Saturday, September 3, 2016

Hart Crane and Black Sun Press, Dec 7, 1929. "Death is our marriage"

There's always interesting history over at Thomas Christiansen's Right Reading site. Here's one entry for December 7: "Hart Crane gives a party for his publishers, Harry and Caresse Crosby of Black Sun Press (publishers of Crane, Kay Boyle, James Joyce, Rene Crevel, and T.S. Elliot, among others). William Carlos Williams, Malcolm Cowley, e. e. cummings, and a group of drunken sailors attend. The euphoria doesn't last: the thirty-one-year-old Crosby kills himself and his mistress."
One has to admire the detail of Crane inviting sailors to a publishing party: oh, you kid! 
Behind that literary squib is a Jazz Era scandal that would have intrigued Scott Fitzgerald: a sudden revelation of romantic entanglement, money, suicide, and Boston society mortification at its own excesses. The murder / suicide of Harry Crosby and his lover Josephine Rotch -- he was the eccentric publisher of the  Black Sun Press with his wife Caresse -- inspired headlines that thrilled to the combination of love and death. Even the New York Times was in a giddy mood, reporting the day after the couple's suicide pact on December 10:  "COUPLE SHOT DEAD IN ARTISTS' HOTEL ... BUT MOTIVE IS UNKNOWN." 
Such discretion among the Brahmins of Boston society was probably required -- the Crosbys' Black Sun Press had published exquisite books in limited editions, and some for good reason; Crosby and his wife seemed intent on giving Scott and Zelda some heady Jazz Age competition. Here's one 1928 volume described in a 2009 article:
"One of their most beautiful books was the Hindu Love Manual which they first found while on holiday in Damascus. They reprinted it in October 1928 in a release of only 20 copies. Bound in navy blue leather, the cover was stamped with gold to reflect the style of ancient Persian manuscripts. The inside pages were printed on handmade paper colored a distinctive shade of gray and decorated with a gold border. Each illustration in every copy was hand-colored."
Black Sun had serious literary ambitions as well. The Crosbys published letters by Proust, as well as Faulkner's scandalous Sanctuary; works by Hemingway and Pound, and James Joyce's Tales Told of Shem and Shaun which was later integrated into Finnegans Wake. The party on December 7, 1929 was one Hart Crane -- with  his Navy friends as companions -- arranged in celebration of The Bridge, which Caresse would eventually publish in 1930.
The Crosbys had returned from Europe, and what happened then has the inevitability of a bohemian love story. In December the Crosbys returned to the United States for a visit and the Harvard-Yale football game. Afterwards Harry arranged for Josephine to meet him in Detroit, and they checked into the expensive ($12 a day) Book-Cadillac Hotel as Mr. and Mrs. Harry Crane. According to one Caresse biography, the secret lovers took meals in their room, smoked opium, and made love for four days. 
On December 7, Harry and Josephine returned to New York. That evening Crosby's friend Crane threw a party to celebrate his completion (after seven years) of his poem "The Bridge." Black Sun Press had announced plans to publish, and Crane wanted to bid Harry and Caresse bon voyage since they were due to sail back to France the next week.
On December 9, Josephine, who had stayed in New York rather than return to Boston, sent a 36-line poem to Harry Crosby, who was staying with Caresse at the Savoy-Plaza Hotel. The last line of the poem read:
Death is our marriage.
If this was a challenge to Crosby to prove his love, Harry, the romantic, seemed willing to accept. On the same day, Harry Crosby wrote his final entry in his journal:
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.
On the evening of December 10, Harry was a no-show for dinner before the theater. Caresse called their friend Stanley Mortimer; his studio was the one Harry used for his meetings with Josephine. Stanley found Harry and Josephine dead. Harry had a .25 caliber bullet hole in his right temple and lay with his arm around Josephine, who had a matching hole in her left temple. The police, uncovering the trail of notes, determined the deaths be a suicide pact.

True to her word Caresse Crosby published "The Bridge" in Paris, 1930 in an edition of 283 copies. It contained three photographs by a previously unpublished 27-year-old named Walker Evans. 
In 1932 Crane himself committed suicide. He was on a ship bound for New York. The ship had made it to a point in the Gulf of Mexico when, after a morning of drinking, he made sexual advances to one of the crew. Witnesses reported that his intentions were probably suicidal when Crane climbed on the railing of the SS Orizaba and hailed the passengers by saying "Goodbye, everybody!" His body was never recovered. 

[Photo of Hart Crane by the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Images of the 1930 Black Sun Press edition of The Bridge with Evans photographs at the Modern American Poetry site.]

No comments: