The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 9 October 2000

The Passionate Years

by Caresse Crosby

Right about the same time Ernest Hemingway was finishing off his A Movable Feast, Caresse Crosby was penning her own memoir of a remarkable period during which literary brilliance concentrated in Paris in the 1920s. During that era, Crosby, with her husband Harry, ran the Black Sun Press, publisher of such avant garde authors as D. H. Lawrence, Hart Crane, and James Joyce (who published an early segment of Finnegan's Wake under Crosby's label). Crosby's view of that era, which is among many memoirs of the time, was a little different, as she ran in more European circles and was more peripheral to the expatriate American scene. The book, to me, took on three distinct sections, before, during and after her marriage to meteoric Harry. Before, she lived in the waning years of upstanding Victorian gentility among New York and Boston brahmins, relatives of such wealth as J. P. Morgan ("Uncle Jack"). She had a suffocating marriage to destructive and alcoholic Dick Peabody, and her divorce scandalized the community. Her immediate marriage to Peabody's cousin Harry, was even more scandalous. Harry took her to Europe, where Caresse blossomed like a flower in the loose atmosphere of the time. They circulated among the rich and the literary. They threw extravagant parties. They wagered on the horses. They published. Caresse seems to have had a pattern of suffering men who neglected her needs, and especially those of her children. Peabody was an absent father. Harry resented the children. He was a romantic figure, and his sudden suicide left Caresse desolate, but precious little about what was going on with him is revealed in this book. After Harry, Caresse lived more sedately, wandering back and forth across the Atlantic and finally settling in Virginia, where she still hosted such personalities as Salvador Dalí. There are many amusing and intense anecdotes (not the least of which was F. Scott Fitzgerald's drunken attempt at seduction). But there is something empty about all the parties and all the literary activities. Caresse was not a poet of intense need, but stopped writing after Harry's death. She craved action and direction, going so far as to invent the brassiere or to open Henry Miller's first one-man art show after spending time with him in Big Sur. At the time of this writing, she seemed determinedly happy, and had more than twenty years ahead of her. The memories were an interesting view into this period and the people who inhabited it, yet some kind of subtle connection was missing. Certainly, though, the book is a worthy addition to the record of the time and place.

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