Croswell Bowen (1905-1971) was born in Toledo, Ohio, the son of a newly wealthy real estate entrepreneur and an Irish-American southern belle, and was sent east to the elite schools of Choate and Yale. After a “grand tour” of Europe, he returned to Depression-ravaged America and settled in New York’s Greenwich Village, where he weathered the loss of his father and his family fortune but grew into his vocation as a writer. Freed from family ambition because the Depression was not the time to get a job on Wall Street, he found work with the International News Service and gained a reputation for hard-hitting reporting. As the economy revived and war loomed in Europe, he studied documentary photography with Berenice Abbott at the New School and researched the Hudson Valley with popular historian Carl Carmer. The prose-photography Great River of the Mountains: The Hudson (Hastings House, 1941; recently reprinted) holds a place in the 1930’s American regionalist tradition.
On the eve of America’s entry into WWII, Bowen signed on with the non-combatant American Field Service as a publicity photographer headed for North Africa. Expecting romance and adventure and hoping to turn his camera and notebooks to an “account of one American’s war experience,” things changed when he was evacuated as a medical casualty along the same “reverse supply lines” the AFS ambulances served. There he found himself united in shared suffering with soldiers of all nations.
Returned home, he had found his mission as a writer: to take up the cause of the “common man” whose dignity and resilience he had seen. He wrote for the innovative liberal PM Sunday magazine and then the New Yorker, profiling criminals and advocating rehabilitation in a collection entitled They Went Wrong (1954).
Drawn to the American playwright Eugene ONeill’s Catholic conscience and tragic vision, Bowen followed up on an earlier PM profile to research and write The Curse of the Misbegotten: A Tale of the House of O’Neill (1959). The book laid open the relationship between the playwright’s work and his troubled life and was a National Book Award finalist.
In Bowen’s last years, he undertook a loudly bewailed stint of “writing only for money” in Madison Avenue public relations, which he called “being a paid liar for corporations.” Returning to subjects he believed in, he published in the Atlantic and the New York Times. He began work on a semi-autobiographical novel and revived correspondence with Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, whose mentorship had shaped his ideals about the role of journalism in a democracy. In 1971, at the age of 66, he died of a heart attack in his New York apartment, leaving his former wife Marjory and three daughters, Betsy, Lucey and Molly.
Croswell Bowen’s books: