Nancy Cunard led a life that was out of the ordinary, excessive and sybaritic, and yet she used her fortune to fight racism, fascism, and the stultifying mores of her aristocratic class in England. She was a poet, a publisher, and a muse to significant avant-garde writers and artists, and helped to push African art and artefacts into the European mainstream.
In Five Love Affairs and a Friendship: The Paris Life of Nancy Cunard, Icon of the Jazz Age, Anne de Courcy wisely contains this mercurial woman to the 1920s and 1930s in Paris, which allows her to properly examine Cunard’s life at its most thriving, before alcoholism, anorexia, and madness erased her. Cunard was born into great wealth in the last years of the 19th century, the heiress to the Cunard shipping fortune. Her father was a baron and her mother a powerful society hostess. Cunard couldn’t abide either of them.
Radiantly beautiful, tall, and slender, she was described as “incarnately alluring”. She drank from an early age and took many to her bed; it was, after all, wartime (World War 1, to be exact). Her poetry began to appear in small intellectual magazines. In order to escape the confines of home, Nancy upped and married a rich but unsuitable Australian officer, abandoned him, and found herself in a Paris bewitched by jazz.
The “Roaring 20s” had erupted. At the opening of one famed cabaret joint, Le Boeuf sur le Toit, the poet Jean Cocteau tapped the drums while Black musicians hammered on back-to-back pianos, with Pablo Picasso and Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev looking on. In liberal, loose-laced Paris, Cunard found her spiritual home. Across the pages of this book traipse a broke Ernest Hemingway, the difficult James Joyce, and the sculptor Constantin Brancusi, who carved and cast statues of her.
The American poet William Carlos Williams kept a photo-graph of her in his study and one of her great love affairs was with fellow poet Ezra Pound. It’s important not to romanticise this scenario: like most so-called Bright Young Things, Cunard was careless of others, shallow, and chronically bored. Yet she embraced the new and the anti-establishment — first, it seems, as a bit of a lark. It was fashionable to follow the new “-isms” such as Dadaism and Surrealism, but Cunard had an intellect, honed by her great friend, the Irish novelist George Moore. She continued to write poetry and set up her own printing house, The Hours Press, dedicated to publishing new, Modernist writers and poets. Ultimately, it was her grande love affair with the Black American pianist Henry Crowder that set this restless, promiscuous woman on her life’s path.
Sadly, her last years in the 1960s were marred by mental illness, poverty, and the ever-present alcoholism
More than 300 000 African-American troops had served in the US army in France, where they were considered equal; there was little or no colour bar in Paris, where Black soldiers could visit the same bars — and brothels — as their white comrades. It’s no wonder that when they returned home to Prohibition and the Ku Klux Klan, many saved up to get back to Paris as soon as they could. Cunard was becoming increasingly interested in the Civil Rights Movement, and in African art and African peoples.
Though their relationship lasted some years, she and Crowder eventually parted, painfully, as a result of her cruelty and alcoholism, but her activism continued. She took up the cause of the Scottsboro Boys, for instance — nine Black teenagers falsely accused of raping two white women in Alabama. She also compiled a vast, seminal work titled Negro, a collection of poems, stories, essays, and ephemera that represented the range of Black experience.
Cunard went on to advocate for Communist causes, and in World War 2 worked for the French Resistance. She built shelters for survivors of the Spanish Civil War and travelled to Jamaica to study the effects of colonialism, while dedicating herself to safeguarding African collections in the Liverpool Museum. Sadly, her last years in the 1960s were marred by mental illness, poverty, and the ever-present alcoholism. She died penniless and alone in a Paris hospital, weighing just 27kg.