- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 28, 2007


By Lois Gordon

Columbia University Press, $32.50, 504 pages, illus.


Nancy Cunard was a poor little rich girl long before Gloria Vanderbilt was. The only child of Sir Bache Cunard, an heir to a shipping fortune, and his even richer American wife, Emerald, the legendary London society hostess also known as Lady Cunard, Nancy rebelled against her background. She became a staple of scandalous tabloid headlines, was disowned by her widowed mother and died in 1965, an anorexic, alcoholic, demented wreck.

Were this all there was to her life, she might only be remembered by the iconic photographs of her taken by Man Ray and Cecil Beaton. They show a hauntingly beautiful woman with beautifully shaped eyes surrounded by (for the time) unfashionably thick eyebrows and the heavy mascara then in vogue; in both photos her arms are adorned by more bangles than you might expect to see on a dozen women.

But there was so much more to Nancy Cunard, as revealed in this serious, informative biography by an American academic well-versed in 20th century culture. As Lois Gordon writes in her preface:

“Nancy abandoned the life of a socialite for a lifelong battle against social injustice. Her astonishing beauty, intelligence, and seductive powers led to romances with many of the greatest writers of the era, including three Nobel prize winners. [T.S. Eliot, Pablo Neruda and Samuel Beckett.] Indeed, she might have become the queen of England if she had returned the ardent interest of the Prince of Wales. She became a popular icon and trend setter of the Jazz Age … Nancy was also a prolific poet, publisher, translator, and journalist … She originated the Hours Press and was the first to publish, in her own hand-printed editions, Beckett, Laura Riding, and Pound’s ‘A Draft of the XXX Cantos.’”

This protean figure accomplished much in other spheres, but before we get to that, consider the literary fruits of Nancy Cunard being the muse to some of the 20th century’s greatest writers:

“Hemingway, some believed, fashioned Lady Brett in The Sun Also Rises on her (rather than on Duff Twysden), and she is the indisputable heroine of novels by Aldous Huxley (Antic Hay, Those Barren Leaves and Point Counter Point), Michael Arlen (The Green Hat, Piracy and Lily Christine, among others), Wyndham Lewis (The Roaring Queen), Louis Aragon (Blanche, ou l’oubli, and Le Con d’Irene), and Evelyn Waugh (Unconditional Surrender), and of plays by Tristan Tzara (Mouchoir de nuage) and Huxley (The Gioconda Smile)… . She was the subject of a section of T.S. Eliot’s original draft of The Waste Land and a figure in Ezra Pound’s Cantos, Pablo Neruda’s Spanish Civil War poems (‘Waltz’), and numerous memoirs and poems by Kay Boyle and William Carlos Williams, as well as the focus of many respected writers who are lesser known today… . The following from Richard Aldington’s short story ‘Now Lies She there: An Elegy,’ typifies the way most writers introduced her persona:

“‘Constance is … the wreck of a noble woman … In destroying herself, she destroyed plenty of others … She was lovely enough to seduce a saint.’”

Lovely and alluring enough to take into her bed an astonishing number of these writers, including ones not known for such bed-hopping, like T.S. Eliot.

And it must be said that although Nancy was indubitably self-destructive, she was no Lorelei or Circe luring writers to ruin. On the contrary, no matter how their affairs with her ended, these writers and their work were hugely enriched by their intercourse with her. And intercourse it was in every sense of the term, because these couplings were never only sexual. Consider Nancy on her affair with Eliot, whom she met at one of her mother’s galas, where she had been dancing with a smitten Prince of Wales, whom she found very boring:

“‘It was then, Eliot, that you came in, alone too, for the first time to my eyes.’ She felt as though she knew him well: ‘well raised on you, somewhat versed in you or at least Prufrock’; recalled receiving a copy of ‘The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock’ from an Irish soldier with whom she had made love; and admitted: ‘From that day on, he … and you came together, … gratuitous, fortuitous, this linking, one may well say… . It is magic.’ Already seduced by his poetry, she now responded to his physical appeal: ‘Your words,’ she added, ‘got into my fibre’: ‘I never told you this, oh never, never. Seized was I by your looks, your way, your eyes, at that ball.’”

In this passage, Ms. Gordon quotes from and frames what she terms a long prose poem. Written in the year Eliot died and in which she too would soon die, it reveals Nancy’s distinctive brew of literature and eroticism that charmed so many men of letters and helped give the world so much remarkable literature.

It also reveals the biographer’s skill at discovering and using to good effect such gems, which even the aged, ruined wreck could still pour forth.

If there is a unifying thread to the various aspects of Nancy’s life — her role as muse, her championship of black culture in the groundbreaking 1934 tome “Negro,” which she created and edited, and her political activism — it is her fiery passion.

Her personal unhappiness, originating with her estrangement from her parents and their milieu and continuing throughout much of her life, seems to have goaded her into a lifelong championship of the underdog and oppressed, those whom Frantz Fanon dubbed “the wretched of the Earth.”

Like the hero of Shelley’s beautiful sonnet “Lift Not the Painted Veil,” Nancy “sought, for her lost heart was tender, things to love.” And she found much to love, not only in ballrooms and literary salons, but in Republican Spain, where she risked her life as a front-line correspondent for “The Manchester Guardian” and found in its refugees and displaced persons another cause to champion.

When her passionate advocacy of what would later become known as “Negritude” led her to New York, she definitely “did not go to Harlem in ermine and pearls” to use Cole Porter’s biting lyric in “The Lady Is A Tramp,” which might have been written with her in mind so well does it evoke her character. (There is no evidence it was.) In fact, she was the first white woman to stay in the Harlem hotels she did during her months there, and she soaked up that neighborhood’s distinctive atmosphere and culture.

“Negro” not only included contributions by such black writers as Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois, Countee Cullen and Zora Neale Hurston, but it was truly global in its outlook and was a pioneering work in its blistering evaluations of the effect on blacks of colonialism and of South Africa’s already entrenched distinctive forms of segregation.

Was Nancy Cunard always wise? No. Could she be blinkered or naive? On occasion, yes. But if she was too blase about the Communist influence in Republican Spain, she was not alone in being too credulous of the Popular Front against fascism, and it was after all the legitimate government of Spain, recognized by the League of Nations and the world’s democracies.

She knew enough to be disappointed in what she saw of Soviet Russia, from her one trip there in 1935, and she was independent and audacious enough not to fear publicly challenging the head of the U.S. Communist Party, Earl Browder, for expelling and persecuting her friend George Padmore, the founder of the Pan Africanist movement.

Ms. Gordon’s book is much better on Nancy in the worlds of literature and politics than it is on the social milieu of her girlhood and youth which was so important in the formation of her distinctive character and life’s path. But sometimes here too she can hit the right note, as in this description of Nancy as a child at the opera:

“Do you know Lady Cunard’s little girl aged eleven? I went to Figaro the other day with them and between the acts, Nancy said in her high little squeaky toneless voice, ‘The count is exactly like George the Second. The countess should put a little later — about 1790.’ What are children coming to?”

In this case, a precocious but already intuitive child was going to become a remarkable woman, and that facile intelligence on display before she was even a teenager would ripen into genuine taste and a genius for discovering true originality — to the enormous benefit of writers, artists and culture in her time.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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