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Bohemian Rhapsody

During one hot summer in 1934, a love affair transformed a scrappy band of self-published poets into the biggest literary celebrities in the country.
DISCUSSED
Greenwich Village,The Raven Poetry Circle, Space-Cadet Poetry, Prince Childe de Rohan d’Harcourt, Upturned Mustaches, Frustrated Writers, Scrawy Fops,The Department of Justice, Larceny,“The Nickel Snatcher,” Poems for Hamburgers,The Garbageman Poet, Lost Manuscripts

Bohemian Rhapsody

Jason Boog
15 Snaps

On the evening of June 1, 1934, a pretty eighteen-year-old journalism student named Louise Krist went to a Raven Poetry Circle party in Greenwich Village. According to the New York Times, Krist arrived wearing a gray-blue suit and a trench coat belted around her movie-star waist. She soon snuggled up beside an uninvited guest: her boyfriend of less than two weeks, Prince Childe de Rohan d’Harcourt, a Village character with a gold-topped cane and a penchant for space-cadet poetry. Years earlier, a Los Angeles Times reporter took great pains to describe d’Harcourt’s signature look in a profile: “He wore a pinstriped brown suit, a soft blue broadcloth shirt, highly polished shoes with spats and an upturned mustache with an angle of 90 degrees at the extreme edges. His cane and pearl grey hat were in the modes.” The poet had, on different occasions, claimed to be a French prince, an Italian viscount, and an Austrian duke. He stood three inches shorter than Louise, but had the charisma of a cult leader.

The pair had met a few weeks earlier in Washington Square at the annual Raven Poetry Circle poetry fair. Both Krist and d’Harcourt displayed poems that year, falling madly in love during the event. D’Harcourt may have wooed her with his favorite topic, his unpublished novel entitled Ro Dran and the Year 90,000.  He described it this way: “It is an erotic story of love. It is greater in its imaginative quality than The Arabian Nights. It is the most fantastic, most imaginative, most swiftly moving, most romantic story ever written.” D’Harcourt believed, like generations of frustrated writers both before and after his odd lifetime, that a novel could save him.

Most writers needed saving in 1934. It was the fourth year of a decade-­long economic slump. Newspapers had shuttered, publishers had folded, and book contracts were scarce. Nevertheless, the ­Raven Poetry Circle published ­poetry while most New York City writers were begging the government for aid.

Watching Krist and d’Harcourt flirt at the party, Vincent Beltrone, one of the founding members of the Ravens, grew jealous. Around one in the morning, he tried to pick a fight with the dandy. Dwarfed by the six-foot Beltrone, d’Harcourt left the party with his young girlfriend at his side. Beltrone followed the couple for thirty blocks, trying to convince Krist to abandon her prince. It made for a surreal scene on the empty street: a wispy girl, a scrawny fop, and a bruising poet zigzagging across Manhattan. “I boarded a train and I came home,” Beltrone told the police the next day. “That is the last I saw of them.”

Louise never came home that night, and her disappearance made national headlines. Reporters grilled individual Ravens for clues, shoving these obscure poets into the spotlight. Within days, the Department of Justice dispatched agents to track down the girl. As the federal manhunt expanded, journalists breathlessly reported the prince’s rap sheet. He had been arrested for grand larceny in 1914, burglary in 1917, extortion in 1918, and beating his ex-wife in 1924.

Two full weeks passed. The couple­ had vanished.

*

Francis Lambert McCrudden, a retired telephone worker, founded the Raven Poetry Circle in the early 1930s. He scowled in most group photos, and his poetry championed the value of hard work despite the ruined economy. He composed an epic poem called “The Nickel Snatcher,” an ode to his old telephone-company job—extracting millions of coins from pay phones.  He once wrote:

The old saw has it, “Riches prove the man.”
But the real test is Poverty, by damn.
Am I aware the rhyme is false? I am.
But even so, it tell the truth, by damn.

During the 1930s, there was plenty of Poverty to go around in the New York City literary scene. In The Federal Writers’ Project, historian Monty Noam Penkower outlined the catastrophic effects of the Depression on publishing. By 1935, royalty rates had decreased by 50 percent and bestsellers were scarce—only fifteen writers managed to sell more than fifty thousand copies of their books in the United States. During that same period, the rate of newspaper closings climbed to 48 percent while magazine advertising plunged 30 percent. Inspired by the famous poem by Edgar Allan Poe, the Ravens published on the margins of a ruined economy.

McCrudden took his club public in May 1933 with the eccentric idea to sell poetry in Washington Square Park. The Ravens tacked poems to a tall green wall beside a tennis court, peddling verse for pennies. The New York Times called it the world’s first “sidewalk Poetry Mart.” The fair opened following one of the worst winters in American history, as unemployment hit 25 percent.

The Poetry Mart’s most prominent exhibitor was Maxwell Bodenheim. A newspaper reporter spotted the author sprawled against the fence while rows of poems flapped above his head like halos. He wore a bright blue shirt and a red tie, gaudy colors that popped in the sunlight. His poem “Electric Song” reads like a rock-and-roll anthem: “Suicide in wires / That’s my weakness now, / Suicide in wires, / she’s my baby now.”

During the Roaring Twenties, Bodenheim was crowned King of the Greenwich Village Bohemians. His publisher was Horace Liver­ight, the man who published Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, and some of the brightest stars of the Jazz Age. Then the stock market crashed in 1929, and Bodenheim’s life careened out of control. His next two novels flopped, and he spent 1932 kicking around Los Angeles, struggling to get his work adapted to film and save his career. He failed, and limped back to the Village. In May 1933, Liveright declared bankruptcy.

In Raven photographs, Bodenheim slicked back his hair, a flourish from his Village heyday. By the time the fair began, his black locks had thinned from age and malnutrition. During the first annual poetry exhibition, the former bestseller chanted a sad slogan: “Poems twenty-­five cents. Autographed copies fifty cents.”

Not everybody cut such a sad profile at the poetry fair. The spunky poet Anca Vrbovska sold the most poems that day—four poems at twenty-five cents apiece. She was one of the club’s key members—a prolific poet who hosted Raven parties in her West Village apartment. In photos, she wore vivid checkered dresses and patterned blouses. Her curly hair exploded in all directions, like her brain was cooking with too many poems. She composed sturdy working-class verse:

Comfort smothers the spirit and changes
A slender snow-white swan
Into an indolent, fat goose.
Comfort prevents millions
From viewing the rising dawn…
Comfort must be shunned like pestilence
By those who aspire to live,
To fight, to fly, to sing.

After the fair, the New York Times crowned her “a real Bohemian girl.” It was the most critical attention she would ever receive.

Despite all the working-class poets in his club, McCrudden had no patience for political poetry. Midway through the fair, he swooped down on a Chinese poet selling “Poems of the Chinese Revolution,” kicking out the young radical. He told the Washington Post that “propaganda was banned” from the show.

The newspaper reporters poked fun at one poet named Ruth Rappaport. Her poetry reflected on poverty in abstract language: “The desolate, pregnant sky has surcease from its anguish, / While I, throbbing to cosmic, distant drums, have none,” she wrote. She also pasted up a lonely sign that made the point more directly: poems exchanged for a hamburger.

Bolstered by the street fair’s national reception, McCrudden began to publish the Ravens’ work in a monthly magazine. Composed of four sheets of paper stapled together, individual issues cost a dime. A yearly subscription went for a dollar, accompanied by a red faux-velvet cardboard binder to hold the year’s run. The first issue of The ­Raven Anthology hit the streets in December 1933, opening with poems by McCrudden, Vrbov­ska, Rappaport, and Beltrone.

In an early issue, McCrudden mounted an attack against the journalists who had mocked his club in the summer. His editor’s note bore the self-righteous tone of the early blogosphere:

Some of the critical cuckoos and alleged wits of the Village have been doing some hooting of late, and it pleased them to greet the first number of our modest and unassuming little Anthology with catcalls, Bronx-cheers, and other unseemly noises… knowing well that the raucous animadversions of the bozos referred to will, in all probability, do us more good than harm, we are somewhat pleased; without intending it, they have done us a friendly turn, and we hasten to thank them for their timely condemnations.

*

The second annual poetry fair opened on May 21, 1934. Following the previous year’s success, the Washington Square Park event lasted an entire week. The Times returned to cover the exhibition. The reporter mocked one poet’s misspelled “Self-Portrate” and pointed out a “noticeable aversion to the use of capital letters.” Despite the insults, proud poets tacked up newspaper clippings from the year before, turning mocking press accounts into proof of their artistic authority.

McCrudden was there, supervising his poets “in a leisurely sort of way.” That year another Village celebrity joined the fair—John Cabbage, the garbageman poet. He’d been featured in newspapers for writing verse while steering a garbage scow. One poem, about uncovering refuse from a love affair, gave a creepy peek into his world, not to mention New York City’s terrible ecological policies:

Tomorrow I shall see his pipe, his slippers
in my dumper pocket
And his love letters, with your tears soaking wet;
So shall I dump your love to the sea
With the rest of the filth and sin of the city.

At the fair, Cabbage wore a white-brimmed hat and smiled for the cameras. He shared McCrudden’s obsessive focus on the life of the worker, employing a somewhat tortured metaphor in a poem about street cleaners:  “He shampoos and manicures the City’s streets / For he is the Barber of the Streets.”

On Sunday afternoon, a storm nearly ruined the freshly typed ­poems. Raindrops “pelted the fence at Washington Square South and Thompson Street with truly poetic cadence,” wrote a Times reporter. When the rain died down, the poets encountered a tack shortage as they jockeyed for fence space.

Nevertheless, sales were brisk, as the newspapers counted “several two-bit sales.” The day’s jackpot was a $1.50 sale by a poet named John Rose Gildea. According to Ross Wetzsteon’s critical history, Republic of Dreams: Greenwich Village, The American Bohemia, 1910–1960, Gildea cut a dramatic figure: “Long-haired and wild-faced, he often wore a red leather outfit and a black hat, sported a diamond nose ring, and hung a tire chain around his neck with a glass door knob attached.”

Gildea bummed around the Village with Bodenheim, begging for change in bohemian bars and earning a living in “talk contests.” During the late 1920s and early 1930s, promoters would stage speaking competitions, doling out prizes for the contestant who could keep talking the longest. Gildea made headlines for winning these public-speaking marathons with poetry, reciting an endless stream of Shakespearian sonnets, his own poetry, and nonsense verse for days straight.

Nevertheless, his verse during this period seemed to be in decline. That year he wrote:

Good Morning God!
Good Morning Mary!
I hope Thee mought
Be bright and cheerie.
So may Ye gaze
upon me kindlie
That through my days
I walk not blindlie.

Even Joe Gould—the homeless author working on “An Oral History of Our Time,” a legendary manuscript that supposedly filled thousands of pages—showed up for the fair in 1934. He wore khaki pants, a purple jacket, and a tangled beard. He had a habit of disrupting Raven meetings by squawking like seagull, and published several poems in the anthology. (“In winter, I’m a Buddhist, / And in the summer, I’m a nudist,” read his couplet.) Many years later, the New Yorker journalist Joseph Mitchell would immortalize the homeless poet in his book Joe Gould’s Secret, trying to track down the author’s fabled manuscript.

The weeklong fair captivated a young Louise Krist with its bohemian splendor. She stayed in touch with her prince for the next ten days, until the teenager finally invited him to the ill-fated Raven party on June 1.

In August 1935, she would publish a poem in the Anthology entitled “Mood in Ebony,” perhaps describing her first days in the park with d’Harcourt:

His love was like cocaine
That crept into her blood
And fed upon the substance of her veins.

*

The nationwide manhunt for the couple ended on June 19, 1934, when a restaurant owner spotted the badly disguised lovers strolling down Third Avenue. Krist and her prince had spent two weeks sneaking between Village flophouses and friends’ couches, somehow eluding the police, the feds, and the press. The police were called, and the fugitive poets made a feeble attempt to disguise their identities as Mr. and Mrs. Robert White. They were promptly arrested.

Reporters swooped down on the police station that same day, and the couple demonstrated a knack for another twenty-first-century art: celebrity publicity. In a series of lengthy speeches to the press, d’Harcourt explained that “they had discovered their love would not permit them to remain separated.” He immediately begged reporters for two dollars so the broke couple could get married.

Then Krist spoke: “I love him, but we’re penniless. We did not even have breakfast today. But we intend to get married and then we’ll work so we can take a trip to the Orient and Russia.”

Encouraged by the attention, d’Harcourt launched into a surreal speech: “I am the super-­conscious mind,” he intoned, waving his golden cane like Moses before a crowd of reporters frantically recording his speech. “All the forces of the universe command we come successfully out of these troublous moments and that we be married today.”

But the marriage was not to be. The poet prince was charged with “seduction” and Krist was arraigned for being a “wayward minor.” The New York Tribune printed the most dramatic coverage of the event, running a two-column-wide photo of the captured lovers staring into the camera—the unrepentant bohemians.

When Krist’s parents arrived at the police station, her father yelled: “What is the matter with you? Are you crazy? You are making a fool out of yourself!” The Tribune captured the priceless teenage drama that followed: “Miss Krist’s only answer was to give a defiant toss of her head, turn her back more squarely on her parents.”

The next day a magistrate dismissed the seduction charge leveled against d’Harcourt, once Krist “emphatically” explained to the judge that she was in love with her prince. After the court appearance, one thousand people thronged outside the courthouse, vying for a glimpse of the prince.

The arrest sent shock waves through the Ravens. In the September issue of the Anthology, McCrudden wrote a poem entitled: “Last Word on a Recent Well-Known Incident,” concluding the bizarre case in his signature style: “The ‘prince’ who kissed and wooed La Krist, / Was never on the Ravens’ list.”

Beltrone, his pride still smarting from the humiliating night at the poetry party, penned a vicious poem for the October issue entitled “Perspective Villagers.”

Dance until the bottoms of your feet
Become armored,
And in the vortex of the dance, rub your sloping breasts
On the heaving bosom of your valiant knight.
[…]
Early in the morning, go home,
Repeat to your girl-friends the experiences
You have had in the Village.
Tell them all about the many posing artists—
You have met.
But do not forget to emblazon your illustration
With the vernacular
“Gee and O Boy!”

The poetry-club scandal ended quietly. The authorities detained d’Harcourt at Ellis Island for a few weeks, hoping to get him deported. Once they discovered the fraudulent prince was really born in Oklahoma, they released him. In an interview with Joseph ­Mitchell, d’Harcourt reflected on his brief celebrity: “There are about 10,000 people in this city who have learned of me since I had this trouble. They are not friends and they are not acquaintances. In fact, I have coined a new word to define them. I call them ‘frantances.’ I think that’s a beautiful word. And, offhand, I would say 100 young women have come to express their sympathy.”

Krist wasn’t so lucky. While awaiting trial, she was sent to the Florence Crittenton Home. Founded by a wealthy philanthropist after his daughter died of scarlet fever, the shelter housed “lost and fallen” women. In August, a magistrate put Krist on probation with a draconian set of stipulations: she couldn’t marry for two years without her parents’ express permission, she couldn’t communicate with d’Harcourt for six months, and she had to perform community service. And that was the last mention of the case in the national press.

An unmarked photograph of the Raven Poetry Circle is stored at the New-York Historical Society. McCrudden, Beltrone, Vrbovska, and other Ravens’ names are carefully printed along the border of the photo. One name is excluded: beneath a young ­woman’s image there is a conspicuous squiggle where a name should be written. It is Krist. She’s a bit older but still beautiful, standing in between McCrudden and Beltrone. She wears a mysterious smile.

*

In May 1935, a Washington Post reporter wrote an essay about the third annual poetry fair. He was fascinated by Margaret Egri, a poet who signed her work “AM 67.” She said that her poetry was really composed by “Etheric Agent 975,” a poet living in eighteenth-century England, channeling verse to her through time and space. Her poetry had an appropriately mystical bent:

The grandest line may prove but memory’s host
A path that leads some dreary, ­tattered ghost
[…]
One great with glamorous form and passion’s livid power
Her but the humble pilgrim trapped in this tragic hour.

Out of the stack of newspaper clippings written about the Raven Poetry Circle, the Washington Post reporter was the only journalist to capture the bohemian dignity of the club: “Don’t forget that Edna St. Vincent Millay was once a full-fledged Village poet, fully half as crazy as the Ravens are. And look at her now—the clearest singing voice we have,” wrote the reporter.

In 1935, McCrudden listed all the different places where subscribers to the Raven Anthology lived—his small magazine’s proudest moment. “Nor is the appreciation now voiced for the Raven Poets confined to the narrow limits of the Village,” he wrote. “It is widely evidenced throughout the country, in Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland, Florida, and California, and the poets of this little group can justly take pleasure in the thought that their poetry is also known and loved beyond the rolling seas in England, France, Germany, Italy, Africa, and New Zealand. But enough. A new and we hope still a better year is beckoning.”

Indeed, a better year beckoned. FDR had just launched the Federal Writers’ Project, a Works Progress Administration venture that would put more than 6,600 writers around the country back to work—including Bodenheim and a young John Cheever. Bodenheim’s alcoholism had already consumed him, as former WPA national coordinating editor Jerre Mangione recalled in his memoir: “It would take two of his Project friends to escort him, protesting and staggering, from the bar to the office.”

But by the end of the Great Depression, the literary set had ditched bohemians and federal bailouts like a decade-long bad dream. In the 1988 book John Cheever: A Bio­graphy, Scott Donaldson wrote: “When Cheever left the Federal Writers’ Project, he virtually obliterated it from his mind. His parents in Quincy were undoubtedly ashamed of his having been a WPA employee…. To have been a WPA employee came to represent, in later years, a confession of personal defeat.” Blake Bailey concurred in a more recent biography of Cheever: “His fellow employees were hopeless drones, and he kept his distance lest he be tainted by their dullness.”

The Raven Anthology survived until 1952, when McCrudden sold it to Dr. Amedeo Count D’Aureli. The wealthy Italian American editor took the anthology down a one-way street to Squaresville, publishing a poem by the archbishop of New York in the first issue. D’Aureli added Italian, Spanish, and French sections and sold the anthology’s first advertisements. The New York Public Library’s collection ends after two issues edited by D’Aureli. The poetry fairs continued until the 1940s, but they never drew the same level of national attention.

After that, the Ravens tumbled into obscurity, one by one. In 1936, Gildea, the marathon poetry reader whose poem had sold for a buck fifty, was hospitalized as “mentally incompetent.” According to Harry Roskolenko’s Village memoir, When I Was Last on Cherry Street, the homeless Gildea later froze to death in the gutter. Bodenheim never wrote another novel. In the 1950s, he and his wife were brutally murdered by her lover in a New York City flophouse.

Not all the Ravens died in the gutter. McCrudden enjoyed a long and fruitful retirement. When he died, in 1958, at eighty-five, the Times called him “a well-known figure in Greenwich Village.” The obituary reprinted his poem “Greenwich Village,” filling up an entire column. It concluded with an elegy for those misfit poets and their bohemian adventures:

So, by the sputtering candle’s feeble light
These wooers of the laurel dream their dreams
In quaint old Greenwich Village, dear-loved haunt
Of unknown genius, struggling to be heard.

*

At one point in his career, Vincent Beltrone’s West Village loft burned down after a paraffin-pot explosion. The poet said that “the work of years was destroyed” in the fire; he claimed he lost an entire book of poems. Many of the Ravens had similar stories of doomed manuscripts: Gildea’s crazed poetry readings, d’Harcourt’s unpublished science-fiction novel, Bodenheim’s lost movie scripts, Egris’s ghost poems, and Joe Gould’s unpublished “Oral History,” parts of which were supposedly hidden in different corners of the city. (Today, the New York Public Library won’t let patrons even photocopy the Raven Anthology. The binding is crumbling and the pages are fading in the long-neglected collection.)

At the height of the scandal, the prince wrote a poem for Krist—a melancholy meditation on their love affair:

Someday in the distant future when you look back upon a sea of vanished time
And the unseen petals of a rose that never bloomed
Fall slowly in the dark like saddest tears, the stillness of the abyss of love that was denied
Will be your rosary, my adorable Madonna.

Krist, Beltrone, and the rest of the Ravens shared his sense of looming obscurity and “the abyss of love that was denied.” During the poetry fair of 1934, the Great Depression must have seemed endless. They had already seen an entire country crumble to pieces. Why should they believe that their work would endure? These writers weren’t trying to make a living with poetry, but they were desperately seeking readers. Despite his mangled metaphors, the prince had a point. For one thrilling summer, he helped the Ravens cross the abyss. 

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