And I’d Do It Again — The Reviews
In 1936 a wondrous story of a world traveler, an autobiography of sorts, hit the bookstores. It was a bona fide high-test drama with a most preposterous cast of characters. It was in many ways more amazing than Jules Verne’s “Les Voyages Extraordinaires” or P.T. Barnum’s “Greatest Show on Earth” and it contained some of the more flabbergasting elements of Houdini’s escape acts. Part adventurer’s travelogue, part collection of anecdotes about fabulous 19th century characters, part steamy romance novel, and part anthropologist’s notebook, And I’d Do It Again, was a tour de force. It was met with mixed reviews.
The protagonist was perhaps the most famous society newspaper copy of her time. The world followed her adventures, both foreign and domestic, with delight and interest. She was born Amy Isabella Crocker. By the end of her life she was Princess Aimée Isabella Crocker Ashe Gillig Gouraud Miskinoff Galitzine. She was the daughter of one of the developers (and heroes) who built the famed Transcontinental Railroad, Edwin Bryant Crocker.
The heiress Aimée Crocker was an international social success, making front page headlines from coast to coast, in Europe and throughout Asia. She was known for her decade of travel and adventure in the mysterious Far East, for her extravagant parties in San Francisco, New York and Paris, and for her collections of husbands, adopted children, bulldogs, snakes, pearls, Buddhas and tattoos.
Aimée was known also for her relationships with actors, painters, literary figures, princes, maharajas, a baron, a king, a chieftain, a Bowery Underworld figure, a legendary occultist, and more than one opera singer. She was a jet setter before there were jets, a great entertainer before there was a movie industry, and a liberated woman before the 19th Amendment.
Appearing in London as Without Regrets, her autobiography was described by Publisher’s Weekly as: “an unusual gossipy reminiscence of a California heiress’ travel, amatory and marital experiences [who] in the late 80s defied tradition and traveled alone in the Orient.”
Many publishers jockeyed, clamored and wooed Madame Crocker into writing her memoirs. Pioneer Jack Kahane whose Parisian Obelisk Press published D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, James Joyce’s Haveth Childers Everywhere and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, was a contender, but in the end the controversial Kahane wasn’t quite daring enough to publish Princess Aimée’s magnificent life story. The book became a topic of conversation in newsrooms, classrooms, barrooms and at dinner tables throughout the country and in more than a few pubs and cafés in Europe, leading everyone to draw conclusions, morals, and opinions. It was a world-wide field day for clucking tongues and wagging fingers.
“No fertile brained writer of fiction could concoct a more thrilling plot with more bizarre characters,” was the summary of one critic. Australia’s The Telegraph Brisbane wrote of her memoirs:
It is difficult to imagine a life story more glamorous or more colourful. Whether one is nauseated by the recital, or amused, or intrigued by it as a bizarre manifestation of human nature, it is certain that all readers of it will agree that the author has an attractively reflective mind and that she writes with a natural forcefulness well matching her personal fascinations. She tells of many dramatic happenings with a skill that a novelist might envy.
The Los Angeles Times was less generous in their assessment:
Old-time California families are sighing that Aimée Crocker should have written that sort of a book. Yes, well-written, everyone agrees, but a deplorable record… They marvel that the Crocker family should have countenanced it. “It was a dreadful revelation of depravity to me,” said one pioneer Californian.
The Birmingham Daily Gazette found her writing technique striking:
…a collection of reminiscences told in a higgledy-piggledy method as they crowd into the author’s memory. Whenever she approaches anything like sequence in style, or chronological review of her full life, she hurries away into the haphazard again with the cry that such straightforwardness is boring, and such details (as for instance three marriage), are merely tedious episodes. The result makes for complete chaos, but continuous interest in that a series of rattling good stories is told.
The book was a page turner but a perplexing read. In flits and tangents the lead character is revealed in what is a strange collection of anecdotes and narratives (with heaping helpings of esoteric philosophy). Her overriding motivations are sometimes hard to follow. Time Magazine’s literary critic called it:
A muddled concoction… written with a lurid, Sunday-supplement archness, by a daughter of the wealthy and picturesque Crocker family of San Francisco, detailing her travels in the Far East, her love affairs with a Japanese baron, a Chinese tyrant, a Borneo chieftain and a four-yard boa constrictor named Kaa.
The Winnipeg Free Press wrote:
It’s as vulgar as the gilded frescoes that adorn Oriental booths at the fair. It swarms with séances, toreadors, Rajahs, sin, and snakes. The author was born in San Francisco of immensely wealthy parents so, of course, she slept in a Chinese bed and became engaged to a prince and collected islands and divorces and lovers and bibelots and pearls. She also collected swear-words on the waterfront of San Francisco, but she puts none of these in the book, which is disappointing, for swearing would have made a nice change from the séances and the sin and the snakes. There is good earthy vulgarity enlivened with the comic spirit, and there is vulgarity like pink icing on gingerbread, leaving a dull sickly taste in the mouth. Too bad.
According to Saturday Review:
In Aimée Crocker’s (Princess Galitzine’s) reminiscences, there is really very little of an external picture, but rather the vivid and curious depiction of a state of mind. It is the portrait of a woman as she would like to be seen, as she sees herself through the mists of memory, a heroine of dream and wish-fulfillment. It is a book where romance is pushed almost to the extremity of burlesque… The book gives the impression of a fantasy, of something altogether remote from reality; where facts glitter and change in the stage-light of a woman’s imagination.
Singapore’s The Straits Times saw some of Aimée’s anecdotes as far-fetched and wrote, “This incredible blather is not put forward frankly as fiction but as a true story in an autobiography for which you and I and other boobs are expected to pay twelve and sixpence.”
The Oakland Tribune, The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Francisco Call and The Los Angeles Times followed Aimée’s life from cradle to grave, as did many other West Coast publications. The East Coast took notice of Miss Crocker and her shenanigans by early adulthood and the rest of the world soon followed.
The most biting and probably the most painful review came from The New York Times who wrote:
It was sometimes said that if she ever wrote her autobiography it would make a sensation. Well, here is her autobiography, after a fashion — at least a collection of anecdotes from her life — and it is not a sensation… Some of the author’s flirtations had exciting backgrounds, to be sure, but even they grow monotonous. And the real stuff of interest isn’t here. This book is only a record of rather greedy pleasure seeking… her naïve definitions of “living” and “seeing life” were never deepened or enriched or matured. She just topped a flirtation here with another flirtation there, and a new sensation in one place with a new sensation in another place, and there was that.
It was an unfair assessment from an easily excitable reviewer who clearly was dazzled and hypnotized by the more titillating activities that were chronicled in And I’d Do It Again. Included in the book: a harrowing honeymoon train crash in California; a blood curdling escape down a jungle river; an abduction by a Dyak prince; a lesbian double suicide; a poisoning in Hong Kong; a murder attempt by knife-throwing servants in Shanghai; a search for Kaivalya (Liberation) at the cave of the Great Yogin Bhojaveda in Poona, India; and two bizarre sensual/sexual experiences, one with an Indian boa constrictor, and another with a Chinese violin in the “House of the Ivory Panels.”
Crocker’s more cerebral and spiritual side got at least as much play in her book. A meticulous attention to detail, coupled with a sense of wonder and exploration form the backbone of And I’d Do It Again. Before publication, it was reported that Aimée was compiling a book that contained a complete exposition of her esoteric belief system, which was rooted in Eastern and Western mysticism that, “would present many novel solutions to problems that were puzzling the modern world.” Her publisher, Coward and McCann, clearly had their own agenda in telling her story.
While comprehensible motivations aren’t always available in the 1936 biography a chief modus operandi is depicted. Wherever she traveled (China, Japan, Java, Borneo, India…) she would zero in on and get close to a dashing young man (the baron, the chieftain, the maharaja, the prince, the king) who had knowledge of all of the peculiarities and history of the natives and the countryside. Her flirtations sometimes led to romance, sometimes to danger, but always and inevitably led to insights into the society and a deep appreciation for their culture and traditions.
What is not included in Aimée Crocker’s 1936 chronicles is puzzling. Her parents — Edwin, who was also a nationally known abolitionist and a state Supreme Court Judge, and her humanitarian mother, Margaret, who was known as “Lady Bountiful” — didn’t make the cut, nor did three of her five husbands, and four of her five children. All were not named. Aimée made no effort to set the record straight on a banquet of controversial stories that captured the attention of journalists worldwide.
The heiress’ husbands also got a lot of press. She didn’t marry easily managed and tractable men. Each of the five — the turfman/gambling/lawyer, the Commodore/baritone/prestidigitator, the Broadway songwriter and the two Russian princes, were as flamboyant as Aimée, and entered and exited her life with grand display, scandal and sometimes tragedy…