the peculiar life of aimee crocker

Aimée Crocker, born 1864, was (according to wikipedia) an “heiress, princess, Bohemian, world traveler, mystic, and author” known for “her collections of husbands and lovers, adopted children, Buddhas, pearls, tattoos, and snakes.” I think just the children were adopted, but the modifier is dangling so I can’t be certain. Either way, the description merely scratches the surface of her preposterous life story.

Start with her family: her father was Edwin Crocker, chief legal counsel for Central Pacific Railroad, who’d gotten fat on sweet transcontinental railroad/slave labor profits and briefly served as chief justice of California’s Supreme Court. Her mother was Margaret Crocker, who founded Sacramento’s famed Crocker Art Museum. Her cousin was William Henry Crocker, UC and California Academy of Sciences president and banker; his wife Ethel had an auspicious art collection of her own. What I’m saying is: high society.

A few years after her father’s death in 1875, Aimee was sent to Dresden for “finishing school” (again, high society). She wasn’t there long before undertaking her career as seductress and rouser of rabbles. She took up with—in no particular order—Prince Alexander and an unnamed bullfighter. Of course, when you are Aimee Crocker, this is hardly noteworthy, it is just what you do.

By the age of 19 she was back in the states and married (for the first time) to Porter Ashe, scion of the founders of Asheville, North Carolina. After the birth of their first child, Ashe fell into a rich man’s death spiral: buying racehorses, losing at gambling, selling the racehorses to pay gambling debts, and then getting into the prizefighting and match fixing game. Meanwhile, he was gadding about town with a bevy of debutantes while Aimee did the same with an assortment of “young cavaliers,” with all of their excursions and companions and canoodling dutifully recorded by tabloids and gossip rags.

aimee_crockerThe marriage didn’t last, and if their nightlife was tabloid fodder on its own, their breakup was even hotter news. The tempest hit fever pitch during a fierce and/or farcical custody battle and courtroom drama during which Porter kidnapped their child. That was before he was awarded custody of the kid, since evidently being a notoriously incompetent gambler/businessman and multiple felon outranks the reputation of a wealthy divorcee.

Not one to stew, Aimee left to travel to—in the parlance of her times—the Far East. Her first stop was Hawaii, where a clearly charmed King Kalākaua of Hawaii, probably in deep smit, gifted her an island and named her a princess. It’s not clear if this was before or after the moonlit seances she conducted in Honolulu. Somewhere around this time she married her second husband, Henry Gillig, a naval officer, noted opera tenor, and, sources say, a prestidigitator (I cannot find any other information on him, but that is how he’s described).

The trip continued into all corners of Asia, and if you believe second-hand accounts of her autobiography (a highly-prized rare book until a recent reprint), her travels were like a bad MST3K b-movie or a setpiece in a Harry Stephen Keeler novel. She was attacked by Bornean headhunters and knife-throwing Chinese servants (separate instances), spent time in a harem, and had a “sensual experience” with a boa constrictor.

When she got back to the US a decade later, she’d converted to Buddhism, sported multiple tattoos, and was about to earn the nickname “Entertainer of Entertainers.” This she would do with her third husband, whom she’d met at a Buddhist colony she founded. The man: Jackson Gourad, author of famed vaudeville hit “He’s My Soft Shell Crab on Toast” and an unending list of minstrel songs so racist I’m not going to even quote their titles.

That nickname came from her lavish—some, like me, would call them ludicrous—parties. She held a treetop party in Paris with a Robinson Crusoe theme. At a party in New York’s Hippodrome, she rode in on an elephant while dressed as a milkmaid. A costume party drew Louis XV’s mistress, and she frequently wore snakes around her neck (often her pet constrictor; did you notice the snake in that picture above?). The snake played a prominent role in her smash success “The Dance of All Nations” party, in which she performed La Danse de Cobra whilst entwined with the 12-foot beast. As a reminder of the times, one of the other dances was La Danse des Igorrotes. The Igorrotes were a Filipino tribe, some 50 of whom had been rounded up and shipped to America for “exhibition” following the Philippines-American war; that tragedy is told in a recent book (see here for another article, assuming you have a high tolerance for “horrible dehumanizing things done for money”).

look at that hat. look at it!

In 1914, Jackson died of tonsillitis. Aimee, far from bereft, continued to take on a series of notable lovers, including Aleister Crowley, who was obsessed with her and asked her to marry him several times. Her final two marriages—both, of course, scandalous—were to Russian princes decades younger than her. She died in 1941, aged 78, by that time holding the name Princess Aimée Isabella Crocker Ashe Gillig Gouraud Miskinoff Galitzine (no joke).

In short: any answer to the old saw about three people you want to invite to a dinner party that doesn’t include the princess Crocker is invalid. Her autobiography, by the way, is titled And I’d Do It Again.

Additional Aimee Crocker notes:

• One of Crocker’s friends/party co-hosts was Wilson Mizner, a playwright, one-time owner of the famed Brown Derby restaurant, and absolute shitheel. The son of a diplomat, Mizner went north with his brother for the Klondike gold rush. He didn’t want to waste time hunting for gold, though, so he just ran cons, grifts, and dodges on the miners; he considered Soapy Smith—probably the most notorious con man of the 19th century—his mentor. He later married a widowed socialite, made copies of some of her priceless works of art, and sold the copies as originals. When they divorced he managed boxers and fixed fights, got busted for running an illicit casino, then moved to Florida with his brother during a land boom and swindled untold fortunes from the property-hungry. And yet somehow he moved to Hollywood and got backing from Jack Warner himself to run the Brown Derby and write early screenplays (including for one of my favorite titles of all time, 20,000 Years in Sing Sing). The best description comes from a bio:

…he had been a miner, confidence man, ballad singer, medical lecturer, man of letters, general utility man in a segregated district, cardsharp, hotel man, songwriter, dealer in imitation masterpieces of art, prizefighters, prizefight manager, Florida promoter, and roulette-wheel fixer. He was an idol of low society and a pet of high.

He did, however, gift to the world the saying “Be nice to people on the way up because you’ll meet the same people on the way down.”

• Aimee’s grandson Gerald Russell was a noted cryptozoologist. His adventures in this field span a broad range. On one end was his participation in Ruth Harkness’s expedition to Tibet. Harkness, not a zoologist but rather a socialite, brought back the first living giant panda to America. On the other end is his trip to the Assumbo Mountains, where he claimed to have seen the giant bat-beast Olitiau; his trip to Cameroon where he encountered the forest-dwelling African version of Nessie, the Mokèlé-mbèmbé, or the Slick-Johnson Nepal expedition, where he claimed to have seen the Yeti.



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