Mary Phelps “Polly” Jacob—inventor, publisher, raconteuse—was born on April 20, 1891, and lived an unprecedented life.
Jacob was a Boston blueblood from a long, notable lineage: known ancestors included a knight of the crusades, the founder of Dorchester, the first governor of Plymouth colony, Robert Fulton (steamboat inventor), and her father, who invented the question mark. She was, as to be expected, raised in privilege: “to ride to hounds, sail boats, and lead cotillions…in a world where only good smells existed. …At twelve I was called and got ready for the customary debutante luncheon.” Why does that sound familiar?
We pick up Polly’s story in 1910. The 19-year-old heiress, as part of her coming out, was participating in an unending series of debutante balls and galas. This necessitated her wearing, almost constantly, a “boxlike armor of whalebone and pink cordage” that was immensely uncomfortable, caused bones and metal pieces to jut out from under her dress, and, as some ace wikipedia neologist put it, “flattened and jammed her large breasts together into a single monobosom.”
Rather than simply suffering through the indignity of a uniboob, Jacob asked her assistant for a set of handkerchiefs and some thread, from which she fashioned a strapless bra, bisecting her monobosom into more appealing cleavage. The bra was patented and she tried to sell it, but despite her aristocratic friends all being excited about the new support system, sales weren’t booming. After a few years, she sold the patent to the Warner Brothers Corset Company. Sales of the undergarment took off during and after the war (possibly because metal was rationed, making corsets too expensive), and the company eventually made a mint. It is testament to the immense oddity of her life that the whole “invented the common bra” thing is almost a footnote in her biography.
In 1916, she married Richard Peabody, one of a select few who could be said to outrank her in high society. The pair had two children, but Peabody was an odd, aloof man and reluctant father who ran off to fight Pancho Villa in the Mexican Revolution, and then joined the military and was sent to Europe during WWI. When finally he returned to the states (after spending some extra time after the war to “enjoy the adulations of the French,” he fell deeply into alcoholism and depression, and spent years bouncing in and out of sanitariums.
In the summer of 1920, Peabody was in a sanitarium again, and Jacob attended a July 4th party. There, she met Harry Crosby, yet another scion of Boston nobility—he was a nephew of JP Morgan. The 22-year-old, unwed, WWI veteran Crosby fell deeply in smit with Jacob. Defying all laws of propriety and good taste, the duo undertook an affair that deeply scandalized Boston’s beau monde. Polly Jacob was married, had children, and was six years Crosby’s senior, yet they cavorted about town, shamelessly flouting decorum, the hemoglobin of the blueblood coursing through the veins of Boston’s brahmins.
Their dalliances, but not their feelings, ebbed when Peabody returned from the clinic. He had by this point—inexplicably, so far as I can tell—become enamored of firefighting, and persuaded the fire chief to wire an alarm bell directly to his bedroom. When it went off, Peabody donned firefighting gear and tarried off to watch the firefighters work. Polly gave up on him altogether in early 1921, and the two agreed to separate, though her mother demanded she not see Crosby for six months, lest her reputation be utterly rent.
Interlude: Peabody, by the by, would eventually recover. Though he lost his inheritance during the war, he eventually began a counseling service for alcoholics, and in 1933 published a manifesto of his treatment practices, The Common Sense of Drinking. The book was a foundational influence of AA, whose founder, weirdly, had been in Peabody’s platoon during the war. He died in 1936, at age 44. It’s worth noting that both Peabody and Harry Crosby (as we shall see) came back from the war with impulse control problems; it’s entirely possible both were suffering from PTSD.
The Paris Years
In September 1922, Polly Jacob and Harry Crosby were married and living in France. There they enjoyed a “theatrically mad” existence of almost unimaginable and unrivalled hedonism. Polly, corset eschewer, was of course not inclined to hew to convention. Crosby, a pansexual sybarite, had miraculously survived an artillery attack unscathed during the war, and vowed afterwards to live life without regrets. In short: they went all the way in on instant gratification. What follows is a brief list of their, uh, accomplishments:
• Routinely visited a high-class opium den in Paris.
• Polly donned a swimsuit and rowed Harry to work in a rowboat, at least until Harry altogether quit his job at a bank.
• Traveled throughout Africa and the Middle East, both engaging in no end to affairs, separately and together.
• Entered a suicide pact, planning to jump out of a plane together on October 31, 1942.
• Rented out a massive old mill, and left one wall as a guestbook, signed/painted on by luminaries such as DH Lawrence, Douglas Fairbanks, and Eva Braun. Polly was later devastated to learn that Nazi occupying soldiers had whitewashed the wall.
• Threw ragers with guests like Salvador Dali, and games like drunken donkey polo.
• Hosted dinner parties from their giant bed (I don’t have an explanation for how this worked in practice); guests then retired to their giant bathtub (so a pool? This is very confusing). They fired a solid brass cannon to welcome particularly noteworthy guests:
Mobs for luncheon—poets and painters and pederasts and divorcées and Christ knows who and there was a great signing of names on the wall at the foot of the stairs and a firing off of the cannon and bottle after bottle of red wine and Kay Boyle made fun of Hart Crane and he was angry and flung The American Caravaninto the fire because it contained a story of Kay Boyle’s (he forgot it had a poem of his in it) and there was a tempest of drinking and polo harra burra on the donkeys. and an uproar and a confusion so that it was difficult to do my work.
• Befriended students at the Beaux Arts academy, and were invited to the notoriously libertine Four Arts Ball, which basically looked like Caligula fanfic. The theme was “Inca” and Harry showed up in red body paint wearing a loincloth and a necklace of dead pigeons (not historically accurate). Polly wore a see-through dress with no undergarments, a turquoise wig, and rode a baby elephant (not geographically accurate). Oh, also Harry brought a bag of live snakes; later he watched “a plump woman with bare breasts absorbed in the passion of giving milk to one of the snakes.”
• Harry was obsessed with the sun, and often added a small black sun to his signature, with an arrow pointing up from the Y in his last name. He called the flourish “a phallic thrust received by a welcoming erogenous zone.” He also painted his finger and toenails.
• Harry routinely sent telegrams to his father requesting money, culminating with the following, dashed off while eighteen sheets to the wind on sherry cobblers: “PLEASE SELL $10,000 WORTH OF STOCK. WE HAVE DECIDED TO LIVE A MAD AND EXTRAVAGANT LIFE.”
• The named their first dog Narcisse Noir; they named their second Clytoris.
• Clytoris was actually the first choice when Polly planned to change her name. They settled on Caresse instead. So from here on, she is Caresse Crosby.
Besides their exploits in the field of debauchery, the Crosbys also were noted for their work in publishing. The Black Sun Press (again, Harry’s obsession with the sun) was formed in 1928. Initially they had started by publishing their own poetry, in small prints, with lavish and ornate typography, binding, and artwork. Yes, that’s right: they self-published their own love poems to each other. But they were so absurdly well-connected and well-funded, embedded amongst the literati and glitterati, that they were then able to do the same for many authors who were either famous or would become famous, such as DH Lawrence, Joyce, Hemingway, Wilde, and Hart Crane. And several volumes of Harry’s poetry. All the books were published in small prints with the same fastidious attention to detail and extravagant artwork, binding, and typography. They are highly prized collector’s items even today.
Lurid details aside, this wasn’t all fun and games. Their kids were basically abandoned at boarding schools, for one thing. And Harry was a shitheel: he disappeared for days at a time in assorted drug stupors, gambled away his inheritance on horse races, womanized so fervently as to disconcert even his libertine wife, and slept with people who were far too young for him.
In 1928, he met Josephine Noyes Rotch, a 20-year-old expatriate Bostonian, engaged to be married and known throughout Boston as a “bad egg.” Crosby and Rotch had a torrid affair, up to and through her marriage. In late 1929, the Crosbys visited the states, where Harry and Josephine took up once again; she sent him a poem, the last line of which read: “Death is our marriage.” On December 10, 1929, the pair went to a hotel room, and were found dead the next morning, victims in an apparent suicide pact. Scandal ensued, tabloid magazines eager to exploit the tragedy. Looking back, people have painted Crosby’s bombastic exploits as emblematic of the kind of superficial and amoral glitz of the jazz age; his death prior to achieving literary success as emblematic of the lost generation.
Caresse, at first, kept right on publishing. At one point, Hemingway offered her a choice of manuscripts: The Torrents of Spring or The Sun Also Rises. She picked the former, unfortunately for the economic concern of her publishing house. In the mid-1930s she had a scandalous relationship with the black actor Canada Lee.
Better still is the erotica. In 1933, Crosby met Henry Miller, who was at that time a struggling writer and earning money on the side by writing erotica. There was, evidently, a depraved Oklahoma oil baron who paid $1 a page for original pornographic stories. Crosby was recruited to join Anais Nin’s and Henry Miller’s “smut club,” which Nin said supplied “the old man with such an abundance of perverse felicities, that now he begged for more.” Crosby wrote some 400-odd pages of erotica for the mysterious oil kingpin.
Later, she supposedly had an affair with Buckminster Fuller, created the organization Women Against War, was banned from Greece for her politics, and funded an Italian artist’s colony in an abandoned castle. She died in 1970, described as a “literary godmother” and “a pollen carrier who mixed, stirred, brewed, and concocted friendships.”