Harry Crosby was born in 1898 to one of the wealthiest banking families in New England. His parents were Boston Brahmins, sharing ancestral connections to historic American figures such as J. Pierpont Morgan Jr. and Alexander Hamilton. From his early teenage years, Crosby expressed yearnings to escape the rigidity of Boston’s upper-class culture; when World War I arrived, he used the opportunity to volunteer with the American Ambulance Service in France, the same corp that housed Ernest Hemingway and Malcolm Cowley, two central voices of America’s “Lost Generation.”
Crosby returned from the war physically unscathed but mentally restless. He avoided classes at Harvard, paying a tutor to supply him with exam answers, and gained a reputation for philandering with younger women. His first scandal occurred when he courted Caresse “Polly” Peabody, six years his senior, who was married to another wealthy Boston descendent with whom she had two children. Crosby and Peabody eloped to Paris and indulged their hedonistic urges, carrying on with multiple affairs, imbibing oceans of champaign, and hosting wild parties with famous guests such as D.H. Lawrence and Salvador Dali. But in addition to their revelry, Crosby and Peabody also studied literature, art, and photography, eventually launching what became one of the preeminent presses from the 1920s Paris literary scene. Black Sun Press, inspired by Crosby’s solar obsession, published the early works of Modernist giants such as James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and Kay Boyle.
Eventually, Crosby’s compulsive lifestyle consumed him. “One should follow every instinct no matter where it leads,” he wrote in a foreboding letter to his mother. Weeks later, while visiting the US for a Harvard-Yale football game, he began a particularly sordid affair with 20-year-old Josephine Noyes Rotch, another daughter of Boston’s wealthy class, who he nicknamed “The Fire Princess.” On the evening of December 10, 1929, the couple was found dead, the result of a murder-suicide pact, sparking a scandal amongst Boston’s Back Bay society and symbolizing the deranged nature of the post-war cultural psyche. Crosby’s biographer, Geoffrey Wolff, said that there were warning signs in his poetry, concluding that Crosby “killed himself on behalf of the idea of killing himself.”