Charming and ornery Robert McAlmon was born the last of eight surviving children to an itinerant Presbyterian minister. Raised in South Dakota and Minneapolis, he briefly enrolled at the University of Minnesota before transferring to the University of Southern California. After a short stint in the army corps he returned to USC and began writing, only to drop out and move to New York in 1920. In Greenwich Village McAlmon met William Carlos Williams, with whom he founded and edited the journal Contact in 1921, and through whom he met and for convenience married the English heiress and lesbian novelist Annie Winifred Ellerman, better known as Bryher. In the same year his first poetry collection, Explorations, came out with Egoist Press in London (Burke 298).
From London, McAlmon relocated to Paris where he frequented Left Bank haunts and fell in with “the Crowd,” of the 1920s circle of avant-garde writers (Burke 307). In 1923 he founded the leading expatriate press Contact Publishing Company, whose crowning achievement was releasing Hemingway’s first book, Three Stories and Ten Poems, that same year. McAlmon also self-published his first story collection, A Hasty Bunch, with Contact Publishing Co. although the press did not survive the Great Depression (Simonnot).
McAlmon and Bryher divorced in 1927. His struggle to find an American publisher continued until 1937, when New Directions published Not Alone Lost, his only volume to appear in the United States during his lifetime. As always, his craft was spare but sloppy; his subject matter, autobiographical; and his heroes, thinly disguised versions of himself. After shorts stints in Mexico and New York in the early 1930s, McAlmon returned to Europe, where in 1934 he finished writing Being Geniuses Together, his memoir of the lost generation he so typified. After its London publication in 1938, he drank heavily and wrote very little.
When World War II broke out McAlmon got trapped in occupied France with tuberculosis and was nearly interned. In 1940 his family managed to move him to Lisbon until they could bring him home to work at his brothers’ surgical supply stores in Phoenix and El Paso, and later to Desert Hot Springs, California, where he lived embittered for the rest of his life and died of pneumonia in 1956.
Relationship to Loy:
McAlmon and Loy’s paths often crossed in Paris at Gypsy Bar, Jockey, Stryx, and Trianon. Contact editions published Loy’s Lunar Baedeker (1923) and featured her in Contact Collection of Contemporary Writers (1925) (Burke 350). In his memoir McAlmon opines that Loy was “known for her beauty and wit, slightly overcerebral [with] a distinct talent for inventing fantasies” and brilliant conversation (McAlmon 163). The character Gusta Rolph in his 1923 Post-Adolescence is likely based on Loy, “the beautiful poetess whom Pound found all brains and no heart” (Knoll 108). Both attended Ezra Pound’s opera and once went together to visit Gertrude Stein.