If you start at the end, and look for meaning in her life, you see her through a lens of madness and destitution, her health crumbling as she goes marching like a firebrand through Europe, raging against the Franco regime, becoming violently drunk in Italian bars and rolling through the streets with cigarettes stuck in her nostrils, making love to men twenty-five years her junior, rolling from house to house until she’s unwelcome nearly everywhere she goes, enraged after half a century of fighting a war that no-one cared about.
Daughter of shipping magnates, disinherited millionaire and muse, Nancy Cunard died a week after her 69th birthday, destitute, alcoholic and mad. Two days before her death the police pulled her, unconscious, out of a Paris gutter. In the Hôpital Cochin she demanded wine, pen, paper. Despite the fact she couldn’t remember her own name, her biographer Lois Gordon says that she wrote manically into her last hours, reams of poetry and disconnected words, furiously grabbing at her life even as it slipped away.
Even though we know in our hearts that the vast, twitching majority of daily deaths are meaningless, in our head human lives are stories, with a beginning, a middle and an end. And so we look to death for resolution, for the final word on a life, for the artistic crescendo of meaning after which there’s only silence. So that when you look back over her life, what she spent it fighting for, Nancy Cunard’s final hours of madness make a strange sort of sense.
She didn’t leave any spoken last words, certainly no platitudes. These days, if she’s remembered at all, it’s not for her poetry, or for the political battles that consumed her life and finally broke her; it’s as a muse, a fashion plate, a stick-thin figure with gulping black eyes staring mute and nameless out from one-euro Man Ray reproduction picture postcards in airports and train stations.
Once upon a time, though, everyone knew Nancy Cunard.
Born in 1896 to an American socialite mother and aristocratic British father, and heir to an enormous fortune, Nancy was raised by an ever-changing army of nurses and governesses. Her mother, Maud, was a strange mix of conservatism and decadence; renowned for her wild parties and her many lovers, American ‘new money’ paired with a staid British title who sat quietly in his turret room at their vast country estate, metalworking. Maud resented motherhood, seeing it as a wifely duty, nothing more. She’s reported claiming that no great woman ever had a child: “Elizabeth had none, and how about George Eliot [and] George Sand?”
The first of the wars that was to stamp its iron boots into Nancy’s life began in 1914, just as she was fleeing the hypocrisy of her parents’ world. Through the months and years of bombings and death, Nancy swirled maniacally through every artistic movement of the time, the Bloomsbury group, the Imagists, the Vorticists. D. H. Lawrence describes the London of Nancy’s coming of age as “collapsed. The city, in some way, perished, perished from being the heart of the world, and became a vortex of broken passions, lusts, hopes, fears, and horrors.” For Bertrand Russell, the city’s inhabitants “began to seem like hallucinations.”
Her poems and diaries track the desperation of her nights spent in bars, the furious hilarity of men going to war, the countless lovers she had through her bed. Sex, for the teenage Nancy, was a way of giving, was something she owed the soldiers; it was the least she could do for all those young men, about to die. Her infamous love affairs culminated in a whirlwind romance with Grenadier Guards officer Peter Adderley, who was killed as soon as he returned to the front.
After Peter’s death, and after a disastrous, spur-of-the-moment marriage to another Grenadier that ended in separation and finally divorce, after the war had ended, Nancy had the first of what was to be many breakdowns, spurred on by grief and desperate drinking.
London was finished for her. In 1922 she moved to Paris, the city that would turn her into a phenomenon. And it was in Paris that the relentless shift of her lovers became not soldiers, but artists, and that Nancy was captured and caught as a muse.
Over the next decade she’s photographed by Cecil Beaton, by Curtis Moffat, most famously by Man Ray with her beloved African bracelets slung heavy around her skinny arms, painted by John Banting, Oskar Kokoschka, Eugene McCown, Manuel Ortiz de Zárate, by Alvaro Guevara in a portrait that today hangs silently in the National Gallery of Victoria, sculpted in long stone lines and curving edges by Constantin Brancusi, drawn by Wyndham Lewis.
She’s crystallised as characters in novels by Aldous Huxley, Lewis, Louis Aragon and Evelyn Waugh, as the lover in plays by Tristan Tzara, and finally as the forthright political heroine of the poetry of Pablo Neruda and William Carlos Williams and the snivelling socialite of the works of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot.
Strangely, though, if you put all of the photographs, all of the poetry, all of the paintings, all of the words dedicated to Nancy over those years by the men who history has remembered, if you put them all in a bag and shake them, shake them hard and then pour them out over the table, there’s no-one there. A kaleidoscope of eyes and neck, poker-straight back and white skin; but no real person.
Despite her countless love affairs, despite the scores who professed themselves obsessed with her, from Prince Edward of England all the way through to Ezra Pound, towards the end of her life Nancy was to say that while she had loved, constantly, loved so many, Tristan Tzara—who notoriously attempted suicide when they broke up in the late 1920s—was perhaps the only man who ever really loved her back.
Part of the problem was that Nancy couldn’t escape the derision of the men she loved. An intellectual woman, in those circles, at that time, was marked out for misogyny. Her beauty was acceptable. Too often, though, her work, her poetry, her publishing, her politics, was not. Again and again, they derided her. Of his lover Nancy, in an early draft of The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot writes: “…women intellectual grow dull,/ And lose the mother wit of natural trull.” (And a trull, in case you’re wondering, is a prostitute.)
At the end of those Paris years, in 1928, Nancy meets the man who will set her on the political path that will consume the next forty years of her life.
She’d always been politically charged, infuriated by injustice, scorning of hypocrites, but when she met African American pianist Henry Crowder in a crowded jazz bar in Venice, Nancy was introduced to the world of ‘Negro’ culture, and the seal was set on her exclusion from the aristocracy. Her six-year, transatlantic love affair with the married Crowder was a revelation to her. They were kicked out of hotels, excoriated by the press, she was disinherited and disowned by her family, excluded from and derided by the press and society at large.
Nancy refused to back down. Art, for Nancy, was redemptive, and transformative. In response, she put together the anthology Negro at her printing press The Hours. A collection of poetry, essays, and musings from contributors including Louis Armstrong, William Carlos Williams and Zora Neale Hurston, it was the first document of its kind, and a revolutionary call to artistic arms.
In Italy, Nancy and Henry were harassed by Mussolini’s fascists, and throughout the 1930s Nancy began to focus her furious attention on the growing fascist movement, predicting the coming of the Second World War, and frantically working as a foreign correspondent to raise awareness of the growing horrors of the Spanish war.
In 1936, she moved to Spain to cover the war for the international press and, when she saw that nothing was being done for the thousands of refugees in the French camps over the border who were starving to death in ditch-loads, she began to set up her own shelters, working without cease to coordinate hot meals for 3-4,000 people a day. By 1939, on the eve of the Second World War, she was exhausted, collapsed, and was forced back to Paris, where she stood on street corners desperately attempting to raise money while fascism and the war stamped inevitably towards her.
It broke Nancy that the world forgot Franco’s Spain after the end of the Second World War, and she spent the rest of her life trying to topple the regime. She never lived to see its end. She must have taken some heart, at least, in the civil rights movement in the USA. But not enough. She died raging and paranoid, sure that she was being persecuted for her work, as she had been so often in the past.
After her madness, her last Paris binge, after her death in the quiet of the Hôpital Cochin’s white oxygen tent, her best friend Iris from those early days of hallucinatory war and booze and sex in London said: “I still see Nancy, crowned with feathers, streaming with ribbons and simmering expectations.”
Today we don’t remember her politics, or her madness. On street-corners, Nancy Cunard stares out from postcard reproductions of the works of great men, a muse watching the Nike-clad feet of passing tourists, in a world of new wars that are always, Nancy would have understood, the same war.