From the Archives: Getting Stoned in the Haut Monde (1979)

Helen Lawrenson remembers getting high with society.
Courtesy of High Times

On a London television program some years ago, Rex Harrison was asked if he had been quoted correctly in a press interview as saying that he used to smoke pot back in the ’30s. He hesitated before he answered, then smiled and said diplomatically, “Let’s just say that it was smoked in the ’30s.”

It sure was. At that time I was an editor of the Condé Nast magazine Vanity Fair. I used to buy marijuana cigarettes, then called reefers or weed, from a hunchback Harlem hustler nicknamed Money. They cost $1.50 a joint and were a lot more potent than the tatty, adulterated stuff you often get today. Part of my job on the magazine was to go to all the theater opening nights and to the fashionable nightclubs and parties. I used to get to the office around 8:30 in the morning, and frequently I didn’t leave until just in time to dash home, shower and get into evening clothes. I kept a supply of reefers in my apartment and would usually have a smoke before going out to face the rigors of the night. It got rid of any fatigue and rallied my stamina for the dancing and the revelry, which often lasted until dawn.

Although the stuff was legal then (it wasn’t outlawed until 1937), I doubt if I ever saw it smoked in public places, as one does today in discotheques, in parks, at pop concerts and similar gatherings. After it became illegal, I would often get a whiff of that sweet, unmistakable smell in the powder rooms of smart nightclubs and restaurants; Tallulah Bankhead and I once shared a joint in the ladies’ room of the Waldorf during some society ball. Tallulah smoked everything, took everything, did everything. She never made any secret of her habits. Marijuana, hashish, cocaine and opium were as much in vogue then as they are now—as I guess they always have been—with musicians, artists, poets, theater and film people, as well as with many members of what was called “café society.” It was from personal knowledge that Cole Porter wrote, not necessarily truthfully, “I get no kick from cocaine,” a line barred from radio stations of the time except when changed to “I get no kick from champagne.”

I had my first pot experience in 1933 at a party in Havana. I saw this cigarette being passed from person to person, and although I didn’t understand the ritual, I took my turn when it came my way, tentatively imitating the heavy inhaling and slurping. I asked what it was supposed to do to me. The university professor who was my escort said that when he smoked it, it made him feel so powerful that he would be able to tear the faucets out of the bathroom, should the notion seize him. I refrained from commenting that most Cuban bathroom fixtures were so shaky they fell off if you touched them.

Of course, all the cigarette did was give me the giggles, which is the same reaction I get today, 46 years later. I don’t mean that I’m a dyed-in-the-wool pothead, but I have been smoking, off and on, throughout the years, and I am living proof that it is not harmful and does not automatically lead to heroin, a life of crime, and an inevitable grovel in the gutter. The reason I don’t keep it at home or carry it around with me is because it’s illegal, which is the only proven danger about it. I am by nature law-abiding and can be cowed by signs like DONT SPIT ON THE FLOOR, DÉFENSE DE FUMER, and KEEP OFF THE GRASS. Well, to be frank, it’s not so much that I’m lawabiding as that I’m a coward. I’m afraid of the police, and I certainly don’t want any of those damn trained dogs charging into my apartment and sniffing around.

Although I myself have stuck to pot, possibly on the assumption that what was good enough for the Phoenicians and the Scythians 3,000 years ago is good enough for me—but more likely because of my timidity—many of my acquaintances in the ’30s and ’40s were more adventurous. Cecil Beaton, whom I knew when he, too, was working for Condé Nast, has written in his diaries that he smoked opium with Jean Cocteau, and so, apparently, did everyone else in that international coven of literary and artistic highfliers, including Coco Chanel, whom Cocteau liked to call “a little black swan.” I used to come in on the aftermath of these sessions. Vogue editors in Paris would say to me, “My dear, you should have been at Bebe Berard’s last night. We all smoked opium and it was too divine!”

I seem to have breezed through those days meeting people before or after. I knew the brilliant writer Emily “Mickey” Hahn before she went to China in 1935, where she started smoking opium and loved it, although she now adds that she was cured of addiction through hypnotism and then switched to cigars. I met Aldous Huxley at a luncheon meeting in the Vanity Fair office. No mushrooms on the menu. It was several years later that he discovered the fascination of the mindbending fungi. However, I did know a beautiful red-haired fashion model who spent a month in Mexico and Guatemala trying them out. In Mexico alone, she told me, there were 250 different kinds of organic hallucinogenic mushrooms, but she was vague about the number she had sampled. She later married a titled foreigner of ambiguous background and thenceforth called herself Princess. Back home again, she made quite a splash, getting impressionable local society spaced out in such assorted cities as Detroit, Akron and New York, in each of which she was received with that sickening sycophancy (try to say that when you’re stoned!) Americans display when confronted with any title, even a spurious one.

During the same period, I also knew a young English photographer who was visiting New York and who was taken up by the so-called Smart Bohemian Set of the time. He told me he went to a party with Libby Holman, who said she was bored with reefers and coke and wanted something new. The hostess had some peyote. “I was frightfully keen to try it,” the photographer said, “because I’d heard and read about it. But it was so tough. It was like trying to chew a rubber shoe sole. We finally solved the problem by cutting it into little pieces and stirring them into Jello. After it was in the fridge for several hours it was okay to eat.”

I didn’t meet Errol Flynn until the early ’50s, when I went to Mexico to do a profile of him for Esquire. Along with Ava Gardner, Tyrone Power and Mel Ferrer, he was filming The Sun Also Rises. The company was in Merida, but all journalists were persona non grata. I learned later that the reason was because Errol was charging his head with everything he could get, and every time the company doctor got him partially detoxified he would take off and start flying again. Finally, they got him comparatively under control and the company moved to Mexico City. Errol was staying at my hotel. The film’s press agent took me to his room to meet him. The press agent knocked on the door and gave his name. He was obviously taken aback to hear Errol shout cheerily, “Come on in. I’m taking a piss and the old dong is longer than ever!”

When Flynn opened the door and saw me, he didn’t lift an eyebrow. He bowed and gallantly kissed my hand, too much a natural aristocrat to be abashed—or maybe too stoned. He offered us a choice of tequila, vodka, marijuana or cocaine, ignoring the panicky expression on the face of the press agent, who looked as if he was undergoing an incipient attack of apoplexy. I said I’d have some tequila, while the press agent murmured weakly, “Errol’s a great kidder.” Flynn looked at him benignly. Our visit that day was short, but I saw Flynn alone several times, and although we did share a couple of smokes, I refused the other goodies he offered.

He must have had a remarkably strong constitution. Girls, dope, liquor—usually at the same time. I was talking about him in London with Trevor Howard, who was telling me about the filming of Roots of Heaven in French Equatorial Africa, now Chad. “It was one of my happiest pictures,” Trevor said. “Flynn and I sent a cable to Fortnum & Mason, ordering huge amounts of caviar and smoked salmon sent out to us. We had some jolly times. We all slept in tents, and there was a native girl who used to go into certain tents at night. She’d give a signal by mewing like a cat. So Errol and I used to creep up near Darryl Zanuck’s tent and go meow-meow, and he’d come out looking all around. We almost choked laughing … Errol managed to get all the morphine from the nearest hospital. Cleaned them out. I don’t know how he did it. Had the company doctor requisition it or something, I suppose. Wonderful chap, Errol. Only person I ever knew who took dope and drank like a fish. The two don’t usually go together. A very splendid man.”

No, they don’t usually go together. This is probably why I’ve only smoked pot. I started to drink during Prohibition, and I had no desire for other forms of stimulation. Most people I knew who took cocaine in the ’30s were not heavy drinkers. I never knew anyone who could have been called an addict, or anyone who experienced adverse reactions. Doctors today are beginning to admit that it is not as dangerous as they once thought, and that it does have legitimate medical uses. My friends took it for the same reasons I drank or smoked pot: to get high, overcome fatigue, relieve depression, make people and conversation more interesting, feel euphoric. Also, in some cases it was used to enhance sex by applying it to the tip of the penis, a custom known in Latin America as “la vida real” (“the royal life”), although in Cuba it was claimed they could get the same effect with Baum Bengue.

Like everything else, it was a great deal cheaper then than now. It was also much purer. We called it snow. Where now the verb is “to snort,” it was then “to sniff.” There were few of today’s fancy frills. No silver spoons or gold straws, just ordinary straws, the kind soda fountains give you. No rolled-up $100 bills, either, although a few big-spender types used $10 bills. They were considered showoffs.

I met Peter Lorre shortly after he came to this country. He was Hungarian, born in the Carpathian Mountains region that later became part of Czechoslovakia. He had been making films in Germany, of which the most famous was M, based on the true story of a psychopathic murderer in Dusseldorf. It had a great success both in Europe and here, and his performance is still regarded as one of the great ones in the history of the cinema. I had him come to the Condé Nast studio to be photographed for Vanity Fair.

Afterward, we went out for a drink, so that I could get material for the caption I was going to write. I ordered a Scotch and soda. He said he would have coffee. “You don’t want a drink?” I asked. He looked at me with those mournful, staring eyes. “I am a dope,” he said. His English was far from perfect, so I thought he meant the equivalent of “I am a dumbbell,” or some similar slang of that period. It turned out that what he meant was that he took dope. I reassured him that this was okay and that some of my best friends were dopes.

About ten years ago, when I was living in London, I had lunch with Caresse Crosby, and afterward we spent the rest of the afternoon smoking pot in her hotel room. I was 60 and she was in her mid 70s. She had come up from Rome, where she lived in a castle and was known as the Princess something-orother—some Italian name I’ve forgotten—and spent all her time and energy soliciting funds for an ambitious plan for One World Citizenship.

I suppose most people today never heard of Harry and Caresse Crosby. If I mention the name Crosby, they think I mean Bing. They know about Scott and Zelda, and about Hemingway, but they don’t know about Caresse and Harry, who were the ’20s’most far-out couple, more than a match for any of today’s Beautiful People. They would have thought Studio 54 a bore and Plato’s Retreat too plebian.

Caresse, whose original name was Mary Phelps Jacob, was a descendent of the Plymouth Colony’s Governor Bradford, who came over on the Mayflower. Born in New York, she lived in a mansion on Fifth Avenue at 59th Street, now the site of the Plaza Hotel. Her father apparently had no profession but was supported in high style by his father. The latter’s house was where Rockefeller Center is now. Caresse, then known as Polly, was brought up in luxury, sent to the best private finishing schools, presented at court in London, the only American debutante to curtsy to King George V and Queen Mary. She wore a white brocade satin gown with a train eight yards long, and three white ostrich plumes in her dark hair.

She knew everybody in the upper echelons of society and was expected to follow the rules and keep her place in the Social Register. So she married Dick Peabody of the Boston Back Bay Peabodys, a product of Groton and Harvard. All bills were paid by their grandparents (both sets of them), and they lived with her father-in-law, penniless themselves, like her parents, but living expensively, a subsidized golden couple. When her children were born, her husband’s godfather, J.P. Morgan, the banker, chipped in to pay the bills.

Her life might have gone on this way, had she not met Harry Crosby in 1919, J.P. Morgan’s nephew. “It was love at first sight,” she often said. She divorced Peabody and married Crosby. He was 21. She was 27. J.P. Morgan, “Uncle Jack,” gave Harry a job in the Paris branch of his bank; the bride and groom sublet Princess Bibesco’s flat on the Fauburg St. Honore; and the dizzy merry-go-round began. Harry always wore a black gardenia in his buttonhole (he had them made especially for him at a place on the rue de la Paix), and Caresse bought her clothes at couture houses and her diamond necklace at Cartier’s. Her children by Peabody were sent to Swiss boarding schools. She was accompanied everywhere by her pet black whippet, Narcisse Noir. The dog wore a gold necklace and his toenails were lacquered gold. The Crosbys entertained constantly—princes, dukes, duchesses, counts and other titled guests mingling with sculptors, painters and writers. Harry quit work at the bank because, he said, life was too short to work. And Uncle Jack footed the bills.

Life was a gala of champagne, cocaine, marijuana, hashish and opium smoked in pipes with porcelain bowls and jade handles. Caresse and Harry took a flat of their own in the rue de Lille, where they sometimes entertained in bed, with small tables set up for guests, or in the bathroom, which had an open fireplace, a white bearskin rug and a sunken marble tub. The tub could hold four—and frequently did.

Their idea of a great party was the Arts Ball. Reminiscing as we sat in her London hotel room, Caresse described one such event: “I think it was in 1927. I went as an Inca princess. I wore a long blue wig and was stripped to the waist. I sat in the mouth of a huge papier mache dragon. First, we marched up the Champs Elysees. The girls were nude to the waist, the men completely nude. I rode on a baby elephant, and people crowded around me to kiss my painted knees. Harry wore a collar of dead pigeons and carried a bag of live snakes. When we entered the ballroom, I was carried in my dragon’s mouth by ten handsome nude young men. I won first prize. My breasts helped me win, I’m sure . . . When I went home I found Harry in the bathtub with three pretty girls. We slept seven in our bed that night.”

When not indulging in high jinks that make the ’70s seem tame, the Crosbys were both writing poetry. It was at that time that she adopted the name Caresse. In 1927 they started the Black Sun Press in order to publish their own poems. (She was charmingly vague about any financial sources.) Later, they branched out, printing a collection of Proust’s letters, poems by their close friend Hart Crane, stories by D.H. Lawrence and Kay Boyle, part of Joyce’s work in progress. Their own literary talents were limited, to put it politely, but their exuberant personalities and bizarre ways made them the most sought-after couple in Paris. Everyone visited them, from Schiaparelli, the designer, to Aldous Huxley, Andre Gide, Max Ernst, Giacometti. Even Eva Braun dropped in for a drink, brought by some Viennese acquaintance, and signed the Crosby guest book.

In 1928 they took a fateful trip to Egypt, fateful because Harry became enraptured of Ra, the sun god. He had a sun tattooed between his shoulder blades, and from then on he became increasingly weird until, on a New York visit in 1929, he committed suicide, believing that he was going to meet the sun.

Caresse was made of tougher fiber. She married a couple more times, and wherever she was—New York, Paris, London—she was a center of attention, the fascinating lode star of the wilder international set. Even when I last saw her, she was energetically campaigning for her World Citizen idea, a spunky old lady, loaded with charm and vitality. “I’ve had a great life,” she said to me. “I don’t see why people make such a fuss about dope. It never did me any harm. I used to hate pot because it made me choke, but I got over that. Everyone we knew in Paris smoked it and sniffed cocaine, so Harry and I did, too. But when you sniff cocaine it gets into your clothes, down your neck, under your nails. Opium was more fun, I used to think. It’s no more habit-forming than tobacco. Well, of course, tobacco is habit-forming, isn’t it? It’s much more harmful. It kills you.’’

I didn’t know her in the ’20s, when she was riding high and fast. Perhaps it’s just as well I didn’t. She was too far out for me, although I enjoyed hearing her talk about the old days.

My heyday was in the ’30s. Pot smoking was not as widespread as it is today, which only proves the stupidity of outlawing it. Of course, if you lie around and smoke pot all day, you don’t get anything else done. But if you lie around and drink coffee all day, you don’t get much done, either. There are always people who do things to excess, whether dope, alcohol or gluttony. These are people who would have a problem anyway. I expect that marijuana will eventually be legalized. Some six years ago the Young Women’s Christian Association, during a three-day convention in Michigan, passed a resolution calling for legalization. With such support from an irreproachably wholesome organization, whose official policy has never been to foster depravity, I think it’s about time to put a legal end to the myth that blowing grass makes you a dope fiend.

High Times Magazine, June 1979

Read the full issue here.

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