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.
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 D’Harcourt may have wooed her with his favorite topic, his unpublished novel entitled Ro Dran and the Year 90,000.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.”
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FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: unknown member, Anca Vrbovska, Seraphin A. Busacca, Marie Margaret Winthrop, unknown member, Vincent Beltrone, Joe Vallon, Louise Krist, and Francis Lambert McCrudden. Collection of the New-York Historical Society.