February 21, 2013

essay-review "The Woman Most Like to Raise Dogs" (on Lois Gordon's Nancy Cunard) by Douglas Messerli

the woman most likely to raise dogs
by Douglas Messerli

Lois Gordon Nancy Cunard: Heiress, Muse, Political Idealist (New York: Columbia
    University Press, 2007)

If there is one figure of the Twentieth century who connects nearly all the major modern writers, dancers, artists, and musicians it would have to be Nancy Cunard. The great-granddaughter of the founder of the transatlantic steamship line Samuel Cunard, Nancy was the daughter of Bache Cunard and Maud Burke, a woman from a California family even wealthier than the Cunards. As in many a Henry James novel, Maud's marriage with Cunard was an arrangement between old wealth and newer, more accessible money. In exchange for a dowry of two million, Maud became a “Lady,” and, presumably, the inheritor of Bache’s 13,000-acre estate, Nevill Holt. But unlike many a James character, young American women tricked by members of the corrupt old world, Maud was no innocent. It is likely that Nancy’s real father was not Bache, but the noted novelist and critic (author of Esther Waters), George Moore, whom Maud had met some two years earlier. For over forty years, Moore would be Maud’s frequent lover, and she his willing muse. And throughout most of her years with Bache and after their separation, Maud courted—and was courted by—the great British orchestra conductor (founder of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra) Thomas Beecham.

      Maud, moreover, was intensely social, compared with her husband’s preference for the fox and hound, and turned Nevill Holt into a vertible social resort, regularly inviting to Leichestershire numerous social, literary, and artistic figures of the day—biographer Lois Gordon lists a few of them: Somerset Maugham, Max Beerbohm, the Dutchess of Rutland, the Asquiths, the Balfours, Lady Randolph Churchill (then Jennie Cornwallis-West), Ford Madox Ford, Fyodor Chaliapin, even Lenin—for weekends and longer periods. In one of the most hilariously telling episodes of Maude’s social and sexual appetites, Gordon describes Bache returning home one evening “to find the house full of music lovers gone berserk.”

                One of them had opened his bedroom window to sing the cry of
                the Valkyries, after which voice after voice responded with another
                Wagnerian melody. Maud said of this occasion to the photographer
                Cecil Beaton, “When my husband came back, he noticed an atmosphere
                of love.” Bache had remarked: “I don’t understand what is going on in
                this house, but I don’t like it.

     Like many wealthy British mothers and fathers, Maud—far too self-involved for parenting—kept her daughter at a distance, often putting her under the care of punitive nannies. Throughout her engaging biography Gordon expresses Nancy’s later inability to develop a lasting relationship and her desperate need for love as the result of this distant, even frigid relationship between mother and daughter (the biographer is perhaps at her weakest when she attempts psychological analyses of her subject). Yet as Gordon herself notes, Maud had grown up in just such a household, and one has only to read a handful of British (and American) biographies of wealthy families to know that many, if not most of such children were treated similarly. One might even suggest that the whole British private school system, where children spend most of their lives away from their families, was created to fulfill just such needs. I recall my friend Tom LaFarge—a member of the famed American LaFarge family (artist John LaFarge, author Oliver LaFarge, architect Christopher LaFarge, etc.)—saying that he was sent away to boarding school in Switzerland at an early age, his mother being the kind of woman who did not like children about. Accordingly, while there is little doubt that her mother’s distance was detrimental to Nancy’s psychological health, not all such children shared her sexual liberality.

     Nancy, who grew up to be a stunning beauty with piercingly blue eyes and a graceful, almost musical way of walking, was one of the most popular young women of her day both in pre-World War I England and, even more so, in postwar Paris. As her black American lover, Henry Crowder, would later describe her sexual appetite, she slept with everyone and anyone, from noted writers, musicians, and artists of the day to bellhops, chauffeurs, bartenders, nearly anyone with whom she might come in contact. Gordon even suggests that Nancy might have undergone a hysterectomy connected with an abortion or to prevent herself from becoming pregnant.

      It was not simply the fact that Cunard was an available beauty of the day, however, that makes her such a remarkable figure. Were she more like most of her set, she might have simply developed a hobby, as the British press predicted, such as raising dogs. Because of her keen intellect, her complete knowledge of several languages, her wit, and her own significant contributions of poetry—as well as her beauty—the men who dogged her, were some of the most notable figures of the period. Beyond the one- or two-night stands with writers and artists such as T. S. Eliot and, perhaps, Ernest Hemingway, she had long-term affairs with Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, Michael Arlen, Louis Aragon, and Tristan Tzara among others—relationships that would last for years and make her into a muse for much of their writing. Among her friends were James Joyce, Man Ray, Robert McAlmon, John Dos Passos, Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Léger, Malcolm Cowley, Norman Douglas, Samuel Beckett, William Carlos Williams, George Antheil, and such women as Gertrude Stein, Kay Boyle, Mina Loy, H. D., Bryher, Dolly Wilde (niece of Oscar), Romaine Brooks, Josephine Baker, Djuna Barnes, Marie Laurencin, Greta Garbo and her lover Mercedes De Acosta, and the journalist Janet Flanner—and these represent only a few of the hundreds of friendships she developed over the years. Nancy was the model for characters in numerous novels and other writings of the century, including several books by Aldous Huxley and Michael Arlen, and works by Evelyn Waugh, Tristan Tzara, George Moore, Wyndham Lewis [see my essay on The Roaring Queen], Kay Boyle, Pablo Neruda, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Bob Brown, and more. Some believe that she, more than Duff Twysden, was the basis of Hemingway’s Lady Brett in The Sun Also Rises.

      Yet as Gordon reveals, all of this pales in relationship to Nancy’s real coming of age in the late 1920s, lasting through the rest of her eventful life. First, Nancy found a passion in publishing, purchasing a printing press and moving to La Chapelle-Réanville in Normandy in 1928. Clearly, Cunard was a natural when it came to the laborious activity of printing and binding, her Hours Press producing twenty books from 1928 to 1931, including Beckett’s Whoroscope, Pound’s XXX Cantos, and Havelock Ellis’s The Revaluation of Obscenity, along with works by Robert Graves, Louis Aragon, Richard Aldington, George Moore, John Rodker, Laura Riding, Bob Brown, and Arthur Symons.

       But it was her next “passion” that would captivate the world’s attention, ending in her expulsion from high society and the denial of any further financial support, including her inheritance, from her mother. In 1928, after a two-year affair with Aragon, Nancy met the African-American jazz musician, Henry Crowder, then working in Paris. A relationship with him brought her an increasing awareness of white prejudice, which, coupled with her long-time fascination with and, perhaps, romanticizing of all things African, led her to edit and publish one of the most important documents of black history outside of the activities of the Harlem Renaissance, Negro: An Anthology. Gordon’s long and detailed description of this book is one of the most fascinating in a study filled with revelations:

              Negro is a staggering accomplishment—in purpose, breadth of information,
              and size. Almost 8 pounds, 855 pages (12 inches by 10 ½ inches), with 200
              entries by 150 contributors (the majority, black) and nearly 400 illustrations,
              it was, and in many ways remains, unique—an encyclopedic introduction to
              the history, social and political conditions, and cultural achievements of the
              black population throughout much of the world: the United States, Europe,
              South and Central America, the West Indies, and Africa. It is one of the            
              earliest examples of African American, cross-cultural, and transnational
              studies and a call to all civilized people to condemn racial discrimination
              and appreciate the great social and cultural accomplishments of a long-
              suffering people.

Cunard’s involvement with Crowder led her to write a polemic, Black Man and White Ladyship, that scandalized most of British and American society, and resulted in her life-long commitment to black political issues, including the attempt to free the Scottsboro Boys and to protect Haile Selassie and Ethiopia from Italian fascist takeover. Beyond the rejection of her own family and the end of long relationships with figures such as George Moore, Nancy suffered anonymous threats and hate mail, some so obscene, she declared, that “this portion of American culture cannot be made public.”

     Had Nancy done nothing else in her life, she would have been a significant figure of the century. Yet her political stands against fascism, and, in particular, her struggles to support the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War and, most importantly, to save the defeated soldiers and intellectuals interned in French camps, is heroic. One of the few individuals willing to walk long distances to cross the borders of Spain and France, Cunard wrote dozens of articles, many about the horrific conditions of the French camps, arguing that the world must come to the rescue of these men. When no salvation appeared, she personally saved several individuals. The Spanish cause was a passion as strong as her determination to fight prejudice, and it became a battle that would last until the end of her life.

     During World War II, Nancy returned to London, witnessing the terrible bombings of the blitz first hand, while working as a journalist and reporter for various government agencies, one of her tasks being to translate Pound’s fascist rants, for which she never forgave him. Upon her return to France after the War, she was distressed to find that her house, revered paintings, and African bracelets, as well as her archives and correspondence had been destroyed, many of the possessions stolen by her Vichy-collaborating neighbors.

     Gordon suggests that that event, her continued financial woes, her shock at the silence of the Allied countries with regard to Spain, and her deteriorating health led, ultimately, to a brief mental breakdown and incarceration in an institution, her friends arguing that Nancy was not mad as much as mad about life. Cunard’s life clearly had been one lived at high pitch, and the passionate commitments to social and literary causes had been met primarily with silence and scorn. Despite her continued friendships with notables throughout the world and an embracement of younger friends such as Philadelphian Charles Burkhart*, Cunard’s body and mind continued to decline during her last years.

     In her final hours in a cheap Paris hotel—having refused to accept refuge in the home friends, fearing that she would become an imposition to them—she could barely climb the stairs to her room, and events became almost surreal. Yet throughout her life she staunchly stood as a beacon of joyful living, social commitment, and moral courage that one rarely finds combined in a single individual. Like many another gay man, I too have fallen in love with Nancy.
 *Charles Burkhart, now deceased, was a colleague of mine in the early 1980s when I taught at Temple University in Philadelphia. Gordon quotes extensively from his writings about Cunard, particularly since they concern the last years of her life. I had not known of Burkhart’s relationship with Cunard—indeed I’d known little about Cunard before reading Gordon’s biography—and I wish I had been able to speak to him about those years.

Los Angeles, August 26, 2007
Reprinted from Nth Position [England], (October 2007).

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