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The Observer

Black Sun rises again

Boston's wild Harry Crosby left a gilded legacy of books

By Sam Allis
Globe Columnist / February 22, 2009
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One of the most astounding people ever to come out of Boston was Harry Crosby, an aristocrat who redefined the term self-destructive. A godson of J.P. Morgan Jr., he attended St. Mark's School in Southborough and then hightailed it to France with wellborn friends to drive ambulances during World War I. He ended up with the Croix de Guerre for valor and, after a few unhappy years back in Boston, fled to Paris for the rest of his short life.

He called Boston "Drearyville" and "City of Dreadful Night." He expressed his disdain for "the horrors of Boston and particularly Boston virgins." Married in 1922 to Mary Phelps Jacob, known as Caresse, he once sent a telegram from Paris to his father, the quintessential sober, upright Brahmin, that read, "Please sell $10,000 worth in stock. We intend to live a mad and extravagant life."

And that's exactly what they did. Even by the wild standards of Paris in the '20s, Harry stood out as a hall-of-fame dissolute. He smoked opium and enjoyed hash and cocaine along with oceans of champagne. He grew to know everybody in the tight society of artists and writers, who, in turn, harbored varying opinions of him. (Edith Wharton, also in Paris at the time, called him "a sort of half-crazy cad.")

His mania came into full flower at the drunken orgies of the annual Four Arts balls. One year, Caresse appeared topless with a turquoise wig, while Harry, dressing for the ball's Inca motif, covered himself in red ocher and appeared in a loincloth and a necklace of dead pigeons. He slept with a 13-year-old Berber girl in North Africa and a young Arab boy in Jerusalem.

Harry and Caresse restored an old mill outside of Paris and hosted wild bashes frequented by famous guests such as Salvador Dali. There was drunken polo on donkeys. He owned a Bugatti and bought an airplane. He saw the running of the bulls in Pamplona one year with Ernest Hemingway, who said about him: "Harry has a wonderful gift of carelessness."

In 1929, Crosby and Caresse returned to the United States for a brief visit to see family and friends. On the afternoon of Dec. 10, Harry was supposed to join Caresse and his mother for tea at his godfather's Manhattan mansion. Instead, he and one of his many mistresses, the well-born Josephine Rotch Bigelow whom he called the Fire Princess, committed a double suicide in the apartment of a friend. His toenails were painted red; he had a tattoo of a Christian cross on the sole of one foot and a pagan icon of the sun on the other. He was 31.

Crosby had been obsessed with life and death for years. He worshiped the sun and its refulgence as a sacred force and was fascinated by suicide - not out of depression but as a dramatic, self-absorbed way to end his game plan. He captured the two themes in what would become his trademark, a black sun.

Geoffrey Wolff brought Crosby alive with his brilliant biography published in 1976 called "Black Sun: The Brief Transit and Violent Eclipse of Harry Crosby." James Dickey called it the best biography he had ever read.

But there was another side to Harry Crosby. When he and Caresse weren't busy debauching, they created the Black Sun Press in 1927 in Paris and ran it together until his death. They published gorgeous books by now famous authors; their titles were beautifully designed, lavishly illustrated with elegant typeface, and sold hors commerce (not through regular commercial channels).

Crosby wrote a lot of forgettable poetry that he published, but he will be remembered as a keen talent spotter. "He knew who was up and he chased them," says Stanley Cushing, curator of rare books at the Boston Athenaeum.

Black Sun published James Joyce, Ezra Pound, D.H. Lawrence, Hart Crane, Archibald MacLeish, Kay Boyle, and Max Ernst, among many. T. S. Eliot wrote an introduction to one book, Lawrence another. After Harry died, Caresse continued to publish.

Today, the books of Harry Crosby's Black Sun Press have become hot properties. The market for them has steadily risen, particularly over the last few years. One of the finest books, an exquisite volume of Crane's long poem "The Bridge" with photos by Walker Evans, was bought at Christie's last year by a Bostonian named John Everets for $21,250.

Someone recently offered him another copy for $50,000. Everets, a successful investor of rich Boston bloodlines, declined but predicts that someone else will meet that price, and probably soon.

Everets read Wolff's book and, like many of us, instantly contracted the Crosby virus. "I just thought he was one of the most intriguing people on the planet," he says, "And I began to look for his books."

Everets has become a serious player in the Black Sun sweepstakes. He has bought in Whyte's in Dublin, at Maggs Bros. in London, at Swann Auction Galleries and the old Gotham Book Mart in New York, the Philadelphia branch of Bauman Rare Books. He is on the alert list at auctions houses when a Black Sun book appears. He is known.

"I've put together one of the few almost-complete collections of Black Sun Press during Harry's lifetime," he says.

In December, Everets gave 67 Black Sun books to the Athenaeum - a huge trove that catapults the institution into the top ranks of Black Sun collections. He considered giving them to the Morgan Library in New York but opted for the Athenaeum as a uniquely Boston institution.

I'm guessing Harry would be livid.

Sam Allis can be reached at allis@globe.com

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