Harry Crosby remembered (1930)

Harry & Caresse Crosby

A personal note by Stuart Gilbert published in transition (Paris, June 1930) 6 months after Harry Crosby's suicide. Gilbert was a literary scholar and translator - he assisted in the translation of  Ulysses into French and was also a friend and correspondent of Joyce. This affectionate memoir of Crosby was not (until now)  available on the web.

“Let us suppose, ” Montaigne has written, “ that a plank is fixed between the twin towers of Notre Dame Cathedral, quite wide enough for a man to walk along it; however great may be our philosophical wisdom, however staunch our courage, they will not embolden us to walk that plank as securely as we should, were it resting on the ground.”

The mere thought of that dizzy walk in air between the skyey towers, above Our Lady’s pinnacles, was enough, a later writer tells us, to make some of Montaigne’s readers blanch and sweat with fear. And yet how jauntily you and I parade that selfsame plank when it is laid out on the pavement of normal experience, little plainmen who rarely lift eyes above the shop windows and studiously avert our gaze from the insistence of the sun!

Harry Crosby could stroll that dizzy, aerial plank as easily, as carefree,as though he were walking down a garden alley of his country home;not that, through defect of imagination, he ignored the danger, but because he knew and welcomed it. If he ever felt a qualm of vertigo, it was, I imagine when he tried to walk the plank laid out on terra firma, that safe and sensible promenade of whimpering “ hollow men". He feared the terre a terre, the normal, as most of us fear celestial heights. Seeing Harry Crosby for the first time, one was at once impressed by the lithe, faunal elegance of his poise, but most of all, perhaps, by the curious remoteness of his gaze. In the Parisian salon where we first met he seemed out of place, unseeing, as though his eyes, by some trick of long-sightedness or a queer Roentgen quality of their own were watching some aerial pageant across the walls, out in the blue beyond. Such aloofness was almost disconcerting at first;  "a difficult man," one thought, "and perhaps an arrogant man," and turned for solace to the Marie Laurencin flowers, pink and blue petals of artificial light glimmering from the wall. But, when one spoke to him, there was nothing aloof, nothing of arrogance, in Harry Crosby. An expert in the conversational vol plané, he could descend without the least gesture of condescension from his eyrie and talk lightheartedly of the latest recipe for cocktails and the dilative influence of limp Parisian ice on their gay Gordon hearts, or of his latest trouvaille in New York ‘slanguage’.

I never heard him speak ill, or harshly, of any individual -and that is to say much ; his only enemies were Mrs Grundy and Mr Bowdler, legendary types. He never refused a service to a friend or even an acquaintance, and his generosity was unbounded, whether it was a case of paying the fine of some reveller whom the local police had sequestrated or of saving a poet on the rocks.

Clearest, perhaps, of my memories of Harry Crosby is an interminable automobile drive from a country village where I was staying, to Saint- Dizier, where transition is printed. Summer was ending and from vineyards stripped of a record grape-harvest (the wine of 1929 will yet be talked of when you and I are dead) wraiths of night mist were creeping to blur the pale French roads. Crosby’s chauffeur, a dreamer and an incurable collector of contraventions, seemed unable to find his way ; we were lost time and time again and Saint-Dizier seemed a mirage on a moonlit horizon. Yet there, we knew, transition’s galley-pages were impatiently awaiting correction, and we were all rather cold and very hungry. Villages on the way seemed as dead as if the war had traversed them. Benighted peasants grunted misleading counsel. Crosby, seated beside the chauffeur, was content. To have lost the way - that was, I think, to him the best hors d’oeuvre for the belated dinner, still far away, the spice of the adventure. Any fool can find his way, a poet alone knows how to lose it. Our hostess had pressed on us a road-map when we were leaving. The writer of these lines - more shame to him - insisted on stopping to examine the map (like “ any fool ”) by the light of the headlamps. We had brought the wrong map! Harry Crosby laughed, like a mischievous child who has taken (as they say in France) the key of the fields and is playing truant. Presently a rabbit flashed grey across the road, right under our wheels. Despite demurs from ravenous materialists, Crosby stopped the car and we had to spend a quarter of an hungry hour or more examining the road, and the edges of the forest which it ribboned, to discover the wounded animal. The cruelty of leaving it to a lingering death was, to Crosby, inconceivable.

Journey’s end at last, and, after a hurried meal, we installed ourselves in a neighbouring café where, with the aid of “ little glasses ” of fine champagne we set about the inky rite of proof-correction. Harry Crosby in his aviator’s overalls (he had intended to take a flying lesson that morning near Paris but fog had, to his great disappointment, prevented it) created something of a sensation in the sleepy little town. Under the drastic invigilation of transition's Editor, Mr Jolas, a posse of proof-readers hunted down the inverted m, the bisected w, furtive misalliancesof the lower case and neologies twisted into solecisms. Crosby and I, to whom our Editor allotted the same pages, had a little contest as to who would ‘spot’ the greater number of misprints ; amour propre was saved, for we ended in a dead heat - a flattering result (for me), for Crosby had the airman’s eye for typographical misfires. (I believe that my detection, at a first reading, of the unique printer’s error in his book of poems, Transit of Venus, promptly ensured me a welcome place in his esteem ! ) Despite the superficial chaos of his writing he was an extremely careful artist ; he brought to his work the vigilance and attention to detail which won for him his pilot’s certificate after an exceptionally brief series of flights under ‘dual control’.

Another memory of Harry Crosby, my last. He has just returned from the aviation field and is snugly ensconced in an enormous bed with a bulky Shakespearian concordance propped on his knees. He has just looked up the references to “ bed ” in the works of his favourite poet, and is chuckling over them.

“ To bed, to bed : sleep kill those pretty eyes! ”
“ My bosom as a bed shall lodge thee. ”
“ Madam, undress you now and come to bed. ”
“ You were best to go to bed and dream again. ”
“ A banished woman from my Harry’s bed. ”
“ To bed, to bed! There’s knocking at the gate: come,come,come come! ”

Shakespeare, the Elizabethans, had an inevitable appeal for Crosby. Those were spacious times before the world had been straitwaistcoated with cables, iron roads and airlines. “ Life ran very high in those days. ” Sonnets, Sea-Ventures, the “art of surfeit   “ Hot herringpies, ” as we read in Ulysses, “ green mugs of sack honeysauces, sugar of roses, marchpane, gooseberried pigeons, ringocandies. Sir Walter Raleigh, when they arrested him had half a million francs on his back including a pair of fancy stays. ” That was a world of gentlemen-poet-adventurers, made for Harry Crosby and his company, followers of the westward sun. But now the earth has no mystery left, no undiscovered country to erplore no perilous seas of fairyland. We have, no doubt, the air - but, for all his airmanship , the pilot must make his goal of some known spot of charted earth. A bare three hundred years ago and Crosby would have been in his element,

A gallant knight
Singing a song,
In quest of Eldorado.

All that is ended. In a mere decade the rich, energetic man of today can enjoy, or anyhow sample, all that this little old world of ours has to offer of diverting and exotic. "And behold all is vanity and vexation of spirit." There remains, of course, vast unexplored territories of the mind, dream-cities to visit,, cloud-capped palaces to explore; but the  high-priests of madness and modernity have blocked the way with their dopes and  denials--No Thoroughfare: Sens (le bon sens) Interdit - till only one virgin adventure (if 'adventure' that can be called which is inevitable in life: an end) seems left, the final,futile plunge "down the Valley of the Shadow" to

       the undiscovered country from whose bourn
        no traveller returns

2 thoughts on “Harry Crosby remembered (1930)

  1. Anonymous

    I don't think that's Caresse Crosby in the photograph. It appears in 'Black Sun', a great biography of Harry, but the caption there describes her as an unknown girl at a party.


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