On this day…26 January

On 26 January 1970 Caresse Crosby died.

Born in New York in 1891, Mary Phelps Jacob (known as Polly) invented and patented a popular backless brassiere at the age of nineteen. She married Richard Peabody with whom she had two children. An alcoholic war veteran, Peabody developed a passion for watching buildings burn down.

Polly met Harry Crosby, a wealthy banking heir and nephew of JP Morgan Jr, in July 1920 and they scandalised their friends and families with the relationship they began two weeks later. Polly was divorced from Peabody in February 1922 and married Crosby in September in New York. They moved to Paris where Crosby worked for a time at one of JP Morgan’s banks. Dressed in his business suit and hat, and carrying his briefcase, Crosby was rowed to work along the Seine every morning by his wife who wore only a red bathing suit!

Harry persuaded Polly to change her name and in 1924 she became Caresse Crosby. As part of the ‘Lost Generation’ and with the benefit of Crosby’s inheritance, they were able to live a bohemian life in Paris and indulge their passion for poetry, art and books. They started to publish their own poetry in beautifully and expensively produced limited edition books under the imprint Éditions Narcisse and then expanded their publishing by setting up Black Sun Press in 1927 on the Rue Cardinale.

With printer Roger Lescaret, Black Sun Press produced carefully printed works in limited editions, and published works by TS Eliot, Hart Crane, Ernest Hemingway, DH Lawrence, Ezra Pound and, of course, James Joyce. Tales Told of Shem and Shaun – Three Fragments from Work in Progress was published around August 1929. Only 650 copies were produced.  The three fragments were ‘The Mookse and the Gripes,’ ‘The Muddest Thick That Was Ever Heard Dump,’ and ‘The Ondt and the Gracehoper.’

On a visit to New York in early December 1929, Harry Crosby killed himself and his lover Josephine Bigelow. Caresse returned to Paris where she continued the work of Black Sun Press. With Jacques Porel, she published paperback editions of works by contemporary authors like Hemingway, McAlmon, and Radiguet under the imprint Crosby Continental Editions.

She moved back to America in 1936 where Black Sun Press produced a Collected Poems of James Joyce, in which ‘Ecce Puer’ was published for the first time. She continued to mix with writers and artists and married for a third time. Later she became a peace activist and moved to Italy where she died in Rome in 1970.


Sources & Further Reading:

Crosby, Caresse: The Passionate Years, New York: Dial Press, 1953.

Hamalian, Linda: The Cramoisy Queen – A Life of Caresse Crosby, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005.

Slocum, John J, & Herbert Cahoon: A Bibliography of James Joyce 1882-1941, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953

Wolff, Geoffrey: Black Sun: The Brief Transit and Violent Eclipse of Harry Crosby, New York Review of Books Classics, New York: NYRB Books, 2003.