[…] and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.
– Ulysses, James Joyce
If you’re wearing a bra while reading this (and you know what? you don’t have to tell me – Strange Flowers’ Market Research department respects boundaries)…anyway, if you’re wearing a bra as opposed to, oh, a whalebone corset, you should thank Caresse Crosby.
Born with the somewhat less alluring name Mary Phelps Jacob in New York on this day in 1891, she belonged to one of those New England society families for whom “summer” is a verb. There was nothing – yet – to suggest anything but a life of country clubs and dutiful child-rearing and when Dick Peabody, scion of an even more prominent family, proposed marriage to her in 1915 she agreed. “I said yes,” she later recalled. “I love to say yes.”
They had two children, but service in France during World War I had turned Peabody into a disagreeable drunk whose greatest pleasure was chasing fire engines (for which purpose he had an alarm, wired to the local fire station, installed above the marital bed). Polly, as she was then generally known, at first took refuge in an unusual business venture. In 1914 she had patented a new type of brassiere, which she had invented the previous year as a liberating alternative to the corset. Developing this new garment helped keep her mind off an unsatisfying marriage.
But even though she was now big in smalls she suspected there was more to life, and it came along, in 1920, in the form of Boston bad boy Harry Crosby, some six years her junior. Like Peabody, Crosby had been traumatised by the war and seemed hell-bent on self-destruction, but he at least had a more scenic route in mind. He hated Boston; in a later poem he decried it as “City of Hypocrisy…City of Flatulence…City of Tea Rooms…” He longed to escape with Polly as his accomplice and their affair, which began soon after their first meeting, scandalised their set. Polly divorced her husband in February 1922 and when Harry proposed marriage the same year her reply was a one-word cable: “yes”.
Having given her his surname, Harry now gave Polly a first name as well, and so the almost comically drab-sounding Polly Peabody became the far more worldly Caresse Crosby. Like Gerald and Sara Murphy, fellow heirs to the Gilded Age, their New World was Europe and they moved to Paris where they became part of what Gertrude Stein dubbed the “Lost Generation”.
As Caresse would later say, “yes and never no was our answer to the fabulous ’20s and ’30s”. She sold her bra patent for a mere $1500, but both she and Harry could call on generous funds which allowed them a life of exotic travel, hard drugs and hard liquor, passionate affairs and wild parties (that’s Caresse in fancy dress for one such event in the main image, above). But rather than merely fritter away their wealth, they took inspiration from the extraordinary, unprecedented concentration of literary brilliance in Paris at the time. Like Nancy Cunard, the pair had the means and the vision to foster this brilliance and they formed what would eventually be known as the Black Sun Press. At first an outlet for their own poetry, they eventually published works by Joyce, D.H. Lawrence and Ezra Pound in meticulously produced volumes, illustrated by the likes of Alastair.
Caresse, however, was soon to learn the downside of sharing her life with someone as mercurial and self-destructive as Harry Crosby. In New York, on December 10, 1929, she was waiting for Harry with other family members at the Madison Avenue mansion of Harry’s uncle, J.P. Morgan. Harry never showed up. He was across town, finally fulfilling the suicide pact he had made with himself on returning from war; selfishly he took his married mistress, Josephine Bigelow, along with him.
After this terrible blow Caresse returned to Europe and continued with Black Sun. She married for a third and final time (Bert Young, unfortunately a thirsty lad like her previous two husbands). But there were other new enthusiasms to distract her; when avant-garde director Emlen Etting asked her to appear in one of his films she said, naturally, yes. “I always say yes.”
Art was to prove another of her preoccupations. After entertaining Surrealist Salvador Dalí and his wife Gala she accompanied them on their first trip to New York in November 1934, and two months later hosted the famous Surrealist Ball for their departure. Decorations for this event included “the carcass of a huge cow from whose innards a gramophone relayed the latest French songs”; Caresse herself came as the “White Horse of Dream Desire”.
Once those “fabulous 20s and 30s” were over, Caresse didn’t slow down. She published an international journal of arts and literature and offered asylum to the Dalís during the war at her estate in Bowling Green, Virginia. To Salvador’s most eccentric decorative whims Caresse said, of course, yes. “It isn’t really difficult to put a cow in a library,” she reasoned, “and it’s certainly easier to hang a piano from a tree than to find a fourth for bridge.”
Caresse was also a generous patron of lesser-known artists, and in the 1950s she established an artists’ colony in Italy, situated in a castle in the Lazio hill town Rocca Sinibalda. For the rest of her life she divided her time between there and her homes in Rome and the US.
Caresse Crosby died in Rome in 1970. Were the support of millions upon millions of breasts her only achievement it would be achievement enough, but she also played a role in the growth of Modernism, followed her passions where they led her and lived a life of initiative and daring, saying “yes” to whatever new experience presented itself.
From the appropriately named documentary Always Yes, Caresse, a glimpse of a remarkable life: