August 15, 2012

Nancy Cunard (England / lived France) 1896-1965

Nancy Cunard (England/lived France)

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 veritable 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 anotherWagnerian 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.
     Nancy, born on March 10, 1896, 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.

[The material in this essay was based on Lois Gordon Nancy Cunard: Heiress, Muse, Political Idealist (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007) and written as a review in 2007.


Outlaws (London: Elkin Mathews, 1921); Sublunary (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1923); Parallax (London: Hogarth Press, 1925); Poems (Two) (London: Aquila Press, 1925); Poems (London: Aquila Press, 1930); Poems for France (1944); Relève into Maquis (Derby, England: The Grasshopper Press, 1944); Poems of Nancy Cunard: From the Bodleian Library (ed. by John Lucas) (Nottingham: Trent Editions, 2005)

from Parallax

* * * * *

Dry moss, grey stone, hill ruins, grass in ruins
Without water, and multitudinous
Tintinnabulations in the poplar leaves;
A spendrift dust from desiccated pools,
Spider in draughty husk, snail on the leaf—
Provence, the solstice.
And the days after
By the showman's travelling houses, the land caravels
Under a poplar; the proud grapes and the burst grape-skins.
Arles in the plain, Miramas after sunset-time
In a ring of lights,
And a pale sky with a sickle moon.
Thin winds undress the branch, it is October.
And in Les Baux, an old life slips out, patriarch of eleven inhabitants:
"Fatigué" she said, a terse beldam by the latch,
"Il est fatigué, depuis douze ans toujours dans le même coin."

In Aix what's remembered of Cezanne?
A house to let (with studio) in a garden.
Meanwhile "help yourself to these ripe figs,
And if it doesn't suit, we, Agence Sextus, will find you another just as good."
The years are sown together with thread of the same story:
Beauty picked in a field, shaped, recreated,
Sold and dispatched to distant municipality&emdash;
But in the master's town merely an old waiter, crossly:
"Of course I knew him, he was a dull silent fellow,
Dead now."
And beauty walked alone here,
Unpraised, unhindered,
Defiant, of single mind,
And took no rest, and has no epitaph.

* * * * *

"—Then I was in a train in pale clear country
By Genoa at night where the old palatial banks
Rise out of vanquished swamps,
And in San Gimignano's towers where Dante once ..
And in the plains with the mountains' veil
Before me and the waterless rivers of stones—
Siena-brown with Christ's head on gold,
Pinturicchio's trees on the hill
In the nostalgic damps, when the maremma's underworld
Creeps through at evening.
Defunct Arezzo, Pisa the forgotten—
And in Florence, Banozzo
With his embroidered princely cavalcades,
And Signorelli, the austere passion.
Look: Christ hangs on a sombre mound, Magdalen dramatic
Proclaims the tortured god. The rest have gone
To a far hill. Very dark it is, soon it will thunder
From that last rim of amaranthine sky.
Life broods at the cross's foot,
Lizard and campion, star-weeds like Parnassus grass,
And plaited strawberry leaves;
The lizard inspects a skull,
You can foretell the worm between the bones.

(I am alone. Read from this letter
That I have left you and do not intend to return.)

Then I was walking in the mountains,
And drunk in Cortona, furiously,
With the black wine rough and sour from a Tuscan hill,
Drunk and silent between the dwarves and the cripples
And the military in their intricate capes
Signed with the Italian star.
Eleven shuddered in a fly-blown clock—
Oh frustrations, discrepancies,
I had you to myself then ....."

* * * * *


I saw the people climbing up the street
Maddened with war and strength and thoughts to kill;
And after followed Death, who held with skill
His torn rags royally, and stamped his feet.

The fires flamed up and burnt the serried town,
Most where the sadder, poorer houses were;
Death followed with proud feet and smiling stare,
And the mad crowds ran madly up and down.

And many died and hid in unfounded places
In the black ruins of the frenzied night;
And death still followed in his surplice, white
And streaked in imitation of their faces.

But in the morning men began again
To mock Death following in bitter pain.

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