lifestyle truly made them some of the city’s most famous residents.
They moved into what Crosby called a “romantic balcony apartment” overlooking the Seine, and each morning Caresse (usually wearing a bathing suit) and Harry would paddle their red canoe down the Seine to the Place de la Concorde, where he would then walk to his office at the Morgan Harjes & Company, on the Place du Vendome.
He worked at the investment bank until New Year’s Eve, 1923, when he quit to pursue poetry and publishing, and not to mention a rather decadent lifestyle. He was particularly obsessed with horse racing, and owned a not-too-successful horse named Gin-Cocktail. He and his wife also staged drunken polo matches (on donkeys, not horses). Perhaps referring to both his poetry and lifestyle, Hemingway, quoted in John Baxter’s The Golden Moments of Paris, offered an apt description: “Harry has a wonderful gift of carelessness, he can just spill the stuff out.”
Reading Caresse’s memoir, Caresse Crosby: From Black Sun to Roccasinibalda, I think that description was more than accurate. “When we wanted to be entertained we received in bed,” she wrote. “We always drank Champagne and we almost always began with caviar. Our guests were invited to take baths if they wanted to, for we had a sunken marble tub and a black and white tile bathroom that boasted a white bearskin rug and an open fireplace, as well as a cushioned chaise lounge covered in rose red toweling. We liked to experiment with bath oils and bath salts...Chez nous martinis and rose geranium mingled in libation. We also provided voluminous bathrobes. Some evenings were rather Pompeiian. The bath could hold four.” Oh, my!
Harry Crosby’s diary is also chock full of great cocktail tales. We know that he was a big fan of the Bacardi Cocktail, that legendary Daiquiri variation using grenadine in place of the standard sugar, as well as the Bronx Cocktail and the classic Champagne Cocktail.
And perhaps no finer stream of consciousness cocktail story exists in all the land than Crosby’s July 4, 1927, entry:
And it was within the pages of his diary that I found perhaps the earliest evidence of the Mimosa being connected to the Hotel Ritz Paris. Initially, famed head bartender Frank Meier called the drink the “Champagne Orange.” On August 25, 1923, Crosby wrote the following:
But perhaps my favorite Crosby cocktail has to be the festive (and potent) punch he concocted as part of the “pre-game” party the couple hosted before the Bal des Quat’Z’Arts, or the “Four Arts Ball,” at their home at 19, Rue de Lille. The Ball was an annual Mardi-Gras-meets-Spring-Break-meets-New-Year’s-Eve bacchanal for Paris’ arts community. In his diary, on June 18, 1926, Harry told of their costumes (or lack thereof). Caresse “is passionate with bare legs, bare breasts, and a wig of turquoise hair.” I find this somewhat ironic, given that Caresse, in her pre-Paris days, was actually granted a U.S. patent for a brassiere! Meanwhile, Crosby was clad only in “a frail red loin-cloth and a necklace of dead pigeons,” along with red body paint.
That evening, they assembled in the Crosby library, where he served a “tremendous punch (forty bottles of Champagne, five whiskey, five gin, five Cointreau).” Amid “mad yells of Venez Boire (come drink) and then pandemonium and more drinking and more and more” he managed to judge a “most beautiful” contest, which Caresse won “by riding (almost nude) around the ballroom in the jaws of a serpent while myriad students roared approval.”
But the Jazz Age, of course, came to its end with the great stock market crash of 1929 and the beginning of the Great Depression, which drained the bank accounts of the American bon vivants living in Paris.
Just a few weeks after this cataclysmic event, Crosby took his own life on the evening of December 10. He and his lover-of-the-moment, Josephine Roche Bigelow, made use of a borrowed apartment in the Hotel des Artistes in New York. They took off their shoes, lay fully clothed on the bed, and then he pressed a .25 caliber Belgian pistol to her temple. He shot her and then shot himself. In the words of his friend and fellow writer Malcolm Cowley, Crosby “would do anything and everything that entered his mind.”
To me, it’s significant that Crosby chose his own departure just as that amazing decade was coming to a close. It’s as if he knew time was up, the party was literally over. Perhaps he felt that his own flame must be extinguished, just like that of his era. His contemporaries would carry on their lives, some into obscurity, some to continued greatness.
I’m reminded of the immortal line from one of the era’s best novels, The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Crosby wanted none of that beating on, didn’t want to live the rest of his life in the past. So, he opted out, on his own terms, with a “bang” rather than a whimper.
Wanting to end on a happier note, I’ve converted Crosby’s punch recipe into a single-serve portion, and hereby offer you Harry’s Tremendous Punch. Venez Boire!
- 2.5 oz chilled Champagne
- .3 oz London dry gin
- .3 oz Rye whiskey
- .3 oz Cointreau
- Glass: Cocktail
Add all the ingredients to a mixing glass. Fill with ice and stir. Strain into a cocktail glass.
For more tales from 1920s Paris, pick up Philip Greene’s new book, A Drinkable Feast: A Cocktail Companion to 1920s Paris.