Heiress, artist, muse and activist. Not many recall her name, but Nancy Cunard was a renegade who saw the world beyond her very comfortable existence. Born on 10th March 1896, into utter luxury thanks to her familiar fortune (due to the Cunard cruise connection). Like many children of the wealthy, Cunard flittered between boarding schools both in Britain and Europe. One important influence in Cunard’s life was her introduction to the ‘Coterie’. An collective of aristocratics and intellectuals during the 1910’s. Known for extravagant parties and easy quotations, this group could be construed as a precursor to the ‘Bright Young Things’ of the 1920’s. After a short lived marriage to Sydney Fairbarn during WWI, Cunard made the decision to focus on both art and there was only one place to move to; Paris. Here Cunard thrived and became an icon of an era of outstanding artistic.
Firstly, Cunard became a style icon. With her slender frame, pale skin, kohl lined eyes, dark crimson lips and bobbed hair. Cunard cut a striking, if not classically ‘pretty’ face. One of her trademarks was her love of ‘barbaric’ bracelets. Due to her admiration of African art and culture, Cunard adopted this ‘ethnic’ look before it was considered to be chic. While wearing bracelets on their own was nothing unique to; to wear such a ‘savage’ style and to wear many on one arm was a revelation. Given her exposure to elite and artistic, it should come as no surprise that the world of fashion took notice of Cunard’s method of accessorising. Boucheron incorporated their line of bracelets based on Cunard’s style.
Secondly, Cunard served as a muse for many authors and artists. Aldous Huxley was so enchanted with Cunard that he based two of his characters of her. Myra Veveash in ‘Antic Hay’ in 1923 and Lucy Tantamount in ‘Point Counter Point’ in 1928. She even posed of Man Ray (bottom picture). Ezra Pound, Tristan Tzara and Langston Hughes also drew inspiration from Cunard. If one needs more credentials, Cunard created Hours publishing in 1928. Funded by her inheritance, Cunard was able to take risks that most publishing houses could not afford to take. She published works by Samuel Beckett, Ernest Hemmingway, William Bird and Laura Riding.
Cunard’s romantic entanglements were just as colourful, Man Ray, Ernest Hemmingway, James Joyce and Louis Aragon. One relationship that had a profound effect on Cunard was jazz musician Henry Crowder.
Today, a white English aristocrat dating a African American musician would be unusual; But hardly able to create waves. But in 1928, when segregation was still imposed. A union such as this was unthinkable. While the couple was living together in Harlem, New York City; both UK and USA were scandalised by Crowder and Cunard’s love affair. So upset by this bigoted reaction, that a spark inside Cunard was lit. From this moment on, Cunard became an empassioned activist against racism. Cunard created a pamphlet ‘Black Man White Ladyship’, to confront racist attitudes. In addition to the pamphlet, Cunard edited an collection of poems and prose ‘Negro: An Anthology’. Works by Samuel Beckett, Zora Neale Huston and William Carlos Williams. Unsurprisingly, the ensuing controversy meant that Cunard received hate mail prior to its release in 1934. In the mid 1930’s, Cunard campaigned against fascism. Even helping Spanish refugees with aid and supplies, though limited by bad health Cunard still raised funds for the refugees. During WWII Cunard acted as a translator in London for the French Resistance.
Sadly despite a bright and brave youth, Cunard was depleting. Thanks to on going mental health issues, alcoholism and a general taste for self destructive behaviour. After being commited to a mental hospitals in London, Cunard returned to her beloved France. Weighing on 60 pounds Cunard died 17th March 1965 aged 69. Mina Loy even wrote a poem titled ‘Nancy Cunard’.
Cunard proved that one could be born into unrivalled privilege and yet play a vital role in improving the lives of many, even if you are not touched by the discrimination. That one could not only bring truth and beauty