The Ultimate Alchemy (Excerpt)
Forthcoming in Ploughshares, Winter 20/21
In the Boston of inherited wealth, the five fetching Rotch daughters were raised in a Commonwealth Avenue mansion in the same Back Bay neighborhood as the Crosby and Bigelow families. The eldest daughter, Josephine, was engaged to marry Albert Bigelow the day after Bert's graduation from Harvard. But when Josie and her mother sailed to Venice to shop for her trousseau she met Harry Crosby, who lived with his wife in Paris in a deluxe, frenzied version of bohemian exile, in willful violation of Boston etiquette. In Venice, she entered into an obsessive affair with Harry that ended, less than six months after Josie and Bert's picture-perfect wedding, in June of 1929, in Josie and Harry's murder/suicide.
Harry was a half-generation older than Josie and Bert. Having impulsively joined the Army Ambulance Corps out of St. Mark's School, deferring Harvard in order to fight in France, he was nearly killed, on what he ever after called his "first death day," in an explosion during the Second Battle of Verdun. He was just nineteen then—"Won Oh Boy!!!!!!! THE CROIX DE GUERRE. Thank God," he wrote home—but that permanent trauma defined him. Today we would understand Harry's reliance on alcohol and drugs as self-medicating the terror of his war experience, but with his return to the decorous world of Boston, only his mother excused his habitually eccentric attire and rebellious behavior. Several semesters at Harvard were condensed into a "War Degree" that left him unsuited for employment, and his college record was such an embarrassment to his father that they sank into a mutual disdain from which they never recovered. Harry pursued and married the former Mary Phelps Jacob Peabody, nicknamed Polly, who submitted to his demand that she use the excuse of her first husband's drinking (which wasn't considered a good enough reason) to divorce Richard Peabody, the father of her two children.
In their escape to Paris, Polly and Harry became locomotive partiers, their drugs and alcohol paralleling the prominent French writers—the "morbid poets" Baudelaire and Rimbaud—who were engaged in their own darkly ecstatic preoccupations with death. The Crosby couple founded a press in order to publish their own poetry and diaries, and Polly was renamed Caresse to mark the publication of her first book of sonnets. The Black Sun Press soon featured deluxe editions of work by the literary expatriate circle in Paris including James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Hart Crane, Oscar Wilde, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Kay Boyle, whom Harry deemed the greatest woman writer since Jane Austen. They published Proust too.
When Harry first encountered Josephine in Venice he was reading Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustracite> and was so enthralled by the message "die at the right time" that he wrote in his journal, "Die at the right time, so teacheth Zarathustra and again the direct 31-10-42. Clickety-click clickety-click the express train into Sun." This date represented the projected shortest distance between the orbits of the earth and the sun, so October 31, 1942 was the day, at Harry's urging, that he and Caresse had already selected for their own elaborately imagined double suicide. Upon meeting Josephine—"Enter the Youngest Princess of the Sun!"—Harry claimed her as his newest recruit, introducing her to the "black idol" opium that he and Caresse had discovered a few years earlier on their travels to North Africa.
When their bodies were found, the news was suppressed in the Boston papers. The New York tabloids freely speculated, but because Harry was the nephew and godson of J.P. Morgan, Jr., the kindly "Uncle Jack" whose generosity Harry often sought and always abused, the Times gave the story fourteen cautious paragraphs under the headline "COUPLE SHOT DEAD IN ARTIST'S HOTEL" with the restrained subheads "Suicide Pact Is Indicated Between Henry Grew Crosby and Harvard Man's Wife" "BUT MOTIVE IS UNKNOWN."
I first saw Josephine's gravestone in 1965 with her nephew, Tim Buxton—the boy I was soon to marry—on a tour of the Duck Creek Cemetery in Old Lyme, Connecticut. It was a short walk down the road from the family's stately house next door to the Congregational church where, six months apart, Josie's wedding and funeral had both taken place.
Although her death generated aftershocks that reverberate to this day, the story of the murder/suicide was so untold that her four younger sisters didn't know it. Tim's mother, Helen, was only ten at the time and would later claim to "barely remember" the big sister she called Dodie. All Tim had been given to know about Josephine was written on this pink marble tombstone that lay flat like a blanket. I noticed that the slab bearing the inscription "In Loving Memory of Josephine Noyes Rotch, Wife of Albert Smith Bigelow" was several times larger than the other more conventional upright markers. But I also remember finding the exhortation "In Death Is Victory" a forlorn choice for a girl of twenty-one, my age.
Who could have imagined that only five summers later the next gravestone to be placed in that plot would bear my young husband's own name and telescoped dates? ▣