Caresse Crosby made being Caresse Crosby look like more fun than just about anything that wasn’t being Caresse Crosby. By the time she checked out on this day in 1970 she had several lifetimes behind her, and of the numerous figures to disprove F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous maxim about second acts in American lives – specifically, absence of same – few did so as magnificently as she.
Yes, there was that spot of bother with the boring, alcoholic first husband. And the drug-addicted second husband who committed suicide (that would be Harry Crosby), and the third alcoholic husband. OK, so she had some man trouble, but she never let it get her down.
Following her unlikely invention of the modern bra, Caresse Crosby spent the 1920s and ’30s as a publisher, poet, patron and – for a moment – performer. Pioneering experimental filmmaker Emlen Etting asked Crosby to appear in two of his films in 1933. Ever game, she agreed. The first of their collaborations was Oramunde, loosely based on the figure of Mélisande (of Pelléas et Mélisande fame).
A few things come to mind watching this. Firstly, the interplay of elemental forces and dancing figures is uncannily similar to later work by Maya Deren (this is 1933 mind, putting it right at the vanguard of artistic film experimentation). On a less exalted plane, the “help I’m trapped in a valance” style of dancing brought to mind Mr G, while the monochrome figures (Caresse is the one in black at the end) recalled Anton Corbijn’s very silly video for Joy Division’s “Atmosphere”, voted “song which least needs a video”. By me.
The other filmic product of this fruitful year was the longer work Poem 8, with more al fresco dancing (in which the valance briefly claims another victim), some amazing period shots of Manhattan, and Caresse treating a lawn like her dressing room and parlour. I suspect the inside-out motif is as much to do with the difficulty and expense of lighting interiors as a desire to make the whole thing a bit more surreal. That lawn, incidentally, belonged to Caresse’s in-laws, i.e. Harry Crosby’s parents.
I came across more footage of Caresse recently. It’s a newsreel clip by British Pathé which shows her during what must have been…what, her fourth, fifth act? It came towards the end of her life when she leased and subsequently bought the castle of Rocca Sinibalda, north of Rome. With idealistic fervour she saw it as a centre for creative cross-pollination which would enlighten the fractious peoples of the world. The clip shows Caresse being grandly carried about in a sedan chair (this is possibly the sedan chair designed for her by Buckminster Fuller). Set down, she expounds in Italian on her vision for the castle, which she wanted to become the “world capital of peace”, commissioning her artistic and literary friends to help spread her “call for serenity and love for all peoples”. A villager praises “Principessa Crosby”, repeating Caresse’s hope that it become the capital of peace, while his eyes are adding “…as long as I don’t have to haul the bitch around”.
I couldn’t embed the clip but that’s all for the good if it inspires you to check out some more slices of Pathé while you’re there. This phenomenal online resource contains some 90,000 archived clips drawn from newsreels spanning much of the 20th century. There’s the odd war and coronation, naturally, but also an incredible range of hidden treasures. I can’t be held responsible for any loss of productivity resulting from watching such delights, say, as ballet director Serge Lifar (remember him?) chewing Jean Cocteau’s ear off, Greenwich Village in its bohemian apogee, Josephine Baker singing “J’ai deux amours” in a boxing ring, mid-’50s hairstyles, some very early drag and – just because puppies are literally the best thing in the world – puppies. See? Your grandparents weren’t just sitting around waiting for YouTube to be invented.
While over there, take time to explore the village of Portmeirion, known of course from cult TV series The Prisoner. Its creator Clough Williams-Ellis turns up (and that finally clears up how you pronounce “Clough”…it rhymes with “muff”). As someone who took some architectural cast-offs and built a whole Italianate village around them (in Wales, no less), he was definitely a man after Caresse’s heart.