To readers having more than a nodding acquaintance with literary modernism, Nancy Cunard will be something of a known figure. Her achievements as publisher, anthologist, poet, and general bad girl of letters have secured her a firm if secondary place in the genealogy of early twentieth century arts and culture. Even those unfamiliar with the literary history of this period and unaware of her actual achievements might well recognize Cunard from the by-now iconic photographs made of her by Man Ray and Cecil Beaton in the 1920’s. With her close-cropped hair and hard, chiseled features, the thin arms braceletted to the elbow with dozens of her signature ivory bands, she appears like some kind of fierce flapper siren, an embodiment of Jazz Age glamour, all edge and intensity, the image of insouciant daring and primitivist yearning. Lois Gordon’s new biography, Nancy Cunard: Heiress, Muse, Political Idealist, however, suggests that Cunard was considerably more than this modernist pinup. Gordon sees Cunard not only as a vivid emblem of the new twentieth century aesthetic but also as a deeply involved political activist, a progressive campaigner for black rights, and intransigent foe of fascism in all of its forms. The biography mounts a persuasive case for making a principal player of a woman whom other commentators on the period have so often made a colorful figure in the background.
Certainly she was colorful. Socially and sexually rebellious, with a history of headlong passions and furious enthusiasms, Cunard was a dazzling figure of avant-garde bohemianism, a high-profile, high-energy critic of artistic conventions and moral orthodoxies. She slept little, ate less, and seemed perpetually on the move, devouring experience with a gusto that delighted and shocked her peers and tortured and scandalized her parents. She was a prodigious drinker and defiant drunk and was promiscuous on a positively epic scale. Yet these excesses went hand in hand with a fastidious set of manners and real delicacy of feeling; she had an air of elegance at odds with her acts of violence. What any writer about Nancy Cunard must try to explain are the causes that fueled such extremes of behavior. What drove this mercurial aristocrat to her obsessive pursuit of unpopular causes and constructive social action while pushing her with equal force toward a systematic program of self-destruction? What made her a consummate “lost generation” insider in the immediate post-World War I years and made her such a curious outsider, an eccentric anachronism, in the decades thereafter? What linked her selfless martyrdom and her selfish manias? Gordon goes some way toward delivering satisfying answers to these crucial questions, supplying a persuasive psychological profile that clearly had its roots in a difficult, even scarring childhood.
Nancy Cunard was the only child of Sir Bache Cunard and the American millionaire Maud Burke, distant and unloving parentsthe father benignly absent, the mother actively antagonistic. While born an heiress to the shipping fortune and spending her childhood in a bona fide castle, her life was scarcely that of a storybook princess. It was lonely, regimented, chill. Abandoned to cold and repressive governesses, restricted in diet and dress, drilled in relentless studies, she quickly formed a hatred of tyranny and a fiery resistance to upper-class authority. Her mother, for decades a brilliant society hostess and patroness of the opera (as well as longtime mistress of its conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham), epitomized to Nancy the fossilized conventions and false pieties of the belle époque world she was expected to embrace. Though she did not rebel at the time, she would later define herself precisely through this lifelong rebellion against a smug antiegalitarian ethos she forever associated with “her ladyship.” She was also a deeply romantic young girl, influenced by another of her mother’s lovers, the Irish writer George Moore, and...
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