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Antenna: Nancy Cunard, the rebel heiress

In her regular column, Meredith Etherington-Smith looks at the remarkable life of the poet and political activist who believed deeply in ‘the sacred mission of art to change history’, and who was immortalised in bronze by Brancusi

In 1925, Man Ray took a now-famous photograph of poet, heiress and political activist Nancy Cunard. In the image, her eyes are heavily kohl’d; her hair is cropped and her arms are piled with her signature wood, gold and ivory bangles. ‘Journalists and critics lambasted her appearance,’ wrote Shola von Reynolds in AnOther  magazine, ‘but she simultaneously served as beacon to a large cast of photographers, painters and sculptors, all drawn in by the irresistible pull of something unknown.’

Born in 1896, Nancy was the only child of Sir Bache Cunard, heir to the Cunard shipping line fortune, and Maude Burke, a San Francisco heiress who had tired with the sporting life, moved to London and changed her name to Emerald. Nancy’s mother would later become the close companion of the writer George Moore, and subsequently the lover and patron of conductor Sir Thomas Beecham. She befriended and financed Wallis Simpson — the American socialite and lover of Edward, Prince of Wales — in the hopes that if Simpson eventually became Queen, Cunard would be appointed one of her ladies-in-waiting.

After her parents’ divorce in 1911, Nancy lived with her mother; later, during World War I, she married and quickly divorced an army officer. During this period she became closely involved with the literary revolution taking place in England, led by T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis (all of whom eventually became her lovers — as did Aldous Huxley, Tristan Tzara, Ernest Hemingway and Louis Aragon). In 1920, she moved to Paris permanently, where she immersed herself in the city’s intellectual life, becoming deeply involved with the Surrealist, Dada and literary Modernist movements.

Man Ray, Nancy Cunard, 1935. Photo  Telimage. © Man Ray TrustADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2018

Man Ray, Nancy Cunard, 1935. Photo: Telimage. © Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2018

In 1924, Man Ray took her portrait with Tzara as the pair were en route to a society fancy dress ball; Nancy wore a gold brocade trouser suit, gold mask and her father’s top hat. It was probably Tzara who introduced Cunard to Constantin Brancusi, who began his African-influenced sculpture Nancy Cunard, also called The Sophisticated Young Lady, in 1925. It was a work that took two years to complete.

Cunard believed deeply in ‘the sacred mission of art to change history’. It was this philosophy that led her, in 1928, to take over the Three Mountains Press, which had previously published work by Hemingway, Pound and William Carlos Williams, renaming it the Hours Press.

Hours would continue to publish avant-garde writing throughout the 1920s, including the poems of Samuel Beckett, Pound’s A Draft of XXX Cantos, and two books by Laura Riding. It was also in 1928 that Cunard began an affair with Henry Crowder, a black American jazz musician. The relationship caused a major scandal, both in the newspapers and with her mother.

In 1931, the backlash from her family and the press prompted Cunard to write and publish Black Man and White Ladyship, an essay in which she hit out at the racism of her mother and the wider world. She also edited the massive Negro Anthology, published in 1933, which included poetry, fiction and non-fiction by African-American authors including Louis Armstrong, W. E. B. DuBois, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. 

The anthology featured her own detailed account of the 1931 Scottsboro Boys case, in which nine African American teens were falsely accused and wrongly convicted for the rapes of two white women in Alabama. A staunch defender of the Scottsboro Boys, Cunard founded the British Scottsboro Defense Fund in 1933 — whose members included Andre Gide, Rebecca West, Virginia Woolf and Aldous Huxley, among others — and organised demonstrations and a meeting at London’s Shoreditch Town Hall.

‘Nancy functioned best in a state of fury in which, in order to defend, she attacked every windmill in a landscape of windmills’ — writer Solita Solano

In the mid-1930s, Cunard trained her fire on the rise of fascism in Europe, writing about Mussolini and the Spanish Civil War, and organising relief missions for Spanish refugees. In 1937 she canvassed 200 leading writers for their opinions on the situation in Spain; 126 of the 147 writers who completed her questionnaire came out in favour of the legal Republican government. Cunard was one of the most vocal anti-fascists of her time.

After World War II, which Nancy spent in London translating for the French Resistance, she gave up her home in France and travelled extensively. In 1948, she sailed from Jamaica to England aboard the Empire Windrush. It was a civil rights gesture in solidarity with the first wave of Jamaicans to arrive in Britain to help rebuild a nation decimated by war.

‘It was impossible for her to work quietly for the rights of man,’ said Solita Solano, the American writer, poet and activist who was Cunard's contemporary in Paris. ‘Nancy functioned best in a state of fury in which, in order to defend, she attacked every windmill in a landscape of windmills.’

Nancy Cunard died in 1957, having suffered from ill-health and mental illness; she is buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.