You may have been wondering who the very stylish lady is that surrounds my blog. Nancy Cunard was born in 1896 and was the only child of Sir Bache Cunard an heir to the Cunard shipping line and her mother was an American heiress Maud Alice Burke. In her later life she gave up her home and travelled. There was mental illness and poor physical health towards the end probably brought on by poverty and alcoholism. She was found on the street in Paris and died two days later on 17th March 1965.
She was brought up in England on the Cunard estate of Nevill Holt Hall in Leicestershire. Her parents separated in 1911 and she moved with her mother to London. She was educated at boarding schools in England and France.
When she was 24 she moved to Paris and became involved with literature, modernism, surrealism and Dadaism.
She was also a style icon. Her passion for African culture was shocking and unconventional. She wore huge slave bangles all the way up her arms, made from ivory, bone and wood. All natural materials made by native people and this provoked uproar in society circles. She also wore a necklace made from huge wooden cubes which paid homage to cubism. Eventually her eccentric style became legitimised and was referred to as the “barbaric look”. Jewellery houses such as Boucheron made their own versions of her African pieces.
In the late 20’s she had an affair with Louis Aragon, who was a French poet, novelist/editor and member of the communist party. He was also a follower of Dadaism and a founding member of Surrealism in 1924. After the affair ended she met Henry Crowder an African American jazz musician. Crowder opened her eyes to the injustices of racism and was to inspire her political activism in this area. In 1931 she published “Black Man and White Ladyship” which was an attack on the racist attitudes of the day. She also went on to edit “Negro Anthology” which was a collection of poetry, fiction and non-fiction by African American writers. It also included her own account of the “Scottsboro Boys” case. Because of her involvement in this book, she received anonymous threats and hate mail some of which she went on to publish in the book.
In the 1930’s she began to fight against fascism. She wrote about Mussolini’s annexation of Ethiopia and the Spanish Civil War. Cunard was to accurately predict that the events in Spain were the prelude to another world war. She raised funds for the Spanish refugees by standing on the streets of Paris. She polled 200 writers about the Spanish Civil War asking the question “Are you for, or against, the legal government and people of Republican Spain? Are you for, or against, Franco and Fascism? For it is impossible any longer to take no side.” She published the responses in a booklet “Authors Take Sides”, the most being from George Orwell, which started “Will you please stop sending me this bloody rubbish. This is the second or third time I have had it. I am not one of your fashionable pansies like Auden or Spender, I was six months in Spain, most of the time fighting, I have a bullet hole in me at present and I am not going to write blah about defending democracy or gallant little anybody…”
In London during the Second World War she worked tirelessly as a translator for the French resistance.
So Nancy didn’t simply settle for being a rich heiress, muse, patron or mistress to artists and writers, she was a fierce campaigner against injustice and prejudice wherever she encountered it.