La Principessa

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.

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15 comments

  1. Caresse is a lovely name

  2. Caresse was briefly mentioned in the Peggy Guggenheim bio I wrote about last week; I also did a Buckminster Fuller post a few days earlier. Such a small garden in which our flowers tend to grow!

    Also, I thoroughly agree with you about “Atmosphere”, a masterpiece that didn’t need a new frame.

    • A small garden indeed, and there’s a lot of cross-fertilisation going on! Oh by the way, for some reason I could’t comment on your blog(s) but I think I’ve worked it out now.

      • I was just watching the Paris chapter of “Sin Cities”, and who should pop up but Harry and Caresse Crosby! They had a pet whippet named Clitoris.

      • Oh, I must watch it! Harry will always have a place in my heart, if nothing else for the cable he sent home from Paris: “PLEASE SELL $10,000 WORTH OF STOCK. WE HAVE DECIDED TO LIVE A MAD AND EXTRAVAGANT LIFE”

      • Yes! They mention that in the film. DEFINITELY worth your while. Thanks again for turning me on to it!

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  6. Life at Rocca was amazing, the Spoleto festival with Ezra reading his poetry to us in the giardino, or as we so fondly called it, the elephant’s trunk. Bucky Fuller telling us about his great stratagem for world peace, laying out the dyxmaxion map on one of the big tables, too much science for my teenage brain, except for the energy and passion. Recollections being brought alive from a reality I will never forget: Martini dry on la coda before dinner, evening gowns de rigueur, often in the company of poets and artists. Not only for the illustrious and famous were admitted to her entourage, she founded a youth club and she often invited the entire club to dinner in one of the many trattorias. Caresse was so young of spirit and heart, she never seemed old to us.
    Despite her optimism and zest for life, she suffered from a heart condition and the climb up to the castle grounds long and steep, hence the sedan chair, that is so unkindly, and I would like to add, inaccurately mentioned in the quote above. The resident artist Raimondo built her a lift to convey her upstairs once inside the castle. It could only take her weight, so we would have to carry her bags and even her coat for her and rush upstairs to wait for her arrival which would be heralded with clanking and groaning of the precarious contraption. Oh my giddy god, I must be one of the oldest survivors of all these memories; a relic of bygone days! The wonder of a long life is that you collect a plethora of stories; the irony is that you have nobody left to share them with. Well, I thank all those who have brought her back to the light, so that I may again bathe in that inimitable sunshine of memories that are hard, even for me, to believe.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your memories! Yes that was a little unkind about the sedan chair. I was editorialising on what seemed a very archaic practice of carrying the chatelaine around, but I appreciate, and defer to, your first-hand knowledge.

  7. Mark

    The building Caresse emerges from at the beginning of Poem 8, Part II, before she drops the white hand onto the lawn…is this by chance The Apple Trees, the summer residence of the Crosby family in Manchester-by-the-Sea?

  8. Mark

    Thank you for your response, James. I live in a town next to Manchester-by-the-Sea in Massachusetts and am interested in Harry and Caresse Crosby. She tried her luck in early Hollywood, buy wasn’t successful. Even so, she had a great face for film and had a better screen presence than many who did make it. Thanks for posting the Poems – they are quite haunting. I wonder if there exists any films of Harry Crosby…

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