For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.
– Romans 10:13
Harry Crosby, American poet and publisher, didn’t die on this day in 1917. Big deal, right? Well it was to Crosby, who was then serving at Verdun as an ambulance driver and survived a shell attack which, by rights, should have blown him to kingdom come.
Earlier the same day he had chanced upon the above passage in the Bible, and for a while afterwards attributed his miraculous survival to You-Know-Who. His friends teased him about his subsequent “lapses into piety”, during which he promised to forego his wayward ways in thanks for his deliverance.
Impatient to test himself in the theatre of war, Crosby had sailed in high summer from New York to Bordeaux on the French ship Espagne. Also on board was Cole Porter; like Crosby, born to fortune. But unlike the songwriter’s somewhat embellished war record, the poet’s was all too real. Crosby may have stayed at the Crillon on reaching Paris, but his valour at the Front eventually earned him a Croix de Guerre medal.
“I shall never never forget,” he promised, and he never did, commemorating each November 22 for the rest of his life. But the “lapses” were soon forgotten, for the traumatic episode had planted something other than humble piety in Crosby. “Bodily he survived,” noted writer Malcolm Cowley, “and with a keener appetite for pleasure, but only to find that something was dead inside him.” For the rest of his life Crosby was possessed by a frantic nihilism, a restless morbidity and compulsive risk-taking, as if daring Providence to try its hand with him once more. He developed a new cosmology to replace the Christianity he had used up, a variation on Pagan sun worship.
Like a Jazz Age Emo, Crosby took to wearing black clothes and black nail polish, talking constantly of suicide like his Gallic double Jacques Rigaut (whom we encountered recently). He stares forlornly from photos of the time, his handsome face haunted by catastrophe, though whether it is the one in his past or the one in his future is unclear.
While Crosby moved to Paris and fell in with the avant-garde, his wealth meant that he could indulge in the traditional Bohemian vices, such as absinthe and opium (which Crosby called his “black idol”), to dangerous degrees. More productively though, he started a publishing house with his wife Caresse, first of all named after his whippet Narcisse, then Black Sun, which issued lovingly crafted editions by the likes of D.H. Lawrence, Ezra Pound and James Joyce.
But whatever he did, Crosby always felt he was living on borrowed time. He was obsessed with the idea of determining the end from which he had already once — against all odds — been spared. “There is only one action I can believe in”, he wrote in 1929, “and that is the action that leads me to eternity.”
Of the various routes to this destination that Crosby mapped out, the favoured one was by means of a plane flying into the sun. In the end though, just over 12 years after his “first death-day” came the second and definitive event, when he and a mistress bowed out in a murder-suicide in New York on December 10, 1929 . The weapon was a revolver, engraved with an image of the sun.