by K.M.C. Taylor
I have nothing to be ashamed of, in spite of the scandalous press reports that hopeful reporters managed to use to amuse a scandal-loving public. And if I have dared to stick my nose into trouble just because the game was fun, does it make me a brazen hussy? – Aimée Crocker
Aimée lost control of her life story very early on. The press used and abused her mercilessly. She wrote, “Isn’t it peculiar. If times are dull, no war, train wreck or sensational murder, they immediately start wedding bells for me — then follow columns on columns about parties I never gave to people I never met.” These sensational stories were both an enormous burden and a cover.
Crocker was informed, traveled, witty and crafty… and a gifted story-teller/yarn spinner. She enjoyed playing cat and mouse. The press enjoyed showcasing and embellishing her talents. Reporters loved writing about the heiress’s long list of lovers. Stories were told of of duels fought to win her love. Of roaming the jungles with native boys. Of snake orgies in her Parisian “House of Fantasy.” The truth of her love life, after piecing together the overwhelming deluge of these articles, is far more sensational than any single reporter of the Victorian and Edwardian Ages could have imagined, if only half of the tales were half true. Besides the men that she married: the gambling/turfman/state senator, the prestidigitator/opera singer/Commodore, the Broadway ragtime songwriter, the fake Russian prince and the real Russian Count, she was linked romantically to actors, novelists, an ambassador/composer, a Chinese baron, a prince from Borneo, a legendary occultist and a king…
Aimée was also linked romantically in the press to three well known journalists, the three Henrys, in a handful of articles–Henry “H.J.W.” Dam, Henry “H.R.” Haxton and Sir Henry Norman, 1st Baronet. Just how involved they were in Aimée’s fantastic love life is really anybody’s guess, but they certainly frolicked in her circles. And they were certainly her type—bold, clever and adventurous.
It was on the new San Francisco Examiner that editor H.R. Haxton was first engaged by the young publisher, William Randolph Hearst, and enthralled by his pension for the sensational. Hearst wanted stories written in “dramatic form,” not quite fixed shape but not quite reportage. During a stormy night in 1890 Paxton literally took a dive for Hearst—into the San Francisco harbor. Hot on the trail of a news bulletin about a group of fishermen they were spotted shipwrecked on a rock, Hearst commandeered a tugboat and set out to make news. He gathered up some of the younger members of what he called his “adventure squad,” a small group of reporters that included Haxton and Edward W. “Ned” Townsend, a humor writer who wrote “Chimmie Fadden” Bowery boy stories and later became a New Jersey congressman. Ned was a good friend of another Henry in Aimée’s life, Henry Mansfield Gillig, her second husband.
“A whitehall boat and two boatmen were taken in tow, and the Sea Queen steamed down the bay at full speed toward the Golden Gate,” wrote Haxton, “The reporters stood outside the pilothouse straining eyes and ears to catch a glimpse of the castaway or the sound of human voice born on the Gale. They knew only that a man was clinging to a rock somewhere near point Bonita. What rock or how near the point they did not know.”
“The naked man could be seen clearly outlined in the moonlight, standing on the summit of the rock and waving his arms in frantic distress. The sea broke up to his feet, and at times he was completely enveloped in spray. Being unable to induce the boatman to pull closer, I took the heavy line, jumped overboard and swam toward the rock. For several minutes I battled successfully with the breakers,” wrote Haxton.
The fisherman was too far gone and crazed with terror to jump off the rocks to the Sea Queen. His name was Antonio Nicolas. He was one of the crew of the fishing boat Samson. The owner and skipper of the boat was George Michel, and three Greeks made up the crew of five. The Samson jibed and capsized in the squall and the skipper and the three Greeks were drowned. Nicolas managed to get his clothes off before the boat sank, and sprang into the sea. The strong, burly young Russian struggled in the choppy waters. By mere chance a wave flung him on Bonita rock. Clutching seaweed, he resisted the backward break of the waters and scrambled up to the top. There he clung, pounded by every billow that broke over the rock, and torn by the barnacles that covered it. He saw the tugs approach and leave him, and was sunken into despair by the time the Examiner’s rescue party found him.
The boatman refused to put his boat near enough to the rock to enable Haxton to throw a line, fearing that the trough of a wave might drop the boat upon a sunken rock and smash a hole in her. Haxton, a powerful swimmer, undressed and carried a line to the chilled fisherman, who was pulled into the tug, bundled into blankets and taken to the Examiner office. There he was given hot coffee while an artist sketched him, along with Hero Haxton, for an exclusive story in the morning paper that did not fail to criticize the Coast Guard at the same time that it lauded the Examiner’s dash and enterprise.
Born in 1860 in East Orange NJ, Henry Haxton was a slightly unsettling person, a tall, lean, unpredictable, edgy, stuttering man with a broad nose and a triangular goatee. He had run away to sea before turning 20 and arrived in Chicago by way of Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, and then New York, where he had been serving Hearst as an editor at the New York Journal, a brash and sensationalist paper. Haxton was assigned to work with Stephen Crane, fresh after achieving great success with The Red Badge of Courage on a gritty series “The Tenderloin as It Really Is,” which became a seminal chapter in Crane lore.
Haxton moved easily among Bohemian sets in the 1880s and 1890s and became a member of a cohort of celebrity writers and artists that included Ambrose Bierce, Aimée’s dear friend Frank Unger, “Petrie” Bigelow and Lloyd Osbourne, literary god Robert Louis Stevenson’s stepson. In 1888, before setting sail for the South Pacific, Haxton was introduced to Stevenson by Osborne. The night of June 27th, 1888, Haxton joined the others at a hilarious farewell party on board the Casco, the luxury schooner Stevenson hired to take him to Samoa. His interview of the Treasure Island author was printed in the Examiner the next day. A twenty-three-year old Aimée Crocker was, incidentally, on board the S.S. Australia that same month on her first trip to the South Seas.
Haxton’s wide circle of artistic friends also included James McNeill Whistler. Haxton taunted Whistler for his constant socializing calling him “Fancy Jim,” while Whistler would mimic Haxton’s stutter outrageously… When Whistler decided to move to Paris in 1890, Haxton was there to enjoy the artist’s famous garden behind the big arched porch at 110 rue de Bac. In early 1894, Haxton’s book Hippolyte and Golden-Beak: Two Stories was published under the pseudonym George Bassett and was dedicated to Whistler, “…For us, who have only black and white upon our palettes, it remains to link our wagons to your star as best we can…”
At some point in the 1880s, Haxton married a passing British actress, Agnes Thomas, who was said to dote on him. By 1891 Haxton was married yet again, this time to Sara “Sallie” Thibault, a tall, thin, often sickly member of California’s “400”—the descendants of the state’s settler families whose social circle was the most exclusive in western America. He had met her through Ambrose Bierce. She was among the finest pianist in local society.
Sallie was part of a coterie of self-described “intellectual women” who gathered around artists and writers, including Helen Hunt Jackson, author of the hugely popular novel Ramona. Thibault and her friends called themselves “The Salon,” and dabbled in the spiritualism that was fashionable at the time, often meeting to discuss what The San Francisco Call said were “abstruse and occult topics.” She held ghost parties, “each depressed young person in turn narrated the most gruesome tale that recurred to his memory or that he could invent upon the spur of the moment…”
In October 1892 a son, Frederic Gerald Haxton, was born in Paris. Gerald would become the closest friend and sexual companion to literary heavyweight Somerset Maugham. Soon after Gerald was born, the Haxtons settled in London. But eventually, the Thibault money ran out, and with it, Henry R. Haxton. The erratic journalist was soon in pursuit of other strange goddesses…
Everything Explained that is Explainable
At the end of the century, Henry Haxton partnered with Horace Everett Hooper, who owned one of the largest publishing houses in the Midwest. They came across the Encyclopædia Britannica, published by Adam & Charles Black, whose Ninth Edition’s final volume was seen by many as the height of English intellectual achievement. It was distinguished by entries from Charles Darwin, Thomas Malthus, Sir Walter Scott, David Ricardo, William Hazlitt and John Locke. The Ninth had everything an encyclopedia needed. Except readers. They bought the publishing rights.
Hooper and Haxton developed a new marketing plan for the encyclopedia’s next two editions, which they planned to produce, and approached the then-struggling London Times, which became their publishing partner. Henry and Horace also aimed to bring out a brand-new model. The audacious story of these two American hucksters resurrecting a dying Encyclopædia Britannica by means of a floundering London Times is the subject of the well-reviewed 2016 book Everything Explained that is Explainable, On the Creation of the Encyclopædia Britannica’s Celebrated Eleventh Edition by Denis Boyles.
Hooper (with his business partner, William Montgomery Jackson) was responsible for the Eleventh edition’s structuring and finance. Haxton, was the unorthodox American ad man who mounted its extraordinarily effective transatlantic marketing campaign. Hugh Chisholm, the encyclopedia’s British, Oxford-educated chief editor, whose sophisticated intellect and worldly erudition, shaped its spirit. The Times and the Britannica would become one, combining American energy and ingenuity with British credibility and authority.
The tag line for the 11th was, “The Sum Of Human Knowledge! All that is new and new views of all that is old! The most costly literary venture ever brought to completion! Everything explained that is explainable!” Haxton’s flamboyant marketing claimed the eleventh edition as a landmark publication that would place into the hands of its owner:
[A]ll that mankind has thought, done or achieved, all of the past experience of humanity that has survived the trial of time and the ordeal of service and is preserved as the useful knowledge of today. Of the human race and its endowment, of persons, places, histories, languages, literature, arts, sciences, religions, philosophies, laws, industries, and of the things and ideas connected with these, all is included that is relevant and everything explained that is explainable. In brief, to borrow an illustration from the engineer, the contents of the Eleventh Edition of the [Encyclopaedia Britannica] constitute a cross section of the trunk of the tree of knowledge.
Together the three wise men gathered a young staff of university graduates who worked with fanatical conviction. They assembled 1,500 contributors scattered around the globe including more than 200 members of the Royal Society; fellows of the British Academy; diplomats; government officials; officers of learned societies . . . contributions by the most admired writers, thinkers, and scientists of the day. Among the new names of those who contributed to its volumes were: Jessie Weston, Matthew Arnold, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Robert Louis Stevenson, John Muir, Lord Macaulay, T. H. Huxley, G. K. Chesterton, Edmund Husserl, Alfred North Whitehead, Bertrand Russell, Edmund Gosse, and W. M. Rossetti, among others. Importantly, it also included articles by some two hundred women. Janet Hogarth held a key position on the editorial staff with responsibility for the publication’s pioneering index volume. Laid out in small, neat text across two columns per page of thin India paper, the encyclopedia’s articles were copiously illustrated with black-and-white diagrams and photographs. In addition, these were supplemented by a set of numerous pull-out maps and color plates that are as much objects of beauty as the morocco-leather volumes of the encyclopaedia itself.
Eagerly embraced by hundreds of thousands of middle-class Americans, the Eleventh Edition was read as a twenty-nine-volume anthology of some of the best essays written in English–some 44 million words total. Its astonishing success (it became the first encyclopedia in history to sell one million sets) changed publishing. A century later, Britannica’s Eleventh Edition, still the monarch of all English-language encyclopedias, is considered by many to be the last great work of the age of reason. It was the human genome project of its day.
Aimée Crocker was linked to Haxton romantically at the turn of the century when both of their marriages were on the fritz. He was described as “dangling in her train.” Aimée instead chose a young man 15-years Haxton’s junior as her main squeeze, but continued to invite the eccentric gentleman with encylopediac knowledge to her homes. He was considered one of her oddities at the Bohemian dinner parties held formally and informally at her beautiful villa at Larchmont, on Long Island Sound. Haxton’s raffish, caddish tendencies and his intellectual acumen mingled nicely with the flirtatious, ever sharp-witted and worldly Aimée Crocker.
The story of the dashing Sir Henry Norman, 1st Baronet, going overboard for the beautiful heiress caused a scandal and some newspaper retractions…
To Be Continued…