On Cora Crane and the Literary Women Who Prop Up Literary Men
In Celebration of a Writer, Bill-Payer, and Bordello Owner
By September 1900, Cora Crane was desperate for money. This wasn’t a new state of affairs; there was never enough money, even when her common-law husband Stephen Crane had been alive. But the author of The Red Badge of Courage had been dead for more than three months. There were still some short stories of his left to sell, perhaps a biography of him left to write, but what to do after that?
“I’ve been trying to write short stories but they are woefully bad,” she wrote to novelist Hamlin Garland on September 17. “I am of the opinion that it is criminal for people to write who know nothing about it—but one must live, and I must work to live.”
The poet Wallace Stevens had covered Stephen’s funeral for the New York Tribune, later remarking in his journal that the church, a United Methodist one in the West Village, was nearly empty, and that the 28-year-old author “certainly deserved something better than this absolutely common-place, bare, silly service I have just come from.” After an initial fade from literary consideration, Stephen’s writing was retrieved from obscurity and dropped into the canon. Cora remains mostly forgotten, an accessory or footnote to other histories. She was also not wrong: her stories are mostly terrible.
It isn’t necessary to restore every forgotten writer to the canon; some achieved what they could during their time, influencing and seeding possibilities where they could. But it is still worth pausing to remember her for a moment. It is perhaps useful, as writers sit clacking at laptops, to hear the story of someone else who spent their life asking editors for checks needed yesterday and trying to write a sentence good enough to make a buck while hoping something better was cooking in their brain in the background. Some writers are brilliant, some have good business models, some donate their talent to other causes; others simply don’t have the time or resources to do anything besides work to live.
Stephen Crane’s life is already lamented by literary scholars and fans for being too short, for his limited amount of time being wasted by too much spending and too much quick writing to make up the deficit. For Cora, who didn’t have a room of her own and instead leased space inside someone else’s, time and money were even more precious.
Cora’s first stab at a career in writing happened in 1897, a year after she met Stephen in Florida; he was heading to Cuba to cover the Spanish–American War, and she was in Jacksonville running the Hotel de Dreme, a brothel-adjacent place one might today call a nightclub. Conservative neighbors preferred to use the building to render Cora into human flypaper capable of catching every adjective deployed against women considered “bad.”“They have sent many men, but now they want to know what a woman thinks.”
Cora had already owned many names. Born Cora Howarth in Boston, she became Cora Murphy when she moved to New York. Her second marriage propelled her into the aristocracy; she moved to London and became Cora Stewart, the name she would officially keep throughout her relationship with Crane thanks to Captain Stewart’s unwillingness to grant a divorce. While running the Hotel de Dreme, she called herself Cora Taylor, possibly to create a new persona to absorb the local news coverage labeling her a “woman of the underworld.” And when she and Stephen, who wrote Maggie under the name “Johnston Smith,” went to the front of the Greco-Turkish War in Greece in 1897, she filed stories to the New York Journal under the pseudonym Imogene Carter. The headlines of her pieces made clear that already the world was more interested in where she stood in history—first female war correspondent!—than whatever words she might write. Cora knew what kind of color her editors wanted. “SOLDIERS AMAZED TO SEE A WOMAN ON THE BATTLEFIELD,” the Chicago Daily Tribune bellowed, adding that she had “a Narrow Escape from Death, as She Is the Last to Leave the Field.” The Journal noted that she was the “Only Woman on the Scene,” even though the Journal also published a dispatch from Smith College graduate turned nurse Harriet A. Boyd—who was in Greece to study the language before battle began—a week later titled, “ONLY WOMAN WAR CORRESPONDENT AT FRONT,” as Lillian Gilkes notes in her 1960 biography of Cora.
In an article clipped from the New York Journal in April 1897 and preserved in Columbia University’s Stephen Crane collection along with much of Cora’s other work, Imogene Carter wrote that, “To a woman, war is a thing that hits at the heart and at places around the table. It does not always exist to her mind as a stirring panorama, or at least when it does she is not thinking of battles save in our past tense historic way, which eliminates the sufferings.” She looks around Athens, and sees that “war here is tears and flowers and blood and oratory. Surely there must be other things. I am going to try and find out at the front.” She is asked by a source why her newspaper didn’t send a man to report on the war. “They have sent many men, but now they want to know what a woman thinks.”
It is the nature of her sparse reports that readers never actually learn what a woman thinks about the front. They are only told that the thinking is happening, and that the people who have commissioned such thinking are pleased about their munificence.
After the war—and Stephen’s brief disappearance in Cuba—the tuberculosis that was killing him got worse, but, as always, the couple needed money. They were also in want of a quiet place, one where whispers about Cora’s marriage to another man and mysterious life as a bordello businesswoman in Jacksonville had far enough to travel that by the time the noise reached them, it would be faint. They eventually settled, after flitting about the United Kingdom a bit, on Brede Place, a old stone behemoth with multiple chimneys in southeastern England. It was too expensive and too damp for a man destined to cough himself to death, but it did have enough charm to become a destination for literary celebrities like Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and H.G. Wells. Most of them only tolerated Cora, but they kept eating the doughnuts she fed them and benefiting from her replies when they wrote letters, begging for an update on Stephen’s condition. (Regardless of what she said, he was always doing worse.)“[Stephen] Crane’s idea of a collaboration seems to have been just that: most of the actual work done by the other person.”
Cora and Stephen conceived of another way to make quick money, working together on London newsletters that they tried to get published in U.S. newspapers, circumnavigating newspapers in England to find weird local news stories that might appeal to their brethren at home. The dispatches read like little Talks of the Town informing the always aristocracy-hungry American public that professional nurses were in, hobos were out, and that the Queen had just received a pair of knitted slippers from a sure-to-be adorable little girl. Stephen called the pieces “rotten bad,” and while one Crane scholar attributed the authorship of most of these articles to the famous writer—except the obviously feminine dispatches on fashion, of course—Gilkes argued in 1976 that Cora’s hand is visible in far more of the pieces.
“He plunged into the writing of a series of masterpieces,” at this time, Gilkes theorizes, “probably leaving to her most of the hack work of researching and composing the newsletters.” She also notes that Stephen had done this delegating before; the posthumously published Great Battles of the World, another attempt to make quick money, seems to have been mostly compiled by Kate Frederic, mistress of the author Harold Frederic, who Cora and Stephen helped after Frederic’s death, providing financial and childcare-related support. “Indeed,” Gilkes writes, “Crane’s idea of a collaboration seems to have been just that: most of the actual work done by the other person. He himself would dictate a paragraph, a word, a line here and there, supplying punctuation and occasional corrections.” The less edifying, if more immediately profitable work, was left to women, while Crane tried to stuff as much brilliance as possible into whatever time he had left.
Cora was also typing up his new stories, and proofreading them, and trying to make sure he wrote. “The beautiful thoughts in Stephen’s mind are simply endless! His great difficulty is the lack of that machine-like application which makes a man work steadily,” she wrote to writer Edward Garnett in January 1899, a bit unfair to an ill man in his late twenties who had already written several books and many short stories and poems, but understandable coming from the person who had to figure out how to pay for Brede Place, a house the size of their ambitions if not reality.
Meanwhile, she was also writing to Stephen’s literary agent for the latest on where their money might be found. Anyone nostalgic for a time when being a writer did not consist of a side hustle in following up on the status of your payments should be aware: you are only dreaming of a day when outsourcing this begging was much easier. These letters forcefully asking for money are perhaps the most powerful words Cora ever wrote. She deployed active verbs and sparse prose with devastating effect, making clear how her life was falling apart and that the fate of Stephen’s literature rested, as does everything, on the accumulation of capital. “Now to be quite frank, Mr. Crane must have this coming week £50. He simply must have it,” she wrote to James B. Pinker in October 1899. Three months later: “Mr. Crane is ill again—in bed but is still keeping at his work. The pressing of his creditors is so distressing. Now I simply loathe bothering you again, but I can’t help it. There is some money, I feel sure, due…” She needs money now and at once as it may be the cause of saving Mr. Crane’s life. It wasn’t, and he died, and Cora tried a new style of writing, if toward the same end—having to make ends meet. She also published under a new name: Mrs. Stephen Crane.
“It was in ’95, the month of August, that I went broke; stony!” begins the short story “Cowardice,” published in 1902. “I was not only penniless, but I was stale, and I knew it.” Cora was still trying to read the market, just like she had when she and Stephen wrote their newsletters, and when she filed her war dispatches, and when she told Stephen a potboiler would make money shortly before he published the saccharine glump that was the novel Active Service. Ideally, she and Stephen would have had the great luck of those who make money and make something memorable, like when Ulysses S. Grant wrote down what he remembered of battle to make sure his wife and children didn’t suffer from his terrible financial choices when he died of cancer.
Back in December 1899, James, Conrad, Wells, and several other friends had come to Brede Place to watch a play they had all written called “The Ghost,” inspired by the specter said to haunt the premises. The play received much news attention. “Cowardice” seems to be Cora’s own attempt at capturing the ghost.
Her stories are never in a hurry, maybe because her life was so frenzied that she wanted her characters to have time to look around and absorb the landscape. Just as her life was a series of shifting priorities and personas, an assemblage of names, all dappled in her and Stephen’s skill with evasion, her stories graze a purpose and try on a few points before moving on. She writes dialogue like someone who spent a lifetime collecting it, in that it sounds like it should sound like something a person would say, but somehow doesn’t. Her hand with exposition was not deft. She doesn’t know what the reader can infer, so she tells them everything; meanwhile, she leaves consequential details in the rough. Houses are almost always covered in ivy, and she reserves the most space for noting the weather, which changes more than her characters. You almost wish she would stick to describing the landscape, the “rain of maple leaves, weary and withered.” Her colors could sometimes reach the clarity of Stephen’s metaphorical hues, the ones clobbered to fit the theses of an interminable number of high school English students. But the stories always invade her descriptions, or she slathers on a bit too much, and the reader wishes that someone could have spent more time editing or sanding it down.
Shortly before his death, Stephen wrote a series of stories for Harper’s set in Whilomville, a fictional town augmented by Cora’s memories of her childhood. Cora tried to add her own entry to this series, “The Lavender Trousers,” but it wasn’t good and Harper’s didn’t want it. Her verdict of the story, conveyed in a letter to writer G.H. Perris found by Gilkes, was that it “seems like dough that wants working up.” Her best stories trade out melodrama and replace it with waiting—waiting for a chance at happiness, a chance to be proven that you didn’t waste your life for a happiness that would never come.
“An Old World Courtship,” a story that features one of those ivy-covered homes, concerns a rural English couple whose wedding keeps getting delayed as they put their lives on hold to help those who depend upon them. Gilkes agreed that this story was one of Cora’s better ones: “it seems a pity she did not do more of this sort of thing.” The pair finally marry twenty years later and are happy, but a question lurks unsaid for the reader: was it worth it?
That question could be answered by another one of Cora’s short stories, “What Hell Might Be,” published in Smart Set in November 1901.
There was a woman—young, world-worn, selfish, floating on the swift stream of desire, never able to reach the smooth sea of satisfaction—until one day—
He came, and with him came once again melody in the notes of the birds.
He was a painter whose colors felt like life, and “Life, to this man and woman, was a sweet, perfect thing.” But then he died, and she waited for a day when they might meet again. Years passed and she died and sunk into the beyond.
At last she saw him. “Yes, it is my beloved!” she cried, holding out her arms to him. He did not know her.
Cora spent the end of her life back in Jacksonville, acquiring a new bordello, “The Court,” that solidified her reputation as a royal of the city’s red light district and as a case study in condemnable behavior among those who speak in innuendo. She also collected a new name, marrying the painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s cousin—a drunk who later murdered a man who made him jealous, bestowing upon Cora another layer of infamy. She died on the beach after trying to move a car stuck in the sand. Her grave features the wrong birth date, and the date of her death was incorrectly reported in her obituary, which noted in its headline that “LIFE WAS FILLED WITH MANY VICISSITUDES FOR HER.”
In 1934, Thomas Beer, a writer who has been proven untrustworthy as a source on Stephen Crane’s life but who helped define the world’s image of him for awhile, published a piece in American Mercury titled “Mrs. Stephen Crane.” It was a sort of oral history of her by people who claimed to know her. “She was an optimist,” Beer wrote of Cora’s mindset after Stephen’s death. “She was going to live by journalism. In June 1901, she encountered an old friend,” a Mrs. Charles Sidmore. “She was magnificently candid,” Sidmore recalled. “She was not ‘panning out’ as a journalist, but she had taken to writing bits of advertising for some smart shop. I do not know how she lived and do not care.”