Harry Crosby (1898-1929) came from a family of Boston blue bloods. His uncle was J. P. Morgan, his father a wealthy investment banker. But Harry had no interest in banking or finances. He wanted to be a poet.
Like the man himself, Crosby’s poetry turned out to be unconventional but strangely engaging. D. H. Lawrence called it “a glimpse of chaos not reduced to order. But the chaos alive, not the chaos of matter. A glimpse of the living, untamed chaos.”
Ernest Hemingway, who knew Crosby, after reading some of his poems, told Archibald MacLeish, “Harry has a great, great gift. He has a wonderful gift of carelessness. He can be careless, just spill this stuff out.” MacLeish agreed, saying on another occasion that Crosby had shown him poems “that seemed to me unmade beds. Too long and too diffuse and too careless.”
Along with being unconventional and careless, Harry Crosby had a fixation with death, love, and suicide. While courting his future wife, Caresse, he wrote her,
I’ll come down [to New York from Boston] and kill you and then kill myself so that we can go right to Heaven together—and we can die in each other’s arms and I’ll take the blame so you won’t have to worry, Dear…. If by chance I should die or be killed (I promise you never to kill myself unless you die or unless I kill us both together) I hope you’ll end your life and come to me right away so we can be together as One in Heaven….
I still and always will feel that we are so close and near to each other that Death at any time for us both will bring us such happiness as we’ve never dreamed of and which will last forever. And someday Darling I pray that we shall die together. I can think of nothing more sacred or beautiful.
Harry and Caresse Crosby
But Harry Crosby did not die together with his wife. He died with another woman, one of his many lovers. On December 10, 1929, Crosby’s body and that of Josephine Rotch were found, fully clothed except for their shoes, lying on a bed facing each other in a New York City studio apartment. She had been shot in the left side of the head, he in the right. Their left hands were clasped, and Crosby’s right hand clutched a .25 caliber semi-automatic pistol.
Archibald MacLeish, who sat watch over Crosby’s body at the hospital morgue, later recalled, “As I sat there looking at his corpse, seating myself where I wouldn’t have to see the horrible hole in back of his ear, I kept saying to him: you poor, damned, dumb bastard. He was the most literary man I ever met, despite the fact that he’d not yet become what you’d call a Writer.”
On the night Harry Crosby died, his friend Hart Crane (1899-1932) met Crosby’s wife and mother for dinner, expecting Harry to show up presently. Later in the evening Crane learned by phone that Crosby had killed himself, and Crane had to break the news to the two women.
The two men had been friends since meeting in Paris earlier that year. Like Crosby, Hart Crane wrote poetry, drank too much, abused drugs, and lived a generally bohemian lifestyle. Unlike Crosby, Crane was a dedicated homosexual with a penchant for sailors. “Hart C. back from Marseilles,” Crosby had once written in his journal, “where he slept with his thirty sailors and he began again to drink Cutty Sark.”
Crane is considered one of the most influential poets of his generation, his modernist poetry having been acclaimed by such fellow writers as Tennessee Williams, E. E. Cummings, William Carlos Williams, Eugene O’Neill, Allen Tate, and John Berryman. When his epic poem The Bridge (1930), however, received adverse reviews, a work on which he had placed much hope, he considered himself a failure.
In April 1932, traveling by steamship from Mexico to New York, Crane propositioned a crewmember, who savagely beat and robbed him. Next day, shortly after noon, with the ship 275 miles north of Havana and 10 miles off the eastern coast of Florida, Crane appeared on deck bruised and drunk, dressed in pajamas over which he wore a topcoat. He walked to the ship’s stern, took off the coat, draped it over the railing, exclaimed, “Goodbye, everybody,” and jumped overboard. His body was never recovered.
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) had spent time with both Harry Crosby and Hart Crane in Paris during the twenties but in later years did not have much good to say about either. In a deleted passage from the manuscript of To Have and Have Not (1937), Hemingway referred to Crosby as “a silly ass . . . crazy as a coot half the time,” a terrible writer who should have killed himself sooner.
Hemingway wrote of Hart Crane that he “was an unfortunate buggar. Always propositioning the wrong sailors and getting beaten up. Had a dreadful beating in Havana the night before his boat sailed.” He had gone to Mexico, said Hemingway, to write a great poem and found that he couldn’t do it. The beating in Havana (actually it was aboard ship after leaving Havana) had destroyed whatever self-respect he had left.
Harry Crosby killed himself at age 31, Hart Crane at 32. Hemingway stuck around almost twice as long, yet he still took the same way out. In 1954, while on a photographic safari in Africa, he and his fourth wife, Mary, were in two near-fatal small plane crashes within two days. Hemingway came away from the second crash with a fractured skull, ruptured liver and spleen, two cracked vertebrae, burns on his face and arms, and other injuries. Mary said that Ernest was never the same afterward, that “a plague began to descend upon us, an evil miasma, a foul-smelling deafening raucous bird of destruction and disaster enfolding us.”
Ernest and Mary Hemingway
Following the two plane crashes, Hemingway, although only in his fifties, began a steady mental and physical decline. He suffered from high blood pressure, memory loss, severe depression, and the onset of diabetes. Worst of all, his mounting afflictions left him unable to write. Finally, at the Hemingway home in Ketchum, Idaho, at 7:30 in the morning on July 2, 1961, Mary awoke to what sounded like two drawers slamming. “I went downstairs,” she said later, “saw a crumpled heap of bathrobe and blood, the shotgun lying in the disintegrated flesh, in the front vestibule of the sitting room.” Ernest had taken a double-barreled shotgun, put it to his forehead, and tripped both triggers.
Playwright William Inge (1913-1973) was riding high for a time. He had four Broadway hits in rapid succession: Come Back, Little Sheba (1950), Picnic (1953), Bus Stop (1955), and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1957). Picnic won a Pulitzer Prize, the New York Drama Critics’ Award, and the Donaldson Prize. Come Back, Little Sheba; Picnic; and Bus Stop were turned into major motion pictures. His screenplay for the movie Splendor in the Grass (1961), starring Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty, won Inge an Academy Award for Best Original Script.
Yet instead of gaining confidence with each new success, Inge grew increasingly insecure. He worried that he would never be able to equal his previous work. Episodes of depression led to heavy drinking and drug dependence. The drinking and depression grew so severe that he occasionally had to be hospitalized. His friend and fellow playwright Tennessee Williams, with whom Inge had a brief affair, tried to assist him, but Williams had his own personal problems to deal with.
Inge’s fears were eventually realized when three of his plays that opened on Broadway in 1959, 1963, and 1966 were failures. Growing ever more dejected—troubled by his homosexuality and convinced that he was finished as a writer—he started his car one morning in a closed garage and died of carbon monoxide poisoning at age 60. His sister later wrote, “I miss him so very much, and can’t help thinking why. Even though he had told me why. Mainly that he could not write anymore, and that was his only interest in life.”
We conclude with three authors who ended their own lives without meaning to. Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941) is best remembered for Winesburg, Ohio: A Group of Tales of Ohio Small-Town Life (1919). In New York City on February 28, 1941, he embarked on the cruise ship Santa Lucia bound for South America. Just before sailing, possibly at a bon voyage party and possibly after too much drink, he swallowed a toothpick. It perforated his intestine, and he died eight days later in the hospital at Colón, Panama, from peritonitis.
Tennessee Williams (1914-1983), Pulitzer Prize winning author of such plays as The Glass Menagerie (1944), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), and The Night of the Iguana (1961), struggled much of his life with alcoholism and prescription drug abuse. At age 71, in his New York City hotel suite, he apparently tried to open a bottle of eye drops with his mouth and choked to death on the bottle cap. Medical authorities later decided that he had really died from an accidental drug and alcohol overdose.
Lastly there was Thomas Merton (1915-1968). Born in France, he was educated there and in England and the United States. After becoming a Trappist monk in Kentucky in 1942, he wrote more than seventy books, mostly on spirituality. But his writings also included social criticism, essays, poetry, and a popular autobiography titled The Seven Storey Mountain (1948). In Bangkok, Thailand, at age 53, while taking a bath, he reached out to adjust a fan, accidentally touched an exposed wire, and electrocuted himself.