Geoffrey Wolff discusses his book about Harry Crosby
BROADCAST: Nov. 17, 1976 | DURATION: 00:52:21
Terkel interview author Geoffrey Wolff about his latest book. Entitled "Black Sun," it is a biography of Harry Crosby.
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Studs Terkel You know, there are thousands of books published each year, but there are few that really touch you and explode. One is an excellent biography written by Geoffrey Wolff, who by the way is a triple threat man. He's an excellent novelist himself and a very perceptive literary critic, too, for "New Times" magazine, but in addition has written what some would call a magnificent, one of the best biographies in years, of Harry Crosby and of him in a moment. It's called "Black Sun", with the title itself has implications being the press put out, the publishing house of this man Harry Crosby. The subtitle, "The Brief Transit and Violent Eclipse of Harry Crosby", and the publishers are Random House. But just, perhaps just a brief sentence would be in order. It's a study of a certain kind of man who was not quite a great artist. He hung around with the great ones, friends of his, and some of whom he subsidized in Paris in the '20s, names that are now part of literature, endurable literature, endurable. And he also was a certain kind of man, and it involves a certain kind of madness. And it's an overwhelming biography, a study of a man and a certain Illness, perhaps, and a certain vision, perhaps even more so. "Black Sun". So my guest Geoffrey Wolff in a moment after this message.
Geoffrey Wolff "This time Harry had gone too far. It was one thing to fashion one's life as one pleased and keep one's own gait. It was quite another to trifle and play the fool with the most powerful man in New York, to keep J. Pierpont Morgan, Jr. waiting at tea time. Now, going on five-thirty, Harry Crosby was 30 minutes late at the Madison Avenue townhouse of his uncle, obliging that great man to make small talk with his sister-in-law, Harry's mother, and to try to put Harry's wife at her ease, meantime stealing glances at the library clock. It was December 10th, 1929, a busy day and a busy social season and an exacting time for Morgan, who was mobilizing a banking pool to raise a quarter of a billion dollars to support stock prices after the Great Crash, and matters of greater moment had climbed to his attention than the capricious rhythms of an outlaw nephew."
Studs Terkel And, thus, a seemingly casual beginning of the end of an explosive life, Harry Crosby. And the reason his uncle, J. P. Morgan, and his wife, Caresse, who is part of the story, and his mother are waiting for him and he's not shown is because he and his young mistress of society committed suicide, a pact. So, who? How did this all begin? This is like a great mystery, isn't it, in a way?
Geoffrey Wolff It began for Harry, I think it was in the roots of a conventional Boston childhood where the son of Puritans, descendants of Puritans, they were on very easy, easy terms with death. They almost--they used funerals as social occasions, his mother showed him his gravesite when he was a kid. He began to think about his own death. He believed in an afterlife from the time he was a teenager, and whenever any, anything deeply disappointed him or anything tested him, one of his first impulses from the time he was very young was to think in terms of ending his life on this earth and going on to another one.
Studs Terkel There's something, perhaps, we can come to, too, later, something about youth and age and being man of the moment, whether it be an intense love and thus his many mistresses and amorous successes, plus his--it, it being, if a vision can't be fulfilled, end it. And a new vision. But before that, let's go, who is Harry Crosby? For a long time we who follow literature in a cursory way, hear of Harry Crosby, this rich guy, friend of those marvelous writers, the American expatriates in Paris in the '20s.
Geoffrey Wolff Well, he's always been, for years he's been a footnote in the biographies of other people, in biographies of Hart Crane and of Hemingway. He was never taken in any way seriously as a literary figure, and in fairness his poems, they don't ever aspire much past the second-rate. They are intense, incredibly intense, incredibly sincerely felt, but he was not a great poet. He was a publisher of some vision, he published MacLeish and Joyce and Crane. He commissioned "The Bridge".
Geoffrey Wolff Of Hart Crane, and he had to really pull that poem out of Crane, he'd given up on it. He locked Crane up in a, in his farm outside Paris, in Crosby's farm outside Paris and left him with a case of Cutty Sark and no shoes.
Studs Terkel But you said Crosby was always this footnote when we read of the "Lost Generation" or the writers, who, some of whose works are now classics, but always the footnote, and you, Geoffrey Wolff, then became fascinated by this guy, whose name is cropping in and out all the time.
Geoffrey Wolff Well, I read, one thing at length about him had been written by Malcolm Cowley, a beautifully written couple of chapters in "Exiles Return" that I read in the late '50s, and the story of his suicide seemed to me so bizarre since he was the only American I'd ever heard of who killed himself without any sense of depression, he wasn't sick, he wasn't poor, he wasn't disappointed, his life by his own lights had been a success up to that point, and he killed himself because he believed you should leave the table before you were full. And he killed himself because he believed you should choose your own moment, and I'd never heard a story, this
Geoffrey Wolff Absolutely. Well, his mother's family was the Grew family. His cousin was an ambassador, and they were all great personages. In Boston his father was descended from the Van Rentsellars and so forth. And they were mighty people in Boston. Terry (sic) went to St. Mark's as his father had, and to Harvard and so forth. And after his death, there was silence commanded in parts of the family. No one ever discussed him again and, indeed, the story of his suicide and his murder of another Boston lady who was a recent bride of another great Boston man was completely shut out of all papers except one. As far as they were concerned, it never happened, and the one paper that did report it as having happened just mentioned it as an event that took place in New York. No, no--
Studs Terkel Yeah, but what attracted you about Crosby aside from his references by Malcolm Cowley and others and other writers of the time, is that it wasn't out of despair that he'd suicide, but this very rich and remarkably handsome and somewhat gifted publisher, you know--
Geoffrey Wolff Absolutely.
Geoffrey Wolff That's what attracted me, the energy in that, the skewed vision, I--obviously it's a very perverse vision, but it was a thing that required enormous attention and energy from him, and of course, courage. And I found it an awesome act, it was--
Studs Terkel But isn't there a reason, and you touch on this throughout, as does Malcolm Cowley, and this is one of the keys, something involving art and life, a perverted view of art and life. He always--he admired, say, Joyce and the great ones. He's, "These works will endure." And in a sense, they're immortal. Now, he knew damn well that he didn't have that talent. So he would associate--he loved Baudelaire, and Wilde, "Dorian Gray", that if something, that in these works is death. See, he confused the poet with the poetry. And if it'd been his death, he, that would be a work of art.
Geoffrey Wolff There's a wonderful story that Archibald MacLeish, who was his friend, told me. He translated--one of the things I was fascinated by is that Crosby enacted every vision that he found and that attracted him from poetry, and MacLeish told me a story about Crosby's obsession with Rimbaud, and Rimbaud of course wrote a lot of drug--he wrote much drug poetry, but it turns out didn't use drugs very much. He smoked hashish a few times, it made him sick and he stopped, but that didn't stop his poetry about it, a poetry of vision. Crosby could never understand that. He wanted to write poetry about drugs, and so he became a drug abuser. I mean, that was just, there was no other, there was no other way. That yeah, you have to act it out, so that if you, if you're writing poems about demonic visions, then you have to become a demon, that's obvious to him.
Geoffrey Wolff Absolutely.
Geoffrey Wolff Absolutely. And that's the kind of craziness that's extraord--it's so brave, for one thing. Completely heedless of consequences. Hemingway, who was a man Crosby knew, knew not very well but knew well and they were friendly to each other, said that Harry had this great gift of carelessness, and beyond that, he found Crosby's courage, the nature of his courage, awe-inspiring to him. Because for Hemingway, what courage was is overcoming fear. But Crosby never had felt fear.
Geoffrey Wolff Oh, sure. Oh, sure. But within, if it had just been a chaotic kind of craziness, I couldn't have written a, I wouldn't have wanted to write the book. It was that inside the confines of his own system, everything's logical. Everything--
Geoffrey Wolff Yes.
Studs Terkel So here he is. He knows these fine artists, these poets, these writers, and yet he knows he's not part of them. So therefore, he must do something. Aside, by the way. Let's stick with the story, because "Black Sun", the biography of Harry Crosby of my guest Geoffrey Wolff, is very exciting reading, too, you read--and somehow there's a sense of the inevitable in this. When you open, you tell us about it, and then it's like a detective story. It unravels and we find out about this guy, and of course his wife was quite remarkable in her way, Caresse, a name he gave her.
Geoffrey Wolff Right. Extraordinarily beautiful woman. Remarkable to me in a sense, one of most remarkable things about her, is her own persistent sanity. I mean, she indulged her husband in his craziness, and I don't think ever really partook of it. I've always been, I've always been astounded at her courage in one sense, that from the time she first met Harry, he suggested that he shoot, that he could shoot her, then himself, and they'd go to this eternal bliss together. And she said, "Well, maybe someday, not right now." But she had to either believe him, she either had to believe he was capable of doing that, in which case she had to be terrified all the time that he chose, he'd choose the moment, or she didn't believe him, in which case he was a phony and a despicable char--I mean, despicable character, which is the box in a way that he was in, I think.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Studs Terkel You point out somewhere here that were he not on the fringe of art, were he not considered a poet, if he talked the way he talked, we'd have put him away. The guys in the white suit would have come for him. But because we considered him a literary figure, talk in literary terms, we didn't realize the guy actually meant it.
Geoffrey Wolff That he actually meant it. We're really indulgent of people who I think are people who call themselves artists. There's one dark side of me, I don't want to push this too far, but I keep thinking of Crosby and Manson in some awful connec--I mean, there is that sense Crosby, one of his poems is his vision of leading a band of sun followers into death, that he wants to--
Geoffrey Wolff Yeah, he wants to persuade them that they should die. And there's that sense that anything is justified by a vision. And I wonder, you know, if Manson had called himself an artist, would we have idiots now running around saying he was a man of great--
Studs Terkel I think you touch on one of the reasons why this biography is so good. I think you just hit it. That is a Manson quality here in Harry Crosby. But Harry Crosby, very wealthy, upper crust, all kinds of dough, Manson this institutionalized, orphaned, beaten, battered, both the result being the same in both cases. In Crosby's case, elegant, because he was elegant, certainly, we can talk about that in a moment, and his nature of seduction. But the other guy, also seductive, but from bottom. And this guy from top. And yet both meeting in this madness.
Geoffrey Wolff Right. Right. It's that sense it's the, in Crosby's case I think, it's the fruit of two kinds of things. It's the dark side of the moon of liberty, which just descends into complete license, everything's possible, nothing
Studs Terkel One other thing involved, and that's ego. Persuasiveness. In both instances, persuasiveness, Manson's young women and his persuasiveness, and Harry Crosby's and his many mistresses, now, Caresse was too much common sense, his wife, to be talked into suicide, but he had other mistresses also who all but one rejected it. Constants, a variety of them, but he finally found the one who said "Yes" to him. By this time his bluff was called.
Geoffrey Wolff I think the hardest thing for me to imagine in all this is that when that moment came, when he said to her as he said to others, "Let's take our bliss eternally together, we'll pick our moment, we'll die, I'll shoot you, I'll shoot myself." And she, from what I know of her, would calmly have said, "All right. All right. Let's do it." Whether at that moment he said, "My God, what have I done now? Here it comes," or whether he ran toward it full tilt, happy, said "I've succeeded. I finally succeeded." And I don't know the answer
Studs Terkel Yeah. Of course, you've done some remarkable, this is detective work you've done research here, and because there were some people who were saying, "Oh, he murdered this poor young girl. She would never have agreed." But you've come across bits of information here and there in libraries and files, a poem or a letter that she, her name was Josephine Rotch Peabody--no, she
Geoffrey Wolff It was an extraordinary discovery for me because--well, I found it in a packing case in a library. Actually, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. And it was my last trip out there and it was in a box that had his old uniforms in it and it was inside a cigar box and here was a poem from Josephine delivered to Harry the day before they died. And the poem declared her eagerness to die with him, "in our death is our marriage," she said, "in our death is our marriage." And until that time, I was going to have to, in my book, and I hated to have to try and do this, I was going to try and propound a thesis, that no, Harry wouldn't have just murdered her, that he wasn't the kind of character, but I didn't have any proof of that, I knew it was true, but I couldn't prove it. And when I found that poem, when I knew finally that it was true, it completely liberated me. I could organize the book then, I suppose, more novelistically, I could hold things in suspense, I didn't have to try and beat a drum all the time, so it was probably, it was the most important moment in this project.
Studs Terkel But somehow also you've come to a conclusion through a variety of sources that after he had shot her at this little rendezvous they had at the home of a friend where they used to meet to make love before, there were a couple of hours when he was still alive. So the guy, see, it seems to me this is an incredible moment. The guy's bluff was called. Perhaps, who knows if Harry Crosby would ever have committed suicide if his bluff were--and what he did, he didn't want to commit suicide alone. The challenge was to talk somebody else into it.
Geoffrey Wolff To talk somebody else into it. He had to do that, because if he did it alone, people could say, "Oh, that's just crazy Harry. He finally, he just," or "He didn't know what he was doing," or "He was drunk," or "He was drug-induced." But if he could talk someone else into it, he could persuade them into it, then his vision would be accepted by somebody else and they'd have to accept it. Now, in those two hours when he was alone with her body in that apartment, it's those two hours, of course, that will always be a mystery. It's an unassailable mystery. Whether he turned over ways, "Is there any way I can walk out of here?" Of course there wasn't. There's no way he could walk out that room. Or whether he just sat there or used the two hours to just savor what was about--
Geoffrey Wolff Exactly.
Studs Terkel And this is what we're talking about, isn't it? That's what makes--you call the subtitle is "The Brief Transit and Violent Eclipse of Harry Crosby". Now, I think for the second half of this conversation we have to go back to beginnings, to all the influences on him, his life that led in some inevitable fashion to this ending. We do that. Let's take a slight pause now, my guest is Geoffrey Wolff, and the biography is one of the most acclaimed ones in a long time, "Black Sun". And of this in a moment, too. The title, it was the name of the publishing house that he and Caresse had. And the significance of that phrase, and the meaning of the sun, too, and the brief transit and violent eclipse, eclipse, of course, sun.
Geoffrey Wolff Yes.
Studs Terkel Almost stupid, when you get to it, of Harry Crosby, and Random House the publishers, so un momento. So, resuming the conversation with Geoffrey Wolff and "Black Sun", the biography of Harry Crosby. We've got to go back to beginnings now. Very privileged, indeed. Handsome, almost godlike in appearance, elegant, everything he wanted, and they wanted them, the assumption of his parents and others, he'd go into the brokerage business. Nephew of J.P. Morgan.
Geoffrey Wolff Right.
Geoffrey Wolff Well, it's the same. Groton and St. Mark's, [ace?] it's fifty-fifty with him, and best club at Harvard, and so forth. The thing, probably the most profound influence on his life was the war. He was an ambulance driver in World War I in some of the worst campaigns on the Somme and at Verdun of the war. He saw unspeakable brutality, of course, together with everyone else who was in the front. He once drove 70 hours consecutively carrying dead and wounded back and forth from the trenches to field hospitals, and on November 22nd--
Geoffrey Wolff Hemingway was, Dos Passos was an ambulance driver, e.e. cummings was an ambulance driver, all these people, so he was in an ambulance, his ambulance took a direct hit from a shell, it was utterly vaporized, and all the people in the back of the ambulance killed, and Crosby emerged from it unscathed. It's possible to make a case that from that moment on Harry Crosby thought that he had died and was back ghostlike to visit the earth again. Certainly, there are implications of this. But after that war, which he went to directly from school, not from college but from school, he went back to Harvard. His father felt that he should enter a conventional life as a banker and that his behavior should be what a Bostonian's behavior was, and Harry could never live an ordinary life again. His father had not been to the war, couldn't understand this, and I think in some ways Harry had a lot in common with other people who had experienced the war, that whole post-war spirit of rebellion. But for Harry it went, I think, a lot further than that. There was, people always called him frail, they called him nervous in the sense of having bad nerves, just extremely jittery, and I think the trauma of the war was so deep, so deep that it unhinged certain things in him in fundamental ways. He didn't begin right then, for example, to aspire to become a poet. He'd never, he hadn't ever had any interest in poetry to speak of until much later. He just knew that whatever it was that any older person told him to do, he didn't want to do. He wouldn't do. And his rebellion from the beginning began to take extreme
Geoffrey Wolff Something got loose. The odd character of it is that, his war letters were published by his family after he killed himself, and the letters that come immediately after the event are completely unchanged from what had come before. He was still--he was a dutiful boy writing home. He thanked heavens for his escape, and it wasn't until later that this thing, he celebrated that day, for example, for the rest of his life, that day and the day that a friend was killed.
Geoffrey Wolff Absolutely.
Geoffrey Wolff He's
Geoffrey Wolff Hardly knew him at all. He was a friend of his younger brother. Yeah, he had a friend, older brother was killed in the war. And I guess Harry had seen a bit of him, but not a lot of him, and became obsessed with his death. He gave a bell at a chapel in France in his honor. He always took that day, he abstained from drinking and from drugs and everything on the death anniversary of this older boy, and it became one of the central events in his life. And I can only guess, but I believe that was probably Harry's only successful metaphor, was that he saw in that kind of friend's death his own, that he could really, he could visualize it.
Studs Terkel And then the other aspect you touched on earlier that recurs here, where he came from, Boston, that puritanical Brahmin as it was, dour, even with all that dough. There was more delight, it would seem, perversely, in funerals than in christenings. In death than in birth.
Geoffrey Wolff Absolutely. Absolutely. Many people have taken note of this. I find it astounding. I've found, for example, Boston and its conventions much more exotic than Paris in the '20s in its conventions. I didn't know that much about Boston, and its doings, until I began this project, and I find it just incredible. I find it an incredible thing that a mother shows her young son the place where he's going to be buried as with it in a friendly, happy spirit. "Here's the tree under which you're going to lie eternally" kind of thing.
Studs Terkel So Harry somewhere after that accident, he says, "Well, that place looks pretty comfortable. That's pretty good." It's also the end of all these damn problems that obsess him, mostly "I'm not a good poet." That can be in it too, you
Geoffrey Wolff That's what I--this puzzles me. I don't know. He left extensive diaries that I had access to and letters. And I've known writers, I've known writers long enough to know what agonies they go through at the success of their fellows sometimes, and Harry Crosby was as free of envy as any writer I've ever encountered. I've never--there's not a spiteful, envious word for having due to the success, he always seemed to welcome the success of his friends, his admirers--he admired them without reservation. Individual works he could hate, and he'd say so, directly. But there's no spite or envy. And I just, because of that, there's something about him that strikes me as less of a poet than a fan of poetry, I think, and I think this is different.
Studs Terkel And this explains, and perhaps we come now to what made him come to the attention of people to you, too, even that footnote, is that he was not only a friend of some of these fine artists, but also their patron, too.
Studs Terkel And so--oh, before that, before coming to Par--Caresse. We come to the first scandal of his life. She was married and she was beauti--and he's also showing society, by the way, this is also an undercurrent, isn't it, he is going to show Brahmin Boston that he's a rebel, too.
Geoffrey Wolff Absolutely. He met this lady, he was married to a Peabody, one of the, I guess, two greatest families in Boston, and he was about to come home from war. This Peabody, I think he was a captain in the infantry, and he was about to come home, and Harry proposed to Caresse then, whose name then was Polly, that she leave her husband and come to him, and she said, "This is impossible, I can't do that." And in that society, divorce is akin to suicide. It's just, it was unheard of, it was an unspeakable thing to do. She was older than Harry by about four or five years. He persisted and persisted and chased her and chased her and chased her, and he finally did persuade her to leave her husband. And when they were talking seriously about getting married, this was such an embarrassment to the Crosby family that they agreed to have him quit his job at a bank in Boston and go off to Paris. Get out of town. That was, it was indeed scandalous. It was notorious all over Boston, what was going on. This [is? was?] a matter of divorce, after all.
Geoffrey Wolff Yes, she did. I don't agree with her. But I believe it was Kay Boyle's case that Caresse was injured and victimized, and that of course is absolutely true. There's no question about that. She suffered enormously, as a lot of people suffered, because of Harry. She felt that Caresse probably held Harry from death for a long time, that her stability was, she was able to offer held him from death. And I think that's true. I just find her less complicated than Harry.
Geoffrey Wolff Exactly. He'd been working at his uncle J.P. Morgan's bank in Paris and he'd been earning less than he paid his chauffeur. And, so, one day he decided, and it was pretty sudden, there wasn't much preparation, was he's going to become a poet. So he started asking people how you become a poet. And everyone pointed out to him that in his 20s it was pretty late to be thinking about it, and that probably that he wasn't going to be able to make much of a career unless he were a genius. So he said, "Very well, how do you get to be a genius?" And the consensus from what he read and what he heard seemed to be that the geniuses were all mad. And part of his program then, from poetry which he wrote, God, I think he published I've forgotten exactly how many, I think it was eight or nine books in five years. Became, he became a sun worshipper, he became--I don't call him in the book an opium addict, but he certainly used opium almost every day of his life for many, many years.
Studs Terkel He worshiping here--by the way, some of the writing of Geoffrey Wolff is very good here, too. This is the early days about he decided to become a writer. "Neither kooky nor casual in his decision" oh, "Neither cocky nor casual decision, under no illusions as to his gifts, he meant to serve a proper apprenticeship" but right here, here's the part I'm looking for is this, "But he became a poet single-mindedly, single-mindedly worshipping both the sources and products of art," and later that you have that, "he had the three hallmarks of the poet," were they some sort of religious visions or finally a violent death, but they were three--
Geoffrey Wolff Right.
Geoffrey Wolff Absolutely.
Geoffrey Wolff There's a wonderful thing in--well, Harry read "The Confessions of an Opium Eater" when he started using opium and De Quincey is talking about his first experiences with opium and he had this wonderful description, he said that, "If a man uses opium, but his talk when he doesn't use opium is of stables and horses, that the visions that he will have under opium will most likely be of stables and horses, that the drug has no power to transform anyone."
Studs Terkel This is so funny, I know a lot of jazzmen, you know, and through the years before the word marijuana, before marijuana was called "pot" and used by kids, jazzmen did back in the '30s, it was "tea" they called it, know what I'm saying, and these guys, "Oh, we thought we played so great." "How did you play?" "Rotten. Lousy."
Geoffrey Wolff Right.
Geoffrey Wolff Right.
Geoffrey Wolff Well, I'm cer--I'm no stranger to booze, and I knew when I was writing this book I'd have notions of grandeur, how I was going to manage parts at night, they just seemed all spectacular, do you know what
Studs Terkel So this is, well, another aspect before we come to "Black Sun" and the phenomenon of the sun in Harry's vision and life. Religion. He also, he became religious. I mean, there was a certain--he saw art as religion, but also his whole life.
Geoffrey Wolff His whole life in a way was I think--I think it was Ezra Pound said about Harry, that his whole life was a religious manifestation, a vote of confidence in the cosmos, he said, and Harry associated finally Christianity with his family and with Boston. So he repudiated it completely, and he took up sun worship, but the sun worship he took up was this formless hodgepodge of Aztec rites, Egyptian rites, da da da, this and that. He came out of the influence, for example, they opened King Tut's tomb in 1922, which was just when this began to happen for Harry, so he was, he knew a lot about Egyptology. But it's curious that when whatever system did emerge out of his sun worship is a Christian system. He believes in an af--he believes in a life after death, he believes there's a heaven, there's a hell. And he never, I think, lost his conviction that he would survive his own death. That he'd be a witness to the aftermath of his own death, which I think a lot of suicides have, but he certainly
Geoffrey Wolff Absolutely.
Geoffrey Wolff About the black sun. That's right. He talked--there's a thing, the black circle of the sun MacLeish uses and what MacLeish was talking about evidently is an image when you look at the sun, you close your eyes and there's a disk that emerges. But for Harry, it was demonic, he thought it meant something demonic, and it didn't at all, that wasn't what
Studs Terkel And thus the black sun. And thus he decided now to be a publisher, which would be good. Also he could publish the works of people he admires, but also it's the aspect of respectability here, too.
Geoffrey Wolff Respectability and access. Suddenly, I mean, here's Harry Crosby. Who is he? He's an ex-banker. He's a rich young man in Paris and suddenly he has the means to pick up the phone and call James Joyce and say he wants to have a meeting with him, and talk about his work.
Geoffrey Wolff Excellent press. Very highly respected now, yeah. The greatest, the greatest single thing the press did was certainly "The Bridge", which now fetches, I think copies of that thing are now worth a couple thousand dollars. And it was an act not only--it's the one really ground floor act they got in on. I mean, they got Crane before anybody really knew who he was. They were the first publishers also of Kay Boyle, though. That was the first work she
Geoffrey Wolff Absolutely.
Studs Terkel You know, I was looking for those three hallmarks, here it is, of the artist, 187, we're just having this conversation in a non-chronological way, it's just the idea of capturing the madness and the--here it is: "Harry wrote a few poems marked by three that were not marked by three preoccupations. That the poet is a holy man, a seer, that a metaphysical system governs the poet's days and must be unriddled, and that the poet owes himself a violent life and an early explosive death." There you have it again, that harbinger of things to come.
Geoffrey Wolff Yes.
Geoffrey Wolff Right.
Geoffrey Wolff A piker. Absolutely. They had a farm outside of Paris, a mill that they converted, and on a typical weekend they might have Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Mary Pickford, the Duke of Windsor, Parisian layabouts, painters, one of Harry's closest friends was a gunman from New York, a guy who had run in the gangs in New York, a guy named "Goops" Poehlman. And this mess of people, this incredible mixture of people. Carrying on, I suppose what in today's terms would be called orgies. But certainly--an attempt, an imaginative attempt to make out of out, out of the terms of living, some kind of a poem, or statement of some kind.
Geoffrey Wolff Absolutely.
Studs Terkel That would be--here it is again, you have it--madness. Here's that phrase we're look--by the way, you hit on some very marvelous phrases here. Where's that? "Madness"--this is from Geoffrey Wolff's book, in one of the pages here on "Black Sun", the biography of Harry Crosby. "Madness is the state the poet longs to attain." This is Crosby's thoughts. "And in his bizarre imagery he seems to be only a stop or two from the end of the line. Necrophile, in which the speaker kills before he kisses his lover, is characteristic of the violent preoccupations." This is one of his works, wasn't it?
Geoffrey Wolff Yes.
Geoffrey Wolff That's right. That's that prison notion again, that often enough repeated, his intentions had to be honored. I try to imagine not so much in the book but I've tried to imagine outside the book what it would be like if Harry Crosby were alive now--most of his friends are in his 70s, late 70s. What would his life have meant? I mean, I don't wish anybody dead, but what--
Studs Terkel What would his life have meant? Harry Crosby, a friend, more than casual, of these writers, at the same time 78 years old. See, Cowley, after all, was a great critic and discoverer. Others who may be alive, Kay Boyle, in her own way had a full life and yet she's respected and honored, others of dead. But it is his death that's talked about.
Geoffrey Wolff Absolutely.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Geoffrey Wolff Well, his death is the only thing that makes his talk of death serious. And since that was his central image for himself, throughout his life was this talk of his impending death and so forth. If he hadn't been serious about it, what would it all have meant?
Geoffrey Wolff He did fly too near the sun. Yeah. He did fly too near the sun. He brushes up against that image himself in his own work. But I think it was so close to the center of him that he never really faced that. He had [won? one?]--the images that he collected usually were the outside edgy sort of images from Rimbaud and Baudelaire, not about the moment of death itself, but all the preparations for
Studs Terkel Yeah. And it's very funny, you speak somewhere along the line, this crazy little insights come in, he met Cartier-Bresson,, the great photog--and Bresson we know is magnificent. Bresson speaks of the decisive moment.
Geoffrey Wolff Yes.
Geoffrey Wolff Yes. And it's interesting the one, probably the greatest ambition in his life, more than to write a great poem or anything, was to fly alone. And he at one time he was going to kill himself that way, he's going to fly and he's going to jump from his airplane, and he killed himself 29 days after his first solo flight. The most impressive moment and the best writing he ever did was his description of the landing of Lindbergh after the transatlantic flight. And the most beautiful writing he did about that at that, was the description of the crowd tearing Lindbergh's, it was the plane to pieces, and that I--that brutality, the destruction of the hero, not the--
Studs Terkel Isn't that interesting, this is what a coincidence. You know, Bill Shirer, the journalist, has just written the first of his memoirs, first part, and one is a young journalist at the airfield in Paris Lindbergh landed. Now, Shirer described that as a young journalist did, you know, the excitement and everything, but I haven't Crosby's description. His is from a perverse point of view, wild.
Geoffrey Wolff Absolutely. Absolutely. For example, the buzzing. There were other planes up there circling around when you come in, and he talks about the airplanes, they are all waiting for it. And instead of Crosby treating them as planes that are up there as a welcome, as though they're there to welcome, it puts him in mind of a bombing raid, he says, and the searchlights are trying to pick the planes out of the sky to identify them, instead they're hostile, everything
Studs Terkel Even, Geoffrey, as you and I are talking, I think, you know, these thoughts come to mind, I see, dramatic, two books recently come out: a solid biography, a memoir, Schirra's memory, now, he and Crosby may have been at that airfield that same day. The two guys, you see, of a certain memorable event in the history of aviation. Lindbergh, the young, the Eagle, the Spirit of St. Louis landing in the field, there's a young journalist. It's almost like a Stoppard thing. We'll come to this in a minute. You remind me, your approach. There's young journalist and this young madman, you know, and two different views, and yet both are remembered each--now--Would you have done, you said Harry Crosby was a footnote in your--and you went into that footnote. Well, Tom Stoppard in "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern", you see, there are two guys who are footnote figures in Hamlet.
Geoffrey Wolff Right.
Geoffrey Wolff I would guess that for Stoppard, as for me, that it crept up on him. I mean, this wasn't a thing, I didn't read about Crosby and say, "Oh boy, oh boy, here's somebody." He just kept hanging around, he just kept hanging, I couldn't shake the notion of him. I bet it was like that for Stoppard.
Studs Terkel Yeah, but there are a few things about the Crosby story that you've got that hang into me. And one is, most die young, 3-0-9, maybe earlier said, what if he had lived now, would he have been remembered? Maybe he in himself subconsciously knew that, too, that this happens among some people, among, perhaps less now with the gay revolution, aging homosexuals, the terrible tragedy, the fear of losing looks. And so in Harry's case, he was still handsome and young, although it was a minor thing in his life. But he was still to be remembered, but if he grew older and never achieved, that might be an aspect.
Studs Terkel Oh, by the way, that's an amazing aspect in your biography. Unbelievable. What, he would just go up to a beautiful young woman sitting with her husband, but he did it with such casualness and--
Studs Terkel Sincerity.
Geoffrey Wolff She'd walk off, and if she didn't walk off occasionally she'd hand him a card or he'd leave his card and she'd call him. And people were astounded by this. He'd be at dinner with his wife and another couple. And he'd just look across the room, he wouldn't say "I beg your pardon or anything," he'd stand up, he'd walk across the room, he'd walk out with a stranger. Now what exactly was said, who knows? But whatever it was, it couldn't have been salacious. Cute, this isn't college stuff. This isn't pick-ups, it's the opposite. There was something so intense and sincere and direct.
Studs Terkel Well, I think--somewhere you point out this out, that at that moment he actually was in love with her, or at that moment it was an intense, fiery passion, that at that very moment he was the man of the moment.
Geoffrey Wolff I believe that he was capable of deep physical and spiritual love for as many as four or five women at the same time. And moreover, there's every evidence that the women themselves believed it, knowing that there were others that they were only one part of his life. He was certainly, the woman he loved most in his life was his wife, despite all his mistresses. She was always his favorite woman, and she knew that.
Geoffrey Wolff Right. Well, in a sense it has the character of a train wreck. I mean, It's like these two people approaching each other. I, of course, made nothing like the same kind of depth of exploration of her own life, I didn't have access to it, but she was obviously a very, very, very bizarre, very, very bizarre woman, very driven, yeah.
Geoffrey Wolff Absolutely.
Studs Terkel We deal with reality and illusion here, too, throughout. One last thing before the hour goes, and we're talking to Geoffrey Wolff and his quite remarkable biography, "Black Sun", is, someone points out that he seemed detached, too. Someone points out here that he was remote so as not to be hurt. Sometimes remote so as not to be too vulnerable. So we have the opposite now, the passion, at the same time a detachment.
Geoffrey Wolff There is about him from time to time a character it's almost like statuary, a kind of abstract quality. I believe this is what Hemingway found peculiar in his courage, for example, is its abstract nature, that there wasn't anything personal about it. It's a very, it's--after I became so intimate with him in this book, so intimately, I'm still at a distance from him. Still
Studs Terkel Suppose you read the last two sentences or so of the end of the book before the postscript on page 312, because in itself it's someone who chose, choose your weapons, the gag we say, "Choose your poison." And he chose his weapons.
Geoffrey Wolff "It can be said that Harry was at his most healthy, that is, least morbid, when he studied his forthcoming death. 'It's death, the hand that opens the door to our cage, the home we instinctively fly to.'" He wrote this. "He sees for himself a great adventure. He created for himself a cosmos and abandoned it in his own good time."
Studs Terkel That's it, and so we have a study, and a very exciting one, too, of a certain man, a certain time, a certain madness, and all sorts of implications as well as being a very exciting book. "Black Sun: The Brief Transit and Violent Eclipse of Harry Crosby", and my guest is Geoffrey Wolff, and it's Random House, and it's quite available. Thank you very much.