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.” This description only begins to capture the breadth of her preposterous life.

Aimée was born to high society. Her father, Edwin, was chief legal counsel for Central Pacific Railroad and one time chief justice of California’s Supreme Court, made wealthy on transcontinental railroad profits. Margaret, her mother, founded Sacramento’s famed Crocker Art Museum. Her cousin was the president of UC and the California Academy of Sciences; his wife had a notable art collection. It was a patrician upbringing, up to and including being sent to Dresden for finishing school.

This began her career as seductress and rouser of rabbles. In no particular order, she took up with Prince Alexander and an unnamed bullfighter, and those are just the affairs on the record. Of course this is hardly notable; when you are Aimee Crocker, it is what you do.

By the age of 19, she was back in the US and married to Porter Ashe, scion of the founders of Asheville, North Carolina. They had a child, and Ashe fell into a rich man’s death spiral: buying racehorses, gambling away money, selling the racehorses to pay debts, then fixing prizefights when the horses didn’t pay enough. All the while, he was gadding about town with an assortment of debutantes and Aimee took to public affairs with “young cavaliers.” Tabloids and gossip rags dutifully recorded and reported their excursions, companions, and public canoodling.

aimee_crockerThe marriage disintegrated, and if their nightlife was tabloid fodder itself, the breakup was ne plus ultra scandal. The tempest peaked during a fierce and farcical custody battle, during which Porter kidnapped their child. Then he was awarded custody. Somehow, being a notoriously incompetent gambler/businessman and multiple felon outranks a wealthy divorcee.

Rather than stew, Crocker traveled to—in the parlance of her times—the Far East. The first stop was Hawaii. In Honolulu, she conducted moonlit seances. A clearly charmed King Kalākaua of Hawaii, in deep smit, gifted her an entire island and named her a princess.  probably in deep smit, gifted her an island and named her a princess. Somewhere around this time she married Henry Gillig, a naval officer, noted opera tenor, and prestidigitator (I cannot find any other information on him, but that is how he’s described).

Her trip continued to all corners of Asia. If one is to believe second-hand accounts of her autobiography—a prized rare book until a recent reprint—her adventures took the form of a pulpy b-movie or Harry Stephen Keeler novel: she was attacked by Bornean headhunters and knife-throwing Chinese servants—separate instances—and spent time in a harem. Confoundingly, she made reference to a “sensual experience” with a boa constrictor.

By the time she returned to the US a decade later, she’d converted to Buddhism, sported multiple tattoos, and fascinated with snakes. A third marriage was in the works, to Jackson Gourad, author of the vaudeville hit “He’s My Soft Shell Crab on Toast” and an extensive list of minstrel songs so racist I refuse to even quote their titles. Crocker was about to earn her new nickname: Entertainer of Entertainers.

The nickname derived from her lavish, outlandish, utterly surreal parties. There was a treetop party in Paris with a Robinson Crusoe theme. At a party in New York’s Hippodrome, she dressed as a milkmaid and entered the party while riding an elephant. A costume party drew Louis XV’s mistress, and Crocker frequently wore snakes around her neck. Her pet boa constrictor was crucial to her most successful party: The Dance of All Nations. There, she performed “La Danse du Cobra” whilst entwined with the 12-foot beast.*

*Side note: As a reminder of the cultural zeitgeist, 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; a tragedy described in a recent book (see here for another article, assuming you have a high tolerance for “horrible dehumanizing things done for money”).

crocker_2
LOOK. AT. THAT. HAT.

Husband number three died in 1914, and Aimee—something less than bereft—continued in her libidinous path. Among her notable lovers was occultist Aleister Crowley, who was infatuated and asked to marry her multiple times. She refused. Her final two marriages—both 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.

Her autobiography is titled And I’d Do It Again.

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Some additional 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.

yeti_poster

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