Hart Crane (1899-1932) was a rising young star of the American literary world when he vanished in unusual circumstances, from a passenger ship sailing from Mexico to New York City in 1932. As the S.S. Orizaba steamed up the Florida coast, Crane was on deck taking the air with other passengers, when he removed his coat, straddled the railing, said “Goodbye everyone”, and stepped off into the Atlantic.
Crane was born into the affluent family of a successful Ohio confectioner. He worked briefly as a reporter and advertising copywriter in New York before the publication of his poetry collection White Buildings in 1926. Stylistically eclectic and innovative - critics drew comparisons with Eliot and Pound, among others - White Buildings brought him attention. His second collection, The Bridge (1930), a modernist elegy to the city of New York which had started out as a grand American epic, garnered even greater critical acclaim, and he was becoming acknowledged as a master of the longer poetic form, and the prose-poem or proem.
At the time of his disappearance he was returning from a stay in Mexico, where he had travelled as the recipient of one of the first-ever Guggenheim Fellowships. He had intended to write an epic poem about the Spanish conquistador Cortes and the downfall of the Aztec civilisation, but had little to show for his time away beyond the debilitating effects of an alcoholism that saw him fall into fits of rage, horrifying his friends.
As the ship sailed on toward New York, other problems might have clouded his mind too. Heir to a fortune in the confectionary business, Crane had never had to worry much about money, but the death of his father the year before, and financial concerns from the Depression, then at its deepest, affected him profoundly. The Orizaba had also sailed near the Isle of Pines off the Cuban coast, where the family had a holiday home, and where he had written some of his finest poetry. Sailing back to New York, he might well have worried that the best of his life was already behind him.
Yet another set of problems might have vexed him as well. He had reportedly made advances to a crew member, and was bruised from the beating he had received from crewmen in return. Crane had had his first homosexual experiences in adolescence, but despite one or two promising relationships, by his late twenties cut the figure of a lonely man. Some critics have suggested that The Bridge referred to the Brooklyn Bridge, and codified a well known homosexual beat beneath it.
After Crane went over the side, the ship’s commander, Captain J.E. Blackadder, gave the order for the Orizaba to turn and search the area where he had disappeared, but there was no sign of the young poet. That night Captain Blackadder cabled the news: “Hart Crane went overboard at noon today. Body not recovered.”
One of Crane’s New York literary contemporaries, M.R. Werner, was later quoted by writer Robert Creamer, in a letter to the New Yorker (27 November 2006) as having said of Crane: “He was such a faker, always on stage, always acting a role. I’ve never believed he jumped off that boat to kill himself. I think it was an act, and that Hart expected someone to jump in and rescue him. It must have sobered Hart up when the ship kept going.”
An irony about the man who stepped off the S.S. Orizaba is that the confectionary his father invented, and which made the family fortune, was the Life Saver. Even more ironic, for years it was widely believed that Clarence Crane had invented Life Savers because his daughter had choked to death on a solid sweet, so he invented “the candy with the hole”. While this story was not true, it is the truth that his son perished because no-one threw him - or knew how to throw him - a life saver.
Hart Crane was 32. The cable sent by Captain Blackadder was delivered to his family in the Ohio town of Chagrin Falls.
“Get my swan costume ready.”
last words of ballerina Anna Pavlova, died 1931
From my book "Dead Famous: Deaths of the Famous and Famous Deaths".