Nancy Clara Cunard (10 March 1896 – 17 March 1965) was a writer, heiress and political activist. She was born into the British upper class, and devoted much of her life to fighting racism and fascism. She became a muse to some of the 20th century's most distinguished writers and artists, including Wyndham Lewis, Aldous Huxley, Tristan Tzara, Ezra Pound and Louis Aragon—who were among her lovers—as well as Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Constantin Brâncuși, Langston Hughes, Man Ray and William Carlos Williams. MI5 documents reveal that she was involved with Indian socialist leader VK Krishna Menon. In later years she suffered from mental illness, and her physical health deteriorated. When she died in the Hôpital Cochin, Paris, she weighed only 26 kg (57 pounds).
Her father was Sir Bache Cunard, an heir to the Cunard Line shipping businesses, interested in polo and fox hunting, and a baronet. Her mother was Maud Alice Burke, an American heiress, who adopted the first name Emerald and became a leading London society hostess. Nancy had been brought up on the family estate at Nevill Holt, Leicestershire, but when her parents separated in 1911, she moved to London with her mother. Her education was at various boarding schools, including time in France and Germany. Whilst in London she spent a good deal of her childhood with her mother's long time admirer, the novelist George Moore. Indeed, it was even rumoured that Moore was her father, and though this has been largely dismissed, there is no question that he played an important role whilst she was growing up. She would later write a memoir about her affection for 'GM'.
On 15 November 1916 she married Sydney Fairbairn, a cricketer and army officer who had been wounded at Gallipoli. After a honeymoon in Devon and Cornwall, they lived in London in a house given to them by Nancy's mother as a wedding present. The couple separated in 1919 and divorced in 1925.
Nancy Cunard moved to Paris in 1920; there, she became involved with literary Modernism, Surrealists and Dada. Much of her published poetry dates from this period. During her early years in Paris, she was close to Michael Arlen.
Also in 1920 she had a near-fatal hysterectomy, for reasons that are not entirely clear. However, she recovered, and was then able to lead a promiscuous sexual life without the inconvenience of pregnancy.
It has been suggested that she became dependent on alcohol at this time, and may have used other drugs.
Cunard's style informed by her devotion to the artifacts of African culture was startlingly unconventional. The large-scale jewelry she favored, crafted of wood, bone and ivory, the natural materials used by native crafts people, was provocative and controversial. The bangles she wore on both arms snaking from wrist to elbow were considered outré adornments, which provoked media attention, visually compelling subject matter for photographers of the day. She was often photographed wearing her collection, those of African inspiration and neckpieces of wooden cubes, which paid homage to the concepts of Cubism. At first considered the bohemian affectation of an eccentric heiress, the fashion world came to legitimize this style as avant-garde, dubbing it the "barbaric look". Prestigious jewelry houses such as Boucheron created their own African-inspired cuff of gold beads. Boucheron, eschewing costly gemstones, incorporated into the finished creation green malachite and a striking purple mineral, purpurite, instead. It exhibited this high-end piece at the Exposition Coloniale in 1931.
The Hours Press
In 1927, Cunard moved into a farmhouse in La Chapelle-Réanville, Normandy. It was there in 1928 that she set up the Hours Press. Previously the small press had been called Three Mountains Press and run by William Bird, an American journalist in Paris, who had published books by its editor from 1923, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams' The Great American Novel, Robert McAlmond and Ernest Hemingway's In Our Time. Cunard also wanted to support experimental poetry and provide a higher-paying market for young writers; her inherited wealth allowed her to take financial risks that other publishers could not. The Hours Press became known for its beautiful book designs and high-quality production.
It brought out the first separately published work of Samuel Beckett, a poem called Whoroscope (1930); Bob Brown's Words; and Pound's A Draft of XXX Cantos. Cunard published old friends like George Moore, Norman Douglas, Richard Aldington and Arthur Symons, and brought out Henry-Music, a book of poems from various authors with music by Henry Crowder, but also two books by Laura Riding, the Collected Poems of John Rodker, poems by Roy Campbell, Harold Acton, Brian Howard and Walter Lowenfels. Wyn Henderson had taken over day-to-day operation of the press by 1931; in the same year it published its last book, The Revaluation of Obscenity by sexologist Havelock Ellis.
In 1928 (after a two-year affair with Louis Aragon) she began a relationship with Henry Crowder, an African-American jazz musician who was working in Paris. She became an activist in matters concerning racial politics and civil rights in the USA, and visited Harlem. In 1931, she published the pamphlet Black Man and White Ladyship, an attack on racist attitudes as exemplified by Cunard's mother, whom she quoted as saying "Is it true that my daughter knows a Negro?" She also edited the massive Negro Anthology, collecting poetry, fiction, and nonfiction primarily by African-American writers, including Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. It also included writing by George Padmore and Cunard's own account of the Scottsboro Boys case. Press attention to this project in May 1932, two years before it was published, led to Cunard's receiving anonymous threats and hate mail, some of which she published in the book, expressing regret that "[others] are obscene, so this portion of American culture cannot be made public."
In the mid-1930s she took up the anti-fascist fight as well, writing about Mussolini's annexation of Ethiopia and the Spanish Civil War. She predicted, accurately, that the "events in Spain were a prelude to another world war". Her stories about the suffering of Spanish refugees became the basis for a fundraising appeal in the Manchester Guardian. Cunard herself helped deliver supplies and organize the relief effort, but poor health – caused in part by exhaustion and the conditions in the camps – forced her to return to Paris, where she stood on the streets collecting funds for the refugees.
In 1937, she published a series of pamphlets of war poetry, including the work of W. H. Auden, Tristan Tzara and Pablo Neruda. Later the same year, together with Auden and Stephen Spender, she distributed a questionnaire about the war to writers in Europe; the results were published by the Left Review as Authors Take Sides on the Spanish War.
The questionnaire to 200 writers asked the following question: "Are you for, or against, the legal government and people of Republican Spain? Are you for, or against, Franco and Fascism? For it is impossible any longer to take no side."
The most famous response was not included: it came from George Orwell, and began:
Will you please stop sending me this bloody rubbish. This is the second or third time I have had it. I am not one of your fashionable pansies like Auden or Spender, I was six months in Spain, most of the time fighting, I have a bullet hole in me at present and I am not going to write blah about defending democracy or gallant little anybody... .
After the war, she gave up her home at Réanville and traveled extensively. In June 1948, she traveled from Jamaica to the United Kingdom on board the HMT Empire Windrush. The voyage and the ship later became well-known because the other passengers on board included one of the first large groups of post-war West Indian immigrants to the United Kingdom.
In later years, she suffered from mental illness and poor physical health, worsened by alcoholism, poverty, and self-destructive behaviour. She was committed to a mental hospital after a fight with London police; but, after her release, her health declined even further, and she weighed less than sixty pounds when she was found on the street in Paris and brought to the Hôpital Cochin, where she died two days later.
According to an account of drafts of the poem "Nancy Cunard" by Mina Loy held in the Yale University Library,
Drafts of Loy's poem about Nancy Cunard, her friend, fellow poet, and editor of The Hours Press, provide a window on her [Loy's] creative process. The final, published version of the poem ends with lines derived from this draft's beginning and its final lines are now the poem's centre:
- The vermilion wall
- receding as a sin
- beyond your moonstone whiteness,
- Your chiffon voice.
- Outlaws (1921), poems
- Sublunary (1923), poems
- Parallax (1925, Hogarth Press), poems
- Poems (Two) (1925, Aquila Press), poems
- Poems (1930)
- Black Man and White Ladyship (1931) polemic pamphlet
- Negro: an Anthology (1934) anthology of African literature and art, editor
- Authors Take Sides (1937) pamphlet, compiler
- Los poetas del mundo defienden al pueblo español (1937, Paris), co-editor with Pablo Neruda
- The White Man's Duty: An analysis of the colonial question in the light of the Atlantic Charter (with George Padmore) (1942)
- Poems for France, La France libre, London, 1944 and Poèmes à la France, Seghers, Paris, 1947
- Releve into Marquis (1944)
- Grand Man: Memories of Norman Douglas (1954)
- GM: Memories of George Moore (1956)
- These Were the Hours: Memories of My Hours Press, Réanville and Paris, 1928–1931 (1969), autobiography
- Poems of Nancy Cunard : from the Bodleian Library (2005),edited with an introduction by John Lucas (1937- ).
- Horn 2015, p. 29-30.
- "Player profile:Peter Broughton-Adderley". CricketArchive. Retrieved 8 May 2011.
- Lois Gordon, Nancy Cunard: Heiress, Muse, Political Idealist, p. 99.
- Anne Chisholm, Nancy Cunard (New York: Penguin Books, 1981) 110–20. ISBN 0-14-005572-X.
- "Nancy Cunard, 1896–1965: Biographical Sketch", Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center (University of Texas at Austin).
- Cox, Caroline, "Vintage jewelry design: classics to collect and wear," Lark Crafts, 2010, p. 55.
- Shari Benstock, Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900–1940 (1986; Austin: U of Texas P, 1987) 389–90. ISBN 0-292-79040-6.
- Benstock 393–94.
- Renata Morresi, Set Apart: Nancy Cunard, HOW2 1.4 (September 2000).
- Gordon, as reviewed by Caroline Weber, "The Rebel Heiress", The New York Times Book Review, 1 April 2007. 2 pages.
- Beckett, Samuel; Friedman, Alan Warren (2000). Beckett in Black and Red: The Translations for Nancy Cunard's Negro (1934). University Press of Kentucky. p. 13. ISBN 0-8131-2129-9.
- Benstock, 418–422.
- Gayle Rogers, Modernism and the New Spain: Britain, Cosmopolitan Europe, and Literary History Oxford University Press, 2012 ISBN 0199914974 (p. 147)
- [permanent dead link] American Michael R. Stevens. T. S. Eliot's Political 'Middle Way'
- Nancy Cunard: Heiress, Muse, Political Idealist by Lois G. Gordon.Columbia University Press, 2007
- Hoskins, Katherine Bail Today the struggle: literature and politics in England during the Spanish Civil War ,University of Texas Press, 1969 (p.19)
- D. J. Taylor, Orwell: The Life, 2003.
- Although Forster sympathised with the Republican side, he did not believe in signing political manifestos. See Jennifer Birkett and Stan Smith, Right/left/right revolving commitments: France and Britain, 1929–1950, Cambridge Scholars, 2008 ISBN 1847185118 (p.61-2)
- Joyce declined on the grounds that he never "got involved with politics". See Valentine Cunningham, The Penguin book of Spanish Civil War Verse, Penguin Books, 1980 (p.50 )
- David Kynaston, Austerity Britain 1945–1951, London: Bloomsbury, 2007, p. 276; ISBN 978-0-7475-9923-4.
- Benstock 423.
- Mina Loy,"Nancy Cunard" Archived 12 May 2009 at the Wayback Machine., n.d., "Mina Loy: Drafts of 'Nancy Cunard' ", Mina Loy Papers, Intimate Circles: American Women in the Arts: Mina Loy and Djuna Barnes, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, accessed 30 January 2008.
- Publications, Fathoms from Anywhere: A Samuel Beckett Centenary Exhibition, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin (Photograph of cover of 1st edition), accessed 30 January 2008.
- Bankes, Ariane. "Nancy Cunard, Rebel Lover". The Times Literary Supplement, 7 April 2007. (Rev. of Gordon.)
- Chisholm, Anne. Nancy Cunard: A Biography. 1979. New York: Penguin Books, 1981.
- Fielding, Daphne. Those Remarkable Cunards, Emerald and Nancy (1968).
- Ford, Hugh, ed. Nancy Cunard: Brave Poet, Indomitable Rebel 1896–1965 (1968).
- Gordon, Lois. Nancy Cunard: Heiress, Muse, Political Idealist. New York: Columbia UP, 2007. ISBN 0-231-13938-1 (10). ISBN 978-0-231-13938-0 (13).
- Horn, Pamela (2015). Country House Society: the private lives of the English upper class after the First World War. Stroud, UK: Amberly Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4456-4477-6.
- Loy, Mina. "Nancy Cunard". 103 in The Lost Lunar Baedeker: Poems. Selected and ed. Roger L. Conover. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1996.
- Lyden, Jackie. "Nancy Cunard: Rebellious Heiress, Inspired Life". Interview of Lois Gordon and featured excerpts from her biography of Cunard (includes NPR Media Player link). All Things Considered. National Public Radio. 21 July 2007. Accessed 30 January 2008.
- Mackrell, Judith. Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation. 2013. ISBN 978-0-330-52952-5
- Weber, Caroline. "The Rebel Heiress". The New York Times Book Review, 1 April 2007. 2 pages. (Rev. of Gordon.)
- Weiss, Andrea. Paris Was a Woman: Portraits from the Left Bank (2001).
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Nancy Cunard.|
- Nancy Cunard – Biography on SchoolNet at Spartacus Educational. Accessed 30 January 2008.
- Henry Crowder and Nancy Cunard
- Nancy Cunard on Josephine Baker
- Nancy Cunard's Collection at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Accessed 30 January 2008.
- Nancy Cunard correspondence and other archival material at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Special Collections Research Center
- Works by Nancy Cunard at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)