“MORE WHISKEY AND BROKEN CROCKERY AND MAYBE BROKEN NECKS… (AND PLEASE BE KIND ENOUGH TO BURN THIS PAGE)”: RARE SIX-PAGE AUTOGRAPH LETTER SIGNED BY HART CRANE, WRITTEN IN DECEMBER 1927 TO CLOSE FRIEND, WRITER WILLIAM SLATER BROWN, A WONDERFULLY INTIMATE ACCOUNT OF HIS ADVENTURES DURING A BRIEF STAY IN CALIFORNIA, LESS THAN THREE YEARS BEFORE PUBLICATION OF HIS MASTERPIECE, THE BRIDGE
CRANE, Hart. Autograph letter signed. Santa Monica, California: December 19, . Five original leaves of letterhead (each measures 7 by 11 inches) in manuscript on recto (1-4), and on recto and verso (5). $8200.
Rare lengthy December 19, 1927 autograph letter signed by Hart Crane, six pages entirely penned by Crane on the letterhead of Santa Monica’s Breakers Hotel to his good friend and fellow writer, William Slater Brown, recounting Crane’s adventures in California as companion and literary guide to eccentric millionaire Herbert Wise, with Crane offering fascinating and richly detailed accounts of riotous evenings with friends, “caviar and port every night,” a chance meeting on the beach with “a great reactionary… talking literature, Spengler, Kant, Descartes and Aquinas,” and containing exceptional insights into his literary influences. Within six months of this letter Crane was headed back to New York and in 1930 published his magnum opus, The Bridge.
This rare six-page autograph letter signed by Hart Crane—hailed by Robert Lowell as “the great poet of that generation”—was written in late December 1927 to close friend and fellow writer, William Slater Brown, and is dated less than three years before publication of his masterpiece, The Bridge. Crane’s wonderfully intimate letter, rich with drama and breezily poetic descriptions, offers an exceptional glimpse into his short stay in California. In mid-1927 Crane, then struggling in New York, was introduced to “Herbert Wise, a wealthy 34-year-old neurotic who on medical advice was planning a six-month stay in California following a nervous breakdown and was in need of sensitive and well-read companionship for the duration of his sabbatical… By 3 November it had been decided: Crane was to travel to southern California” as Wise’s companion and literary guide. They arrived there on November 21st and settled in a villa near Pasadena. Wise, whose father Nathan Wise had left him millions, had made another fortune on Wall Street and had literary ambitions of his own. His nephew, Bennet Cerf, founder of Random House, once described Wise as “absolutely brilliant. I felt he knew everything.” During his time in Los Angeles, however, “Wise was not content with gentle distraction: he wanted to meet film stars and to give parties and soon Crane concluded that he had ‘a furious love of excitement” (Fisher, Hart Crane, 357-67).
As this letter reveals Crane, even while indulging Wise’s passion for Hollywood glitter, “did manage to get some interesting reading in. It was one of the few aspects of the job that had actually been spelled out for him: reading the best that was available and then reporting back to Wise, who read many of the same books and articles, after which they would discuss what each had found. In this fashion Crane perused I.A. Richards’ Principles of Literary Criticism (‘damned good,’ he thought) and… Weston’s From Ritual to Romance. The book had shown him just how many ‘time-honored symbols’ he had already employed in building The Bridge. He even began a correspondence with a Spanish critic, Antonio Marichalar, who wrote the Madrid letter for Eliot’s Criterion and who had the year before published a favorable review of White Buildings .” Richards, Weston and Marichalar are each favorably discussed in Crane’s letter, which also hints at an undercurrent of Crane’s restlessness and loneliness away from his friends and his life in New York. “In the weeks since meeting Wise, Crane had written exactly nothing. Something had to give in such an ‘egg-stepping’ bower of bliss. So it should have come as no surprise to him that, by the end of a month in California, Crane found himself at odds with the boss’s weekend guests. These were a ragtag assortment of men and women who made their living in any way they could on the fringes of Hollywod” (Mariani, Broken Tower, 288). By then Crane had already “told several friends it would be safer to describe many of his California antics in person rather than commit the details to letters but he did give Slater Brown” a wonderfully engaging and intimate account in this lengthy letter—even as he begs his friend, at one point, to “please be kind enough to burn this page.” Dated December 19, 1927, the letter was written while Crane, still in Wise’s employ and enjoying his support, was temporarily and “happily on his own at the Breaker Club in Santa Monica” (Fisher, Hart Crane, 361-63).
The text of Crane’s six-page letter entirely in his manuscript hand reads: “Monday, Dec. 19  Dear Bill: Yes, one can hear the sea seven flights below—and I’m here working on the beach most of the day. The boss, finding that I didn’t get along any too well with some of his Hollywood week-end guests, advised my taking a vacation and with means happily provided, here I am until tomorrow night. Wall Street seems to carry a slight oppression and madness with it wherever it ‘extends’. It has been good to come over here where places are rather deserted of crowds and hear the gulls cry overhead and watch the solemn pelicans eye you awhile and then haul up their legs and sprawl into the air. Viennese cooking with caviar and port every night for dinner is playing hell with my waistline and I sleep as never before, excepting the cradle. One can’t seem to wake up out here without the spur of scotch or gin. There has been plenty of that—in fact last Saturday night I danced the ‘Gotzottsky’[possible variant of: ‘Kazatsky’] right on Main St. Los Angeles, while Chuck Short, an aviator from Riverside and a Kentuckian—danced the Highland Fling—or as good an imitation of it as he could manage. This after having invaded the Biltmore ballroom and dancing with fair ladies of the haute mondaine. Albeit—and having got our waiter drunk and having left in high dudgeon—I don’t think we dare attend their supper club again. After a good deal of fair sailing since arriving here—I am now convinced that ‘flying’ is even better. Right now however—and until next week-end—I am ‘all fives’ on the ground and life can run as high as it wants to over in our villa without my batting an eye. And it is [underlining in original] running high, I can tell you; that’s why I’m here just now. I never could stand much falsetto, you know. God! you never know who you’re meeting out here. First there was a snappy collegiate hanging around the studio, who turned out to know Allen—and then today on the beach a mile below here, at Venice, I found myself talking literature, Spengler, Kant, Descartes and Aquinas—to say nothing of Charles Maurras and Henri Massis—to a Boston [unclear word] of French descent who knows Stewart Mitchell, and especially his Aunt, very well! He turned out to be one of the best scholars I’ve ever met—a great reactionary toward the same kind [sic] classicism that Eliot and Lewis are fostering in England. I had him spotted as a Romanist in less than five minutes—but he wouldn’t admit it until we parted. The dialectic we had was more rousing than the aforesaid tonic combustions of alcohol, I admit. Winters and wife will be here visiting relations during Christmas week—and I look forward to that as a real event. Really, it’s terribly dulling having so many servants around, so much food, so much tiptoeing, and ceremony. But it takes some of these Hollywood fays to revolutionize all that. Whoops! and whoops again, dearie, and then more warbling, more whiskey and broken crockery and maybe broken necks, for all I know, when I get back and view the ruins! (and please be kind enough to burn this page) The present ‘star’ was once ‘Ariel’ in the ‘Tempest’—and though she still makes the welkin ring I fear her voice would never do again. She has adopted the pronoun ‘we’ to signalize her slightest thought, whim or act, and her conceit was so wounded on spying my ‘chaplinesque’ during the course of her drunken and exclamatory rampage through ‘Edificios Blancos’—that she nearly passed out and insisted on the spot that I make instant amends by composing a sonnet to her superb P.A. (Hollywood shorthand for ‘physical attraction’) as displayed in her erstwhile success in ‘Peter Pan.’ Hence here I am by the sea and mightily pleased—until the storm subsides. Any Spanish quotation from Slater Brown reminds me that I now have Joyces [sic] ‘Artiste Adolescente’ [i.e. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man]—a translation sent me by Marichalar who wrote a very interesting introduction. He was greatly interested in ‘The Caravan’ and is going to review it in the Revista de Occidente. Richards’ ‘Principles of Literary Criticism’ is a great book [underlining in original]. One of the few—perhaps the only one in English excepting stray remarks by Coleridge—that gets to be a rock. Westons [sic] book, ‘From Ritual to Romance’ was quite (over) fascinating—but Winters claims that scholars regard half her data and deductions as imaginative bunk. Did I roar to you about Elizabeth Madox Roberts [sic] new book—’My Heart and Flesh’ [i.e. My Heart and My Flesh]—before? Anyway, I hope you’ll read it. I think it a great performance. Poor Addie I got a most doleful letter from her not long ago—but she seems to see some [underlining in original] light in the improbable possibility of joining you in Bernardsville. I hope their plan will materialize. And how is Sue? Wish she would write when there isn’t anything else better to do. I’m glad you liked the Breugel book. Its humor really belonged to you, if you get what I mean, and you therefor were more capable of ‘owning’ it than anyone I ever knew. If you were dead and gone I think it would have been a better commemoration than flowers—so take good care of it—and hand it on to your grandchildren—for you never can tell—you may have them, you know! Love always, [signed] Hart.”
“By the beginning of February  Wise had begun to indicate that he wanted Crane to accompany him on his next trip to Europe: the opportunity was almost too wonderful to contemplate, even if he was beginning to tire of… his employer’s ‘interminable psycho-analysis of every book, person, sausage and blossom.” The planned trip never came about. “Whether or not Wise and Crane had a row it is now impossible to say, but they parted ways at the end of March.” After several unfruitful attempts to work in the film industry and a difficult stay with his family, Crane left his mother’s North Highland Avenue home on May 15, “never to see his mother or grandmother again. In so far as he had a home it was New York, cruel as it was, he told [his godmother] Zell, ‘but far better for me than either of my parents” (Fisher, 367-68, 76).
Crane’s close friend, William Slater Brown, was “a hard-drinking, hard-smoking, womanizing writer whose circle of close friends was formed by people who went on to become some of the most prominent figures of 20th-century American letters: E. E. Cummings, Hart Crane, Malcolm Cowley, Edmund Wilson, Djuna Barnes, Eugene O’Neill, Kenneth Burke, Matthew Josephson, John Dos Passos and Edna St. Vincent Millay… Brown was in part the model for the world-weary newspaperman Jimmy Herf in Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer and he appears as ’B.’ in The Enormous Room, Cummings’ account of their detention by the French while they were serving during WW I… He was the great-grandson of Samuel Slater, the British-born founder of the American cotton textile industry whom Andrew Jackson called the father of American manufacturers… At his death in 1997, Slater Brown was “one of the last survivors of the Lost Generation of writers whose restless, rebellious lives were shaped by World War I and the postwar bohemian society of Greenwich Village” (New York Times). This letter is from the estate of Professor Fraser Drew of the University of Buffalo in New York. Drew’s love of literature also led him to a correspondence and a meeting with Hemingway in Havana. Trace of paper clip to corner of first leaf, not affecting text.
A fine signed letter.