was born in Brooklyn, New York, prior to the 1898 incorporation of the five boroughs of New York City. He grew up in Richmond Hill, in what would be the borough of Queens but at the time was considered part of Long Island. His father, Thomas Francis Crosby, the son of Catholic immigrants from County Louth, Ireland, was an amateur painter who ran an art supply business. His mother Fanny, was of English and Scottish descent. Percy had two younger sisters, Ethel and Gladys.
Crosby quit high school during his sophomore year to take a job as an art department office boy at editor Theodore Dreiser’s magazine The Delineator. He was quickly promoted to artist, but the job ended after one issue. When he was 17, he sold a drawing to Life for $6. After delivering sandwiches and working as a magazine salesman, he found a position as an editorial cartoonist for the Socialist newspaper the New York Daily Call. There he published his first two comic strips, Biff and The Extreme Brothers—Laff and Sy, but readers became outraged at frivolity in the paper and the strips were pulled.
Crosby next became a sports columnist and illustrator at The New York Globe. On the side, he produced comics used as occasional filler for the paper. Eventually fired, he entered an Edison Company contest for the best cartoon on the use of electric light. He won the $75 prize and saw his cartoon appear in every newspaper in New York City. The exposure led to a job at the New York World, “at the time the promised land for aspiring cartoonists”. After a few years, he left to freelance, selling cartoons to World editor John Tennant. In 1916, the George Matthews Adams Service syndicated Crosby’s first feature, the daily and Sunday strip The Clancy Kids, earning Crosby a respectable $135 a week.
While continuing on this first strip, Crosby studied at Manhattan’s Art Students League under such instructors as George Bridgman, Frank DuMond, Joseph Pennell and Max Weber. The painter and League president Gifford Beal, recognizing Crosby’s talent, invited him to spend the summer in Cape Cod, where Crosby made the acquaintance of Edwin Dickinson, Edward Hopper, Eugene O’Neill and other habitues of the Provincetown, Massachusetts artists colony. Back in New York, he fell in love with fellow League student Gertrude Volz, the artist-sculptor daughter of a well-to-do real-estate broker. After being commissioned a second lieutenant in the Officer Reserve Corps in 1916 and being called to active service the following year, serving for a time as a jiujitsu instructor, he and Volz eloped and were married at the training camp in Plattsburgh, New York, on July 7, 1917.
While in training, Crosby created a daily comic panel, That Rookie from the Thirteenth Squad, for the McClure Syndicate, writing and drawing it from the front in France while serving as a first lieutenant in the 77th Division, AEF. The comic was collected into his first two books, That Rookie of the Thirteenth Squad (1917) and Between Shots (1919). While at the Argonne front, Crosby was struck by shrapnel in the eye, suffering no permanent damage, and earned the Purple Heart.
Following the war, he resumed his studies and syndicated a series of panel cartoons from 1921 to 1925. These covered a variety of subjects, with some series, such as Who Cares for the Feelings of a Small Boy, The Local Boy, Back o’ the Flats, The Little Girl Who Moved Away and Send a Poor Child to the Farm, featuring children, particularly from the slums.
In his later years, Crosby’s alcoholism contributed to the cartoonist being unable to find employment. His wife Carolyn returned to work as a nurse and dietitian. Efforts to revive Skippy went nowhere.
In December 1948, Crosby was committed to the psychiatric ward of Bellevue Hospital after attempting suicide following the death of his mother. In January 1949, he was transferred to the mental ward at Kings Park Veterans’ Hospital, in Kings Park, New York, where he was declared a paranoid schizophrenic. His confinement was authorized by Arthur Soper, an uncle of Crosby’s wife.
Though he would spend spent the last 16 years of his life institutionalized, Crosby continued to produce artwork and manuscripts, though no work was published and it is uncertain how much was sent to publishers by the hospital staff, through whom all mail had to be vetted. Carolyn, a diabetic whose workday began at 5:30 a.m., was unable to obtain legal counsel or the help of friends to try to secure Crosby’s release.
Crosby’s estranged daughters Barbara and Joan had graduated from Vassar College, and Carol from the Rhode Island School of Design, without having known of their father’s whereabouts; son Skip had become a geologist. Crosby had received infrequent visits from his two sisters, and from his cartoonist friend Rube Goldberg. Carolyn, whose failing health had eventually precluded visits, died November 8, 1949.
On December 8, 1964, after a heart attack that had left him in a coma for months, Crosby died in the asylum on his 73rd birthday. He was buried in Pine Lawn Veterans’ Cemetery on Long Island.