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Nancy Cunard; Heiress, Muse, Political Idealist
Write Dope on Pnuk part 71
Nancy Cunard (1896–1965) was a name I knew from various sources, so when this biography was advertised I knew that I had to get it. She was the heir to the Cunard line of ships (that included various cruise liners) and was born at the grand manor house of Nevill Holt, near to Medbourne, close to both Market Harborough and Uppingham. Her father was the third baronet, and a direct descendant of Benjamin Franklin. When he was forty-three he married the wealthy American beauty Maud Burke, twenty years his junior. Nancy was there only child, though gossip suggests she was not Bache Cunard’s child, as Maud had a number of close friendships with other men through their marriage. Rather than run the shipping line, Bache preferred to spend his time on artistic projects or hunting. The parents separated in 1911, Maud taking Nancy to London, where the mother became a society hostess, the father moved into the Haycock Inn at Wansford (between Peterborough and Stamford) where Nancy would visit him. The home at Nevill Holt was closed as too expensive to maintain and eventually sold to become a school.
Meeting the cream of London society through her mother’s parties, Nancy came to know the poets and artists of the era. The Bloomsbury Group, TS Eliot and Ezra Pound all feature, with Nancy having affairs with many of the men of the circle. With the First World War, Nancy also started to comfort servicemen, to one she became deeply in love (Peter Adderly), before he died, another (Sydney Fairbairn) she married. More importantly she started to have her own poetry published. After the war she split her time between London and the continent.
Her first poetry collection Outlaws was published in 1921. The second was titled Sublunary (1923) and her third book was the long poem Parallax (1925). During this time she met Dadaists and Surrealists in Paris and had affairs with both Tristan Tzara and Louis Aragon. In 1928 she started upon an affair that was to have a profound affect upon her.
In Venice she met the jazz pianist Henry Crowder, and through experiencing the bigotry of being a white woman sleeping with a black man she realised the evil of racism. This coincided with Nancy becoming a publisher with her imprint The Hours Press (that produced books by many of the important names of the time, including the first work by Samuel Beckett, who was to become a lifelong friend). When her mother discovered their affair in 1930 and moved to have Nancy excluded from society, Nancy responded with an article entitled Does anyone know any Negroes? attacking this. This was followed by Black Man and White Ladyship. This in turn lead onto her project Negro, during the research trips for which Nancy experienced widespread vilification in the press for both travelling with black men and for travelling to black areas in order to discover their cultures.
The finished book (published in 1934) weighed almost eight pounds, had 200 articles from 150 writers (mostly black) and 400 illustrations. It includes both reprints of historical documents (such as Lincoln’s Proclamation of Emancipation of the Slaves and essays by such people as Harriet Tubman) and new pieces. It looked at black history, the black input to culture, and the social position of black people at that time. In dealing with racism, Nancy chose to include some of the letters she had received as a result of the publicity surrounding her affair with Henry Crowder, though these had to be edited as she did not want to be prosecuted for obscenity. It now stands as a monument of black studies, at the time it received some critical acclaim, but did not sell.
While Nancy was working on the book, the Scottsboro case had come to the fore. On little evidence, mostly circumstantial, nine black boys, were convicted in 1931 of raping two white women (who had initially denied anything had happened) and sentenced to death. Amongst the travesties in the case was that the appointed lawyers for the boys consisted of a real estate attorney who was drunk in court and an absentminded old man who hadn’t had a case in years. Appeals bounced around, one of the women led a protest march in Washington D.C. in 1933 and a fifty thousand-signature petition was presented to the President. (It looks to me that this was an incidence of Washington appearing to not want to be seen interfering in the politics of Southern States, something that looks to have affected the US’ internal politics back to the Civil War). In Britain Nancy mobilised support for the boys.
Also in Britain Nancy took the side of the unemployed, joining a Hunger March at Wansford protesting against the 1934 Means Test (a law that meant what little financial assistance was available for the unemployed could be removed if they looked too well-off). That Nancy’s mother was a friend of Oswald Mosley just drew more ire from her.
Against this background Italy invaded Abyssinia and was met with the weakest of reproaches from the League of Nations. When Mussolini’s troops entered Addis Ababa in May 1936 they slaughtered 275,000 Eithiopians. Within two months the League of Nations recognised Italy’s rule of the country. Nancy again tried to rally support for the cause. This was only a first move for the fascists of Europe as Spain became embroiled in its own Civil War. Nancy went to Spain as a reporter for the Manchester Guardian and her reports covered many of the main areas of conflict. She also chose to report on (for the Associated Negro Press organisation) black volunteers on the Republican side, including the Afro-American members of the International Brigade, and the conscripted Moors forced to fight as cannon fodder on Franco’s side. As well as her journalism she was also responsible for two further projects. The first, a series of six pamphlets known as Poets of the World Defend the Spanish People, was in part inspired by her friend Pablo Neruda, and included both works of Spanish poets and contributions from French and English writers. The second project, Authors Take Sides on the Spanish War, simply asked writers whether they supported the Republican Loyalists, the Falangist Rebels or was neutral. The result included contributions from the 127 supports of the Republicans, 5 pro-Franco writers and 16 neutral. Though not George Orwell’s reply, who was recovering from wounds received in Spain and wanted no part of the discussion. One thing that the book about Nancy revealed to me was the concentration camps that the French built to house Spanish fleeing from the terror of Franco’s victory. Concentration camps that they lingered in until France fell to Germany.
World War Two started while Nancy was in South America, in part looking for new homes for refugees from Spain. It took her a year to get back to Britain and she started to search for suitable war work. Eventually she found a position with the Free French forces, and the book hints that we don’t yet know the true extent of her activities. Certainly she was responsible for Poems for France that raised money for the maquis. Following D-Day she managed to wangle a position as an accredited journalist and returned to France. There she found her home had been ransacked by the collaborating Mayor and neighbours either eager to prove their loyalty or curious as to what the mad English lady had about her home.
Following the war the book reads as though Nancy was smuggling armaments to Republicans still maintaining an armed struggle in Spain, and refugees out of the country. Life though was not kind to her and her habit of eating little and drinking much came to affect her health, though not slow her writing. She had spells in various hospitals for both physical and mental ailments, though only a week before her death she was planning new projects, including a series of poems about the River Nene that flows through Peterborough and which she would have known from Wansford where her father had lived.
Her death in 1965 came at just the time when her spirit would have been in tune with the era. Hers was a personality that exemplified artistic creativity, feminism, sexual freedom, anti-fascism, anti imperialism and black power. The ’sixties then could be considered the product of her tireless efforts to create a better world.
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