There were two English-language paperback series launched in Paris in 1932 as competitors to the long-established Tauchnitz Editions. One of them, Albatross Books, was enormously successful, effectively taking over Tauchnitz within two years and going on to publish around 450 books before the outbreak of war in 1939. The other, Crosby Continental Editions, was by almost any measure a failure, publishing just 10 books and not even outlasting the year.
But for some reason, it is the history of the unsuccessful company that seems to be more researched by historians, biographers and bibliographers, and the books of the unsuccessful company that are more highly prized these days, at least by booksellers. Christian Wegner and John Holroyd-Reece, the founders of Albatross Books have slid gently into obscurity, with neither meriting an entry in the English-language Wikipedia, although they do creep into the German version. Most of their books can still be bought for just a few Euros. In contrast Caresse Crosby’s life is pored over by historians and the books she published are highly prized and highly priced.
Much of the attention she gets is of course nothing to do with the Crosby Continental Editions. She is remembered for her invention of the modern bra, her highly colourful sex life, and the circles she moved in as a result of her wealth and her personality. She had a huge range of contacts and was able to draw on them for her list of publications. She persuaded Ernest Hemingway to let her publish ‘The torrents of Spring’ as the first book in the series and then ‘In our time’ as volume 6. She received advice from Ezra Pound, and persuaded T.S. Eliot to write an introduction for volume 4, ‘Bubu of Montparnasse’. That book had been translated by Laurence Vail, the husband of Kay Boyle, another friend of hers. Boyle’s own work ‘Year before last’ appeared as volume 8 of the series, and her translation of ‘Devil in the flesh’ by Raymond Radiguet, as volume 2. Crosby seemed to call in favours from a friend for almost every volume in the series.
And yet, it was a total failure. That may partly have been the choice of titles. Although Hemingway, Faulkner and Saint-Exupery sounds an impressive selection of authors, it was competing with Albatross, whose first ten books included titles by James Joyce, Aldous Huxley, Sinclair Lewis, Virginia Woolf, A.A. Milne and Edgar Wallace. Crosby had been keen to launch her series with a best-seller and was delighted to get Hemingway on board, but ‘The torrents of Spring’ is probably not his finest work. Albatross, which later published ‘The sun also rises’, may have got the better deal (not to mention Tauchnitz, which had earlier published ‘A farewell to arms’).
Overall the list contains 6 works by American authors and 4 by French writers in translation. Was it insufficiently cosmopolitan, or even insufficiently British, to appeal to the readers of English language books in continental Europe, many of whom would have been British expatriates or tourists?
But perhaps even more important is that the books, as physical objects, are poorly designed, if not simply ugly. It seems a strange thing to say, given that Crosby’s other venture, the Black Sun Press, was known for producing beautiful, high quality, limited editions. But to my eye these are anything but beautiful, and are not a patch on the elegant Albatross books. They seem to be modelled on the Tauchnitz Editions, which by then were looking old-fashioned. They used the same broad shape and the same buff covers. The CCE symbol on the cover is clunky and unattractive (to modern eyes resembling a Pac-man). In comparison, the taller and more colourful Albatrosses, with the distinctive albatross silhouette, would have stood out in every bookshop stocking the two series. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the Crosby editions were designed to fail and deserved to fail.
Which would you rather buy, whether in 1932 or now?
Interestingly they seem to have been issued originally with glassine dustwrappers, as were the early Albatross books, although Albatross soon abandoned these as a bad idea. Few of them survive from either series, but the photo below shows one recently sold at Sotheby’s. Judging by this, the dustwrappers did little to improve their appearance.
The fact that they are sold at Sotheby’s at all is an indication of the veneration in which these strange little books seem to be regarded. As far as I can tell, they are not rare – probably not as rare as many of the Albatross Books. As an example, ABE currently has 17 copies of the Crosby volume 1 for sale. The prices range from £32 to £178 for copies without the dustwrapper, to £1,250 for one copy with a dustwrapper, and £35,000 for an apparently limited edition in a slipcase, signed by Hemingway. Interestingly, the dedication from Hemingway in this copy is to Sylvia Beech, the owner of the Shakespeare & Co. bookshop in Paris and refers with a hint of sarcasm, to the heading on the cover ‘World-wide masterpieces in English’. Hemingway seems to be well aware that the book he had contributed was less than a masterpiece.
In comparison, ABE has just 5 copies of Albatross volume 1, at least 3 of which seem to be reprints, but you could still buy a first printing for £9. I know which book I’d prefer to buy.
Despite the short duration of the series, it had a surprising re-birth after the war, with one volume, ‘Devil in the flesh’ reprinted in an American hardback edition with a dustwrapper still in the old design, and one new volume issued in Rome in 1951. This final volume, a 13 page pamphlet advocating the use of referendums and issued almost 20 years after the others, seems to have little connection with the rest of the series.