Nancy Cunard, 1896-1965
Born in 1896, Nancy Clara Cunard was the only child of the middle aged English baronet Sir Bache Cunard and his young American wife Maud Alice Burke. Though raised largely by servants and governesses, Nancy was not excluded when her mother, filling her role as a society hostess, filled the house with the most prominent writers, artists, musicians, and politicians of the day. A special friend of her mother, George Moore, took a particular interest in Nancy, encouraging her education and interest in literature and poetry.
When Nancy was fourteen, her mother left Sir Bache, and taking Nancy, established a separate residence in London. Nancy attended private schools in London, Germany, and Paris, where she became friends with Iris Tree, Dianna Manners, Osbert Sitwell, Augustus John, and Ezra Pound. In 1914, referring to themselves as the "Corrupt Coterie," the group spent evenings in Parisian cafes discussing politics and poetry rather than attending to the conventional social milieu. About this time Nancy also began writing poetry, and though not an exceptional poet, published several poems in 1915 and 1916.
In 1916, Nancy had returned to London from school and became engaged to Sydney Fairbairn, much to the surprise of her family and friends. Fairbairn, while a socially acceptable young man, was very conventional, especially when compared to Nancy's usual choice of companions. The marriage ended in a formal separation after about 20 months, though the divorce was not final until 1925.
In 1920 Cunard moved to Paris where she became associated with the Dada and Modernist movements, and though she never formally joined, the Communist party. It is generally agreed that at this point in her life Cunard developed a strong dependence on alcohol and she may have experimented with other drugs. She also published her first volumes of poetry, starting with Outlaws in 1921, followed by Sublunary (1923), and Parallax (1925).
1927 found Cunard moving into an old farmhouse in Reanville, outside Paris, and setting up the Hours Press. Here she printed works by new and established writers, including Ezra Pound, Norman Douglas, Laura Riding, and Samuel Beckett. In 1928 Cunard met and became involved with Henry Crowder, a black American jazz musician playing with a band in a local night club. Through Crowder, Cunard became aware of the American civil rights movement. Over the next several years Cunard worked on a volume which was meant to create a record of the history of blacks in America. She solicited contributions for the volume from black and white artists in America and Europe and in 1934 to moderate fanfare and some controversy, Negro was published at her own expense.
Cunard took a strong interest in other civil rights issues for the rest of her life. She was a free-lance correspondent in Spain during the Spanish Civil War and then agitated for better treatment for the Spanish refugees in France after Franco's forces had prevailed. She traveled widely in South America, the Caribbean, and Tunisia, writing about the effects of colonialism as she went, and she frequently raised the issue of the color bar in her home country of England.
After World War II, Cunard traveled extensively and almost constantly. Her farmhouse in Reanville had been looted and vandalized during the Occupation and, because much of the damage had been done by locals, she did not feel able to return. She wrote memoirs of Norman Douglas and George Moore which were well received, and visited her friends. Deteriorating health, both physical and mental, caused her to alienate even her oldest and closest friends so that she died alone in a Parisian charity hospital in 1965.
Blain, Virginia, Isobel Grundy, & Patricia Clements, editors. The Feminist Companion to Literature in English. (Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1990).
Chisholm, Anne. Nancy Cunard: A Biography. (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1979).
Schlueter, Paul & June Schlueter, editors. An Encyclopedia of British Women Writers (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1988).