‘Never no’ is the title of a new series of paintings I will be making, inspired by the extravagant life of Mary Phelps Jacob a.k.a. Polly a.k.a. Caresse Crosby. After doing research on her life and reading biographies I couldn’t stop thinking about this interesting woman. I’m happy she will keep me off the streets for the next couple of months!
Who was she?
Caresse Crosby (born Mary Phelps Jacob; April 20, 1892 – January 24, 1970) was the first recipient of a patent for the modern bra, an American patron of the arts, publisher, and the “literary godmother to the Lost Generation of expatriate writers in Paris.” She and her second husband, Harry Crosby, founded the Black Sun Press, which was instrumental in publishing some of the early works of many authors who would later become famous, among them Ernest Hemingway, Archibald MacLeish, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Kay Boyle, Charles Bukowski, Hart Crane, and Robert Duncan.
When Polly met Harry
Crosby’s parents, William Hearn Jacob and Mary (née Phelps) Jacob, were both descended from American colonial families—her father from the Van Rensselaer family, and her mother from William Phelps. In 1915, Mary (nicknamed Polly) married Richard R. Peabody, another blue-blooded Bostonian whose family had arrived in New Hampshire in 1635. They had two children, but while her husband was away at war, she met Harry Crosby, who was seven years her junior, at a picnic in 1920. They had sex within two weeks and their public affair scandalized proper Boston society. After Richard returned from his service in World War I, he returned to drinking; his favorite pastime was to watch buildings burn. Two years later, he granted Polly a divorce, and Harry and Polly were married. They immediately left for Europe, where they joined the Lost Generation of American expatriates. They embraced a bohemian and decadent lifestyle, living off Harry’s trust fund of US$12,000 a year (or about $181,000 in today’s dollars), had an open marriage with numerous ongoing affairs, a suicide pact, frequent drug use, wild parties, and long trips abroad. At her husband’s urging, Polly took the name Caresse in 1924, after briefly considering Clytoris. In 1925, they began publishing their own poetry as Éditions Narcisse in exquisitely printed, limited-edition volumes. In 1927, they re-christened the business as the Black Sun Press.
After his death
In 1929, one of her husband’s affairs culminated in his death as part of a murder-suicide or double suicide. His death was marked by scandal as the newspapers speculated wildly about whether Harry shot his lover or not. Caresse returned to Paris, where she continued to run the Black Sun Press. With the prospect of war looming, she left Europe in 1936 and married Selbert Young, an unemployed, alcoholic actor 16 years her junior. They lived on a Virginia plantation they rehabilitated outside Washington, D.C., until she divorced him. She moved to Washington, D.C. and began a long-term love affair with black actor-boxer Canada Lee, despite the threat of miscegenation laws. She founded Women Against War and continued, after World War II, to try to establish a Center for World Peace at Delphi, Greece. When rebuffed by Greek authorities, she purchased Castello di Rocca Sinibalda, a 15th-century castle north of Rome, which she used to support an artists’ colony. She died of pneumonia related to heart disease in Rome, in 1970.
Unfortunately her story has been largely forgotten.