By Anne De Courcy

Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 330 pages. £22. ISBN 978-1-4746-1741-3

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Nancy Cunard was born in 1896 into a wealthy family and grew up in a household with many servants and absentee parents. Her mother, Maud, with whom she fought a lifelong battle while in many ways depending on her for financial support, was well-known in upper class social circles as a leading hostess. It’s only fair to add that Anne De Courcy makes it clear that she was also cultured and “had a deep love of music and literature”. Nancy’s father was a less-conspicuous person and there is little evidence that he played a significant part in her life. The couple separated in 1911 when her mother fell in love with the conductor Thomas Beecham. But Maud had many male admirers, including the Irish novelist George Moore who seems to have acted almost like a father to Nancy. In later years he proved to be a good friend, hence the reference to “a friendship” in the title of this book.

Nancy stayed with her mother and seemed destined to become one of the fashionable young women who would for a time be seen in society and then make a suitable marriage and settle down. She went to the usual parties and attended the usual balls. But she had always been rebellious and when she did marry it was to Sidney Fairbairn, an older man who had been wounded at Gallipoli. It was, for her, a marriage of convenience in that it largely freed her from her mother’s control. It may have set the style for many of her later relationships in that she soon fell in love with another officer who, when he was killed, she thought of as the one true love of her life. There hadn’t been time for any kind of dissatisfaction to set in.

It’s difficult to know how the facts of Nancy’s early life had a bearing on her later activities. She appears to have been always wilful in the sense of following her own inclinations irrespective of how they affected other people. She certainly drank heavily from the moment she began to circulate among her contemporaries. Was this a cover for some sort of personal shortcomings, or simply a desire to keep up with the crowd? Many of the people she knew liked their liquor. This was especially true when she began to mix with a more-bohemian set, finding the company of writers, artists, and other creative people more stimulating than that of debutantes, bankers, businessmen, and politicians. Nancy was writing poetry, some of which was published in Wheels, a magazine edited by Edith Sitwell. Her first collection, perhaps significantly entitled Outlaws, appeared in 1921. It’s of relevance to note, also, that Nancy’s open attitude towards sex, which sometimes led to assertions of nymphomania, probably had its origins in those early years. A hysterectomy when she was twenty-four meant that she didn’t have to worry about unwanted pregnancies.

In London Nancy frequented the Eiffel Tower Restaurant where Wyndham Lewis and the Vorticists gathered and launched their magazine, Blast. And there were affairs with the poet Robert Nichols  and the artist Alvaro Guevara, who painted a particularly fine portrait of Nancy. By 1920, however, she was sure that the place to be was Paris. The city was still “acting as a magnet to artists and intellectuals” despite the lingering effects of the war. The favourable exchange rate, especially for the dollar, meant that many American writers and painters, not to mention tourists, would soon be in evidence. Paris hadn’t yet lost its title as the major centre for artistic developments. It also offered the opportunity of a freer life-style than could be found in either London or New York. There was a more-tolerant attitude towards sex, and the licensing laws weren’t as restrictive.

It was in Paris that the first of the five lovers that de Courcy focuses on came along. He was the novelist Michael Arlen and it was his portrayal of Nancy as Iris Storm in his book The Green Hat that brought him success. There was little doubt that Iris was closely based on Nancy. And Arlen had also based a character called Priscilla on Nancy in his earlier novel, The London Venture, where he described her as neglected by her mother and marrying when young. It was The Green Hat, however, that really drew attention to Nancy, something she didn’t care for. Iris is shown as “a beautiful, doomed heroine”, and the subject-matter included “extra-marital affairs and syphilis”.

The Green Hat was published in 1924, by which time Nancy had tired of Arlen and moved on to Ezra Pound, though there were probably others in between, sometimes as a one-night stand . Nancy had met Pound before in London, where he was a friend of her mother, and thought him interesting because of the “theatricality, not to say flamboyance, of his dressing”. Coming across him again in Paris gave her the opportunity to bed him. The fact that he was married and involved in an affair with another married woman didn’t bother Nancy who, around the same time, also had brief liaisons with Wyndham Lewis and T.S. Eliot. I have to admit that there were occasions when I began to lose track of who she had been with. I’m not making a moral judgement. She was free to do what she wanted, and it was a challenge to the existing convention that it was acceptable for a man to play the field but a woman doing the same thing was to be condemned.

Next on the list was Aldous Huxley who didn’t seem to last very long. Nancy was never in love with Huxley but de Courcy says that she “enjoyed his company, so kept him dangling”. She could sometimes be cruel in her comments on friends and lovers and once said that being made love to by Huxley was “like having slugs crawl all over you”. Mixing with writers, of course, can lead to them using you, or some of your characteristics, in their work. De Courcy points to Huxley’s novels, Antic Hay and Point Counter Point, as having characters based on Nancy. And she adds that in the person of Lucy Tantamount in Point Counter Point he captured completely “Nancy’s terror of being alone, her constant hope that something better would turn up, and her restlessness”.

It needs to be noted that de Courcy hasn’t just written an account of Nancy’s encounters with various men. She puts her activities in context by outlining the Paris of the time, and providing information about many of the people she met. She was guided around the Left Bank by the American writer Robert McAlmon, like her a serious drinker and a lover of night life. She visited Gertrude Stein, and I must admit that I liked de Courcy’s comment on her: “Gertrude Stein was someone who was both revered and ridiculed but always taken seriously – most of all by herself”.  Nancy wasn’t really welcome at the Stein household, but found the company at Natalie Barney’s salon more to her liking. Djuna Barnes, author of the brilliant Nightwood, could be found there, and so could Sylvia Beach, who ran the bookshop Shakespeare and Company and would soon be responsible for getting James Joyce’s Ulysses into print. There were also the wealthy poet Harry Crosby and his wife Caresse. He had what might be seen as a death wish and would eventually put it into practice in what appears to have been a bizarre suicide pact with a young, married woman.

It wasn’t just the Americans and the British that Nancy knew in Paris. She came across the Dadaists and was soon embroiled in an affair with their leading spokesman, Tristan Tzara. It would seem that she appeared in one or two of Tzara’s provocative Dadaist plays. Their brief encounter doesn’t rate as one of de Courcy’s five key entanglements, nor does a “sporadic” liaison with the British poet John Rodker. Does anyone remember or read Rodker these days? He wrote interesting poems in the modernist style, and a short novel, Adolphe 1920, described by one commentator as “an analytical tour-de-force of obsession and disgust in which the psychological envelope of the lived world turns romantic subjectivity inside out in a prose of vivid mental sensations”.

Dada was soon eclipsed by Surrealism, with André Breton at its head and Louis Aragon a key participant in its activities. Did Nancy have a fling with Breton? De Courcy suggests it could have happened. What is certain is that she ensnared Aragon and led him a merry dance around Paris, in Italy, and elsewhere. He was dismayed by her promiscuity and her problems with alcohol. And the surrealists generally tended to disapprove of Nancy, finding her insistence on being treated as an equal not to their taste. As de Courcy explains, the surrealists, despite “their desire to shock and break down barriers – were curiously traditional in their idea of female behaviour”, and she quotes André Thirion who said, “Sleeping around was just not on”. It was Thirion who also reminisced that, when drunk, Nancy could become “nasty, aggressive, and brutal”. When she started an affair with  the black pianist Henry Crowder it drove Aragon into attempting to commit suicide.

Nancy’s relationship with Crowder lasted on and off for several years, though it was inevitably affected by her excessive drinking and sexual behaviour.  And the fact that Crowder was black created problems, especially when the couple visited England where racial prejudice was rife. But in 1928 she fulfilled her ambition to run a small press, and so take a place alongside Robert McAlmon’s Contact Press, the Crosby’s Black Sun Press, and others dedicated to printing work by some of the new writers around at the time. Nancy’s The Hours Press published Samuel Beckett, Bob Brown, John Rodker, and Walter Lowenfels, among others, though it additionally provided a continuity with the past by featuring material from George Moore and Arthur Symons. It managed to survive until 1931 when Nancy’s energies were increasingly diverted into editing the large anthology, Negro, which was eventually published in 1934 by Wishart, London. Her These Were the Hours: Memories of My Hours Press Reanville and Paris 1928-1931 (Southern Illinois University Press, 1969) is a valuable account of the pleasures and problems of operating a small press.

It could be argued that, in some ways, the 1930s were her finest hours. She edited the Negro anthology, supported the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, opposed the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, identified with the Hunger Marchers when they demonstrated in London, and raised money for the defence of the Scottsboro Boys, a group of young blacks falsely accused of the rape of two white women. In all these activities she was looking beyond her own concerns. It needs to be said, however, that she did continue to behave true to form in other ways. She formed a relationship with Raymond Michelet, who at seventeen was half her age, and she wrote a pamphlet, Black Man and White Ladyship, which bitterly continued the feud with her mother.

Going beyond the 1930s isn’t the purpose of de Courcy’s book. Nancy’s life went into something of a downwards spiral as her mental state declined after the Second World War. She travelled to France and Spain, but got into trouble with the police in the latter country. She was arrested in London for soliciting and assaulting a policeman, and in court threw her shoes at the magistrate. Raymond Mortimer described her as “a heroic figure in dilapidation”. In 1965 she somehow found her way to Paris and turned up on Raymond Michelet’s doorstep “delirious, frail, penniless”. He found a hotel room for her, and went to see Louis Aragon to ask if he could help, but Aragon’s wife, Elsa Triolet, argued against the idea. In the meantime Nancy had left the hotel and, incoherent, had been taken by the police to a nearby hospital. She died there on the 17th March 1965.

Anne de Courcy’s book is not a full biography but it does give a good outline of Nancy Cunard’s life and does not attempt to hide or disguise her shortcomings as a person. She offended and hurt any number of people. On the other hand she could be generous and helpful. It’s worth looking at Nancy Cunard: Brave Poet, Indomitable Rebel, a large Festschrift for her edited by Hugh Ford and published by Chilton Book Company in 1968, for a broad idea of her enigmatic personality. Whatever she did she clearly made an impression on everyone who met her.