The most notorious act of American poet Harry Crosby‘s brief life was its conclusion.
Psychologically scarred by the First World War, believing he had only been delivered safely to its end (bodily, at least) by some clerical error of the cosmos, Crosby was hell-bent on…well, just hell-bent really. That he chose to end his life, and that while still young, would have been no enormous shock to anyone familiar with his poetry or the reckless intensity of what we would now term his “lifestyle”. More shocking was that he took another soul with him. And even more shocking than that, it wasn’t his long-suffering wife Caresse, but a mistress – Josephine Bigelow.
On this day in 1929, Harry and Josephine were found dead in the lodgings of a friend, Stanley Mortimer, in New York’s Hotel des Artistes (the “artistes” part was right, inhabited as it was by creative types, though it was a complex of studios and apartments rather than a hotel). Harry had shot Josephine and then himself. In her 1987 novel Black Idol, Lisa St Aubin de Térain imagines the mistress’s thoughts as they lay dying, inhabiting the realm that Crosby so longed for and retracing the steps which led them there.
The definitive account of the prelude and coda of this deathly duet is to be found in Geoffrey Wolff’s 1976 biography Black Sun: The Brief Transit and Violent Eclipse of Harry Crosby:
Often Harry and the girl would arrive at Mortimer’s separately, but today they arrived together. Some people said they looked like brother and sister. Harry and Josie, Henry Grew Crosby and Miss Josephine Rotch, both of Back Bay, Boston. Now she was Mrs. Albert Bigelow, having been married six months before to a Harvard hockey star. Harry called her his Fire Princess. They both had beautiful skin, like parchment, skin that people noticed, and eyes sunk beneath strong brows. Her mouth was sensuous and her lips full, and like hers his lips would quiver when he was excited. Harry was thirty-one; Josephine, twenty-two.
Mortimer was discreet: “When he popped in Tuesday with Miss Rotch – Harry always called her Miss Rotch in my presence – I knew he was going to ask me to leave. The two of them went up to the balcony. I was at my easel downstairs, working at a painting. They leaned over the balcony rail and kidded me.” Harry had a bottle of Scotch. Josephine was wearing an orchid. “Crosby gave me a signal and I got on my street clothes and went out.”
They were discovered lying together in the bedroom upstairs off the balcony, beneath a silk coverlet and dressed except for their bare feet. Mortimer had reached the studio shortly after 9:30 and tried the door: it was bolted from the inside, and no one answered his knock. He called for the building’s superintendent, who broke in with a fire ax. Harry was gripping in his right hand, as though for dear life, a .25 caliber Belgian automatic. There was a bullet hole in his right temple, and a bullet hole in her left temple. His free arm was wrapped languidly around her neck, and their left hands were clasped. They faced each other. She was still wearing her orchid.