Polly Peabody was nobody’s fool. She was raised with the snobbery, self-regard and genteel neuroses of her privileged Bostonian background, but even before she met poet Harry Crosby and went way off-script to become glamorous Paris-based publisher Caresse Crosby, she had proven herself to be a spirited, entrepreneurial force. Born in the Gilded Age as Mary Phelps Jacob, generally known as Polly, prior to World War One she made productive use of the extensive downtime that came with the debutante’s existence by inventing the first modern bra (and she was definitely not the “inventor of the modern shoe” as Wikipedia currently avers).
During World War One she married Richard Peabody (“I said yes. I love to say yes”); the pair had two children, but active service in France had rendered Dick a cantankerous drunk whose greatest passion was chasing fire engines; he had an alarm, wired to the local fire station, installed above the marital bed for this purpose. While Harry Crosby came back from his own traumatic tour of duty with a similarly powerful thirst (and the Croix de Guerre), the experience also turned him into a reckless nihilist, “electric with rebellion” in Polly’s description. Their first encounter was in 1920, when they joined a group outing to a fun fair; within hours of meeting Harry pledged his heart to Polly in the Tunnel of Love, on the 4th of July no less (that’s a whole Springsteen album right there).
The Cuckold Peabody reacted with remarkable alacrity to the rapidly developing affair between his wife and a 22-year-old war hero. In fact Dick emerges from this tangled narrative as a surprisingly sympathetic character. He eventually sought treatment for his alcoholism while simultaneously advancing public understanding with his influential theory that it was a life-long condition that could be managed but not eliminated.
But again – Polly Peabody was nobody’s fool. This is worth emphasising, because even though her younger lover now entreated her incessantly to divorce her husband, she took her time. She was entranced by Harry’s dark magnetism, yet she was not at all a helpless maiden requiring his protection, such as it was. He saw her as a woman in need of rescue, when in fact she was a woman in need of adventure.
For all her strength of will and vision of wider horizons, Polly still sought the blessing of their Boston set, while Harry couldn’t bear the “sexless, hypocritical busy-bodies”. Courting Polly in the face of disapproving families and the censorious society in which they moved was an experience he described as the “darkest period” of his life. Coming from someone who had literally scooped up scattered limbs from the mud at the Battle of Verdun, that’s quite something.
Harry’s assault on Polly’s defences took on the quality of trench warfare. Their relationship was often conducted long-distance, yet he badgered her relentlessly, both beseeching and issuing high-handed commands. He told her how to wear her hair, warned her not to drink, mawkishly confessed his failings and made constant promises of improvement, belittled her writing ambitions, tried to forbid her (ultimately failed) attempt to break into the early movies, lavished gifts on her children even though he cared little for them, repeatedly threatened to kill himself if she did not commit herself to him and all along held out the prospect of a suicide pact. As a suitor, Harry Crosby came with so many red flags he was a one-man May Day parade.
Crosby was in Paris in the summer of 1922 when he cabled one last proposal and set off for New York; so confident was he of Polly’s acquiescence that he had already booked the bridal suite on the return passage. And she, indeed, responded with one word: YES (she loved to say yes).
Perhaps she imagined the event to be safely in the not excessively immediate future, but as soon as Harry disembarked in New York on 9 September 1922 he took her to the Municipal Building, five minutes before closing, and they were wed. They then went to the Church of the Heavenly Rest to be blessed – presumably at Harry’s insistence. Along with an eccentric form of sun worship, there was a surprising amount of Christianity in Crosby’s anarchic, morbid, nihilistic worldview; and he fashioned their names into crosses. She, drawing on greater experience in the field, wasn’t too fussed about marriage whatever the venue.
And if Polly ever expected fidelity of Harry, she was soon disabused of the illusion. Even on the voyage over he flirted with a woman with “gold hair and soft eyes”, and by the time of his suicide pact with a mistress seven years later, there would be numerous others. But for a moment, the union brought peace to the restless soul of Harry Crosby, as he recorded in his diary one hundred years ago today:
The battle is over, the race is run. Thank the Sun, Thank the Sun the race is won.