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JULIAN FELLOWES and his Downton Abbey have a marvelous way of introducing us to early 20th century personalities. Lady Edith’s mention of French aviatrix Adrienne Boland got me interested in this Queen of the Andes, even to my building a GMax/Microsoft Computer Flight Simulation version of her Caudron G.3.
I’m not quite sure what to do in response to Lady Mary Crawley mentioning heiress Nancy Cunard. I could write poetry. Wear bangles up to my elbows. Hang out with jazz musicians. Establish an avant grade publishing house. Participate in the Spanish Civil war. Fight against racism and fascism.
Maybe all but the bangles.
Nancy’s father was Sir Bache Cunard, a grandson of Canadian-born shipping magnate Samuel Cunard. Her mother was American-born Maud Alice “Emerald” Burke Cunard, 21 years younger than Sir Bache and notable for having sat through her first entire Wagner Ring Cycle at age 12.
Sir Bache and Emerald were not exactly matched. He was country estate and fox hunt; she was London and high society. They separated in 1911 with teen-age Nancy staying with mums.
As a young woman with the right connections, Nancy got caught up in The Coterie, English aristos and intellectuals renowned for extravagant partying. She fell in love and lost in war Peter Broughton-Adderley, got married and unmarried to cricketer Sydney Fairbairn, was admired by the Prince of Wales and contributed to poet Edith Sitwell’s Wheels anthologies.
Nancy, age 24, moved to Paris in 1920. Before long, she was the muse, and rather more, of Modernism, Surrealism and Dada. She inspired Aldous Huxley’s character Myra Viveash in Antic Hay, his Lucy Tantamont in Point Counterpoint and Michael Arlen’s Iris March in The Green Hat.
Poet/Dadaist/Surrealist/Communist Louis Aragon was a life-long pal who, in 1928, helped Nancy establish The Hours Press, an ephemeral publishing house for experimental poetry. Samuel Beckett’s first published work, Whoroscope, 1930, was one of its books; sexologist Havelock Ellis’s The Revaluation of Obscenity, 1931, its last one.
Nancy became fascinated by African culture. Her multi-bangled “Barbaric Style” is immortalized in avant garde photographs by Man Ray. She also began a relationship with Henry Crowder, an African-American jazz musician living in Paris.
It was quite enough that Nancy was an acknowledged poet, but now, said her mother, “Is it true that my daughter knows a Negro?”
What’s more, Nancy turned her creative talents to Negro: an Anthology, 1934. This epic work collected poetry, prose, translations and music from the likes of Louis Armstrong, W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston. Samuel Beckett, Theodore Dreiser, William Carlos Williams and Cunard herself also contributed essays.
A massive work, even its Negro: An Anthology abridged edition runs 496 pages.
By the mid-1930s, Nancy recognized that “events in Spain were a prelude to another world war.” She helped deliver supplies to Spanish loyalists. Later, exhausted and in poor health, she returned to Paris where she collected funds for refugees and wrote of their plight. During World War II, Nancy worked in London as a translator on behalf of the French Resistance.
Alas, burning candles brightly and at both ends, Nancy struggled with alcoholism, drug addiction and poor health that deteriorated into mental illness. Wandering the streets of Paris, she was admitted to Hôpital Cochin where she died, age 69 in 1965.
From an NPR Books review of Lois Gordon’s Nancy Cunard: Heiress, Muse, Political Idealist: “It was impossible for her to work quietly for the rights of man; Nancy functioned best in a state of fury in which, in order to defend, she attacked every windmill in a landscape of windmills.” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016