Caresse Crosby (born Mary Phelps Jacob, April 20, 1891 – January 26, 1970) was the first recipient of a patent for the modernbra, an American patron of the arts, publisher, and the “literary godmother to the Lost Generation of expatriate writers in Paris.” She and her second husband, Harry Crosby, founded the Black Sun Press which was instrumental in publishing early works of many authors who would later become famous, including Kay Boyle, Hart Crane, Archibald MacLeish, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Duncan,Anaïs Nin, and Henry Miller.
Crosby’s parents, William Hearn Jacob and Mary Phelps, were both descended from American colonial families, William from the Van Rensselaer family and Mary from William Phelps. Her life at first followed convention. In 1915, she married Richard R. Peabody, another blue blooded Bostonian. They had two children, but following Richard’s service in World War I, Richard became a drunk who loved to watch buildings burn. She met Harry Crosby at a picnic in 1920 and they had sex within two weeks. Their public relationship scandalized proper Boston society.
Two years later Richard granted her a divorce and Harry and Polly were married. They immediately left for Europe, where they joined the Lost Generation of American expatriates. They embraced a bohemian and decadent lifestyle, living off of Harry’s trust fund of US$12,000 a year (or about $165,000 in today’s dollars), had an open marriage with numerous ongoing affairs, a suicide pact, frequent drug use, wild parties, and long trips abroad. At her husband’s urging, Polly took the name Caresse in 1924. In 1925 they began publishing their own poetry as Éditions Narcisse in exquisitely printed, limited-edition volumes. In 1927 they re-christened the business as the Black Sun Press.
In 1929 one of her husband’s affairs culminated in his death as part of a murder-suicide or double suicide. His death was marked by scandal as the newspapers speculated wildly about whether Harry shot his lover or not. Caresse returned to Paris where she continued to run the Black Sun Press. With the prospect of war looming, she left Europe in 1936 and married Selbert Young, an unemployed, alcoholic actor sixteen years her junior. They lived on a Virginia plantation they rehabilitated outside Washington D.C. until she divorced him. She moved to Washington D.C. and began a long-term love affair with black actor-boxer Canada Lee, despite the threat of miscegenation laws. She founded Women Against War. She continued after World War II to try to establish a Center for World Peace at Delphi, Greece. When rebuffed by Greek authorities, she purchased Castello di Rocca Sinibalda, a 15th-century castle north of Rome, which she used to support an artists’ colony. She died of pneumonia related to heart disease in Rome in 1970.