Thursday, June 24, 2010

Nancy Cunard

Nancy Clara Cunard (10 March 1896 – 17 March 1965) was a writer, heiress and political activist. She was born into the British upper class but strongly rejected her family's values, devoting 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, Henry Crowder, and Louis Aragon, who were among her lovers, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Constantin Brancusi, Langston Hughes, Man Ray, and William Carlos Williams.

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 born Maud Alice Burke (1872-1948), and was an American heiress; adopting the first name Emerald Lady Cunard 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 1910 she moved to London with her mother. Her education was at various boarding schools, including time in France and Germany.

She had a short-lived marriage during World War I to Sydney Fairbairn, a cricketer, an army officer and wounded war veteran; it lasted less than two years before they separated. She was also at that time on the edge of the influential group The Coterie, associating in particular with Iris Tree.
She contributed to the Sitwell anthology Wheels, providing its title poem; it has been said that the venture was originally her project.

Cunard's lover Peter Broughton Adderley was killed in action in France less than a month before Armistice Day, within the year she announced her engagement to Fairbairn. Many who knew her claimed that she never fully recovered from Adderley's loss.

In 1920 Nancy Cunard moved to Paris, where 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.

A brief relationship with Aldous Huxley influenced several of his novels. She was the model for Myra Viveash in Antic Hay (1923) and for Lucy Tantamount in Point Counter Point (1928).

It has been suggested that she became dependent on alcohol at this time, and may have used other drugs.

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 as a hobby by William Bird, an American journalist in Paris, who had already produced work by Ezra Pound. Cunard 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. 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). It also published Pound's initial XXX Cantos. By 1931, Wyn Henderson had taken over day-to-day operation of the press, and 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 Negro: An 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." There were elicited 147 answers, of which 126 supported the Republic.
Five writers explicitly responded in favor of Franco: they were Evelyn Waugh, Edmund Blunden, Arthur Machen, Geoffrey Moss and Eleanor Smith.

Among sixteen responses that Cunard, in her eventually published compendium, grouped under the skeptical heading "Neutral?" were H. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot.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..."
During World War II, Cunard worked, to the point of physical exhaustion, as a translator in London on behalf of the French Resistance.

 After the war, she gave up her home at Réanville and travelled extensively. She suffered from mental illness and poor physical health, worsened by alcoholism, poverty, and self-destructive behavior. 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 only sixty pounds when she was found on the street in Paris and brought to the Hôpital Cochin, where she died two days later.

Her body was returned to England for cremation and the remains were sent back to the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise in Paris. Her ashes rest in urn number 9016.

There is a biography on Nancy Cunard go here for more info.

Text Source Wikipedia


  1. More signature bracelets!!!

    What a fascinating insight into the life of a very complex character.

    Thanks Dash :-)

    Ali xxx

  2. Dash you always provide us with wonderfully tantalising summaries of incredibly intriguing women. As we have just today had the first woman Prime Minister of Australia sworn in, it is always fascinating to read about historical female figures. While I am in no way comparing Julia Gillard with Nancy Cunard, I can't but help be struck by the strength of women who come to our attention. Alas, there always seems to be such incredible vulnerability as well. Thanks for yet again introducing me to someone I have heard of but know little about.

  3. Why is it that the most fascinating women end up in the worst circumstances? It's not fair.

  4. Dear Dash, I've always loved the Beaton picture of Nancy at the top of your post. The painting with the bangles is great, do you know who it's by?

    It's fascinating how everyone's paths crossed. There's lots here I never knew. That was a really interesting read. Hope all's good with you xx

  5. What a fascinating story about a fascinating woman.. I just love that era .. when I see photos I know where most of my style influences come from .. another fabulous post xx

  6. I have always respected people who were brave enough to go against the flow! I admire this woman! And on the top of her bravery and willingness to fight for others, she looks astonishingly charismatic.

  7. I just love this blog.Im a new follower and so glad I found you.

    I also love to read about this era.The awesome stories, the photos the clothes,lol.

    I cant wait to visit again!

    Happy weekend to you!

  8. What a full life! I imagine she had little time to ponder which bracelet to wear so she simply put them all on.
    Sadly, style is lacking today, it has been replaced by ubiquitous tattoos.

  9. like my t-shirt says "women who behave, rarely make history."
    shes awesome

  10. I am so sorry for her sad end... But she sure had a marvelous life.

  11. Dear Dash, another brillaint post, I am in serious danger of staying up much too late reading your fascinating blog; love Nancy's serious commitment to bangles! Bx

  12. Hi Dash, love the blog and the samples of Tim Gustard's work. He had a new sell out show this spring on
    have a look and see some super new images

  13. Brilliant. Thank you!

    For over a decade I've treasured my copy the photograph of her reclined and touching her face.

    All this time I thought Nancy Cunard was the photographer's name. Self-portrait?


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