If you were looking for a paragon of the flapper, Nancy Cunard would seem to be an ideal candidate. The daughter of British aristocrats, Cunard was a stylish, rail-thin beauty, alternately celebrated as an icon of rebellion and reviled as a sexual adventuress. Harold Acton claimed she inspired (and probably slept with) “half the poets and novelists of the ‘twenties.'” As much as anyone, she embodied the sexual freedom of the 1920s; indeed, her slick-haired, smoking, dark-eyed image became synonymous with that decade. (Cunard herself could not have cared less: “Why the smarming over ‘The Twenties’?” she would later sneer. “To hell with those days! They weren’t so super-magnificent!”) Yet she also fought tirelessly for other kinds of freedom (“equality of races…of sexes…of classes”–the “three things that mattered”), taking up the cause of workers, black Americans, anarchists, Spanish Republicans, anticolonialist revolutionaries and avant-garde artists. The New Yorker‘s exacting Paris correspondent, Janet Flanner (a k a Genêt), judged her to have “the best mind of any Anglo-Saxon woman in Europe.” You wouldn’t know any of this from Cunard’s reputation: She is mainly remembered, if she’s remembered at all, as a rich white girl who crossed the Atlantic to sleep with black men. Not that Cunard would have been surprised. As she once remarked, “Reputations are simply hell and there’s nothing–or little enough–to be done about changing them.”

Lois Gordon’s new biography of Cunard, the first in almost thirty years and only the third to date, vividly reconstructs the Cunard legend and brings her back to life as a writer and activist. We see her through the eyes of friends and lovers like T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Aldous Huxley, Wyndham Lewis, Louis Aragon, Constantin Brancusi, Man Ray, Tristan Tzara, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and Cecil Beaton, as well as Greta Garbo and Tallulah Bankhead. Cunard scorned celebrity, but it came naturally to her. Some of the notoriety was of her own making. She fueled her legendary status when it suited her to do so, posing for famous artists, drawing attention to her striking looks, trading on her family name with potential publishers and expecting an international audience for her 1931 pamphlet “Black Man and White Ladyship,” about her mother’s horrified reaction to her black lover, even as she called press conferences to demand that newspapers leave her alone.

By the time she died, in 1965, Cunard bore little resemblance to the flapper she had been in her youth. She was frail, cantankerous, in terrible pain and nearly destitute from decades of giving away her money. At the very end she dodged doctors and friends, collapsing in the street and dying alone in a public hospital ward, where she’d spent her last days writing an epic antiwar poem. The Evening Standard reported her death as the “sad, lonely farewell to a toast of the Twenties.” By then, Cunard’s legend as Britain’s bad girl had almost entirely overshadowed her achievements.

Those achievements were hardly negligible, as Gordon rightly notes. “Black Man and White Ladyship” laid siege to a number of taboos around race, sexuality and the family. In 1934 Cunard edited Negro: An Anthology, an extraordinary collection of poetry, fiction and nonfiction by 150 writers, among them Harlem Renaissance luminaries W.E.B. Du Bois, Walter White, Countee Cullen, George Schuyler, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Caribbean radical George Padmore and such white writers as William Carlos Williams, Josephine Herbst, Louis Zukofsky and Theodore Dreiser. This pan-Africanist collection featured stories, poems, plays, translations, dialect examples, sermons, musical scores and photographs, as well as essays on slavery, Marxism, imperialism, the arts, interracial marriage, American racism (notably Cunard’s account of the Scottsboro case), anticolonial movements in Africa and texts translated by a young Samuel Beckett. Cunard was also an outspoken opponent of Fascism and colonialism, one of the only women to report from the front lines in the Spanish Civil War and one of the only white journalists to work as a full-time correspondent for the Associated Negro Press. The fixation on Cunard’s bed partners, illustrious though they were, says more about our own preoccupations than it does about hers.

Shortly after her death, Cunard’s case was taken up by her champion Hugh Ford, whose excellent Festschrift, Nancy Cunard: Brave Poet, Indomitable Rebel, 1896-1965, remains the best source for much of what has been written about her since. Ford also shepherded Negro back into print in 1970. The original massive, eight-pound volume–855 oversized pages–had printing costs no publisher would cover, and Cunard, who refused to cut the book, paid for it with her own dwindling funds (her family had largely cut her off) and with proceeds from slander suits against racist press coverage of her activities in Harlem. Ford’s edition omits roughly half of the book’s contributions, which is a pity: Without Cunard’s ambitious disarray, it is hard to see what she was after.

Why would a wealthy heiress risk her money and name on a venture that everyone predicted would fail–including her black lover, Henry Crowder, to whom Cunard dedicated the book? Cunard’s biographers have tended to interpret her audacity in psychological terms–a reading that Cunard inadvertently encouraged by her refusal, or inability, to separate her personal life from her politics. Even many of her closest friends were appalled, for example, by her public denunciation of her mother as a racist–“Her Ladyship’s own snobbery is quite simple…. It is a stultifying hypocrisy“–and by her suggestion that Lady Cunard attend one of the “choicer lynchings” in the “cracker southern states of U.S.A.” Ford suggests that the answer goes back to Cunard’s background. His introduction to the edited Negro describes a childhood dream of Cunard’s in which she danced around an African fire to the beat of tom-toms and also a troubling story, possibly apocryphal, in which a young black man offers to pay Cunard for a “small kindness.” Her reply: “I am your mother. There is no payment due.”

Whether or not Cunard actually made this outrageous remark, it’s just the kind of thing that, understandably, leads people to dismiss her. Even Ford, who acknowledges the complexity of accounting for Cunard’s choices and for the pleasures they gave her, leaves us with the impression that her commitment to black causes was compensation for bad parenting, the creation of an imaginary–even delusional–family to replace her unfulfilling one.

Gordon, to her credit, sets out to defend Cunard, to separate the person from the legend, to avoid getting sidetracked or seduced, to seriously reassess the political and artistic contributions. But by the time we’ve gotten through Cunard’s childhood, it’s probably already too late. The very myth that Gordon seeks to debunk is already reasserting itself.

Cunard grew up the only child of mismatched parents who left her care in the hands of the many servants employed at Nevill Holt, the 13,000-acre thirteenth-century Cunard family estate, which resembled an entire English village and is said to have occupied more square footage than the New York Public Library. Her father, Bache Cunard, was an apolitical and mostly antisocial man who eschewed family lineage and the family’s shipping business to pursue his passion for decorative metalsmithing, much like the obsessive Colonel Aureliano Buendía in García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Bache Cunard could hardly have been more unlike his wife, Maud Burke, a wealthy San Franciscan; the $2 million dowry that she paid for the title “Lady” would be roughly equivalent to $500 million today. Lady Cunard’s passions were for society. Her ambition, handily achieved, was to become one of England’s most celebrated hostesses.

Cunard’s mother introduced her to an amazing array of male artists and intellectuals, including George Moore, W. Somerset Maugham, W.B. Yeats, Ford Madox Ford, George Bernard Shaw and James Joyce. Lady Cunard’s parties gave her daughter a taste for high culture and European travel and an early facility with languages (Cunard spoke French, Spanish, Italian and German and, as an adult, often wrote in Spanish). These parties probably also contributed to a high tolerance for male-dominated cultural circles, where remarks such as T.S. Eliot’s “women grown intellectual grow dull” were common, and possibly fueled an early dislike of excess, shallowness and domestic dishonesty. Although Nancy followed her mother’s example into an early marriage to a man who shared none of her passion for culture or conversation, she left her husband in less than two years and never married again.

An heiress like Cunard could look forward to a life of marriage, some philanthropy and a pastime or two–“her hobby in life will probably be dogs,” one newspaper predicted. The British press wanted her to stay “sweet, fresh, baby…dollish…and full of fun…[an] exquisite specimen of English girlhood.” This gave her a blueprint for what to avoid, even as a young child. Though she was alarmed by her first sight of hobos –“dirty, slouchy men with stubby chins”–that didn’t discourage her from wanting to be one of them. “I wanted to run away and be a vagabond,” she told George Moore when she was a girl. A little later, as a debutante in evening clothes, Cunard anguished over what her friend Iris Tree described as “the guilt of our immunity” from suffering. Like much early antiwar poetry, her first poem, published in 1916, tried to imagine life for one of the “Soldiers Fallen in Battle” (the poem’s title):

These die obscure and leave no heritage
For them no lamps are lit, no prayers said,
And all men soon forget that they are dead,
And their dumb names unwrit on memory’s page.

Throughout her life, Cunard wanted to write these “dumb names” back into memory.

Sometimes the least effusive people seem to respond most readily to the suffering of others. And Cunard had a reputation for being especially chilly; men complained that she was a calculating lover, incapable of proper sentimentality. But when it came to the causes she embraced, her passion was boundless, as was, apparently, her acceptance of material discomfort. She would not hesitate to work eighteen hours a day setting type in semidarkness for her press, The Hours, housed in an old stable on her French farmhouse, or to trudge twenty miles in the rain to a Spanish refugee camp. When Britain’s unemployed staged hunger marches in the 1930s, Cunard accompanied them, Gordon writes, in “a man’s overcoat and overshoes, an aviator’s helmet, and mufflers, scarves, and gloves.”

When she learned about American racism and the “agonies of the Negroes,” from Henry Crowder and others, she not only embarked on her Negro anthology but befriended the mothers of the Scottsboro boys, exchanging letters with them and taking over much of the fundraising involved in their campaign: organizing parties, dances, film screenings, demonstrations, petitions and theater performances. She responded similarly to the “eternity of anguish” that West Indian and African anticolonialists were fighting and, especially, to the Spanish Republicans’ attempts to defeat Fascism. She first went to Spain in 1936 as a journalist; what she saw there, she wrote, “took hold of me entirely.” For the next three years she volunteered wherever her help was accepted: reporting, delivering supplies, aiding relocation efforts, driving the wounded, agitating for the release of intellectuals, organizing food drives, visiting refugees and spiriting people into hiding at her house in Réanville. “Spain is not politics but life,” she wrote. “Its immediate future will affect every human who has a sense of what life and its facts mean.” She found it “unthinkable” and “degenerate” that anyone could fail to identify with the Spanish Republican struggle, and she braved bombings, arrest, mud, shootings, trenches, sleet and starvation to be with partisans on the front lines and to get to refugee camps.

Cunard’s self-awareness evaporated when her political energies were engaged. And those who differed with her seemed to her incomprehensible. “Her vast anger at injustice embraced the universe,” Solita Solano, a writer and companion of Janet Flanner, said. “There was no place left in her for the working of any other emotional pattern…. It was her mania, her madness.” Cunard leapt from sympathizing with the oppressed to trying to become them, a literal form of identification that alarmed her friends and delighted her detractors, who seized upon it as evidence that she was unstable. In one of her favorite poems, which she called her own “Battle Hymn,” she imagined herself as a black man bidding his “fierce farewell to the United States” and threatening to “tear the Crackers limb from limb” as “vengeance…for the days I’ve slaved,” before he “heads for an Africa that should be his.” Imagining this point of view gave Cunard a new perspective on racism. That assuming this man’s voice might be seen as presumptuous, if not offensive, no more occurred to her than the possibility that she–and the scandalmongering press that followed in her wake–would be unwelcome in Harlem. (“Nancy’s back,” some of her black Harlem friends would remark, “we’re in trouble.”) Whether marching with hunger strikers or showing up in Harlem, Cunard expected to fit in and be accepted.

In the arguments over identity that roiled the 1920s and continue to reverberate today–when does empathy become appropriation? is speaking for others unethical? what links “love and theft”?–Cunard took a position that was at once admirable and disconcerting, particularly for someone of her abundant privilege: admirable because she identified with the oppressed with a rare passion; disconcerting because in trying to merge with the objects of her concern, she displayed scarcely any awareness that this performance was a further manifestation of her privilege. This left her often incapable of distinguishing between being genuinely helpful, as she was in Spain and in the American anti-lynching campaign, and appearing to others as Lady Bountiful visiting the slums. But Cunard was convinced that she could–and should–shed her background as an act of solidarity and will, an expression of the “vital life-theme” of human “contact.” When she declared that she had Africa in “my ego, my soul,” or wrote that “I speak as if I were a Negro myself,” she felt she was demonstrating not arrogance but connection. The “Authors Take Sides” form she invented–“the tragedies of suffering humanity [must] become as their own”–was another manifestation of this belief in the possibility of changing places with others. Failure to do so left her feeling “sick at heart.” Cunard has elicited a fair amount of abuse for this stance. The noted feminist scholar Susan Gubar pronounces her a “schizophrenic, self-loathing…vamp who used her social status, her money, and her promiscuity” for the “appropriation of a [black] culture very much not her own.”

Happily, Gordon provides a more balanced and sympathetic account. Her Nancy Cunard is brave, hardworking, dedicated and honorable, a woman of serious ambition and admirable talent. She is generous, funny and well loved by her friends. She is wry and self-effacing. Unfortunately, she is also hopelessly introspective and romantic, although lacking, in Gordon’s view, “that sense of wholeness or self-worth that makes for appropriate self-love–and subsequent love of an other.” And in accounting for Cunard’s politics, Gordon succumbs to the temptations of amateur psychology. Like professor Ann Douglas, who dismisses Cunard as a “profligate…Electra figure” whose entire political life amounts to no more than a “blow she struck at her mother”–or Cunard’s former associate Wyn Henderson, who viewed her “identification with the underdog” as “an outlet…for feeling or love that can neither be offered nor accepted in the case of individuals”–Gordon lights on the minutiae of childhood disappointment, as if political love, or empathy, were always somehow suspect. Cunard’s racial politics, she writes, were her compensation for poor family “bonds.” Her lifelong “identification with those who were unempowered or unjustly punished,” she claims, stemmed from being “whacked on her hands” when she was a child. And so on.

Cunard was permanently damaged, Gordon insists, by being “deprived” as a child of “the parental nurturing and devotion that makes for self-confident adult independence.” Cunard’s later politics, she claims, were extensions of her feelings for Henry Crowder, who provided some of the nurturing she lacked. “Crowder was the ‘first cause’ not only of her project Negro,” Gordon writes, “but, one can assume by extension, of all the human rights causes that consumed her for the rest of her life.” Even Negro looks, to Gordon, like Cunard’s surrogate family: “Negro was the child she would never have…. Nancy seemed fulfilled in creating Negro in the way a parent bonds forever with a child.”

These personalizations of Cunard’s politics are not based on new information. In fact, Gordon’s biography does not differ significantly from Anne Chisholm’s, published almost thirty years ago. And it relies on many of the same sources, including Crowder’s posthumously published memoir As Wonderful As All That?, a bitter postaffair account about which there has always been much question of actual authorship. Even though Crowder elsewhere praised Cunard and admired her courage, Gordon leans heavily on this memoir’s most damning statements. Gordon also ignores some of the better recent work on Cunard, such as Jane Marcus’s spirited defense of her as an overlooked heroine of feminism and the left. And she doesn’t ask why Cunard’s male friends, many of whom caused fewer eyebrows to be raised for even more outlandish behavior, were able to get away with the same politics of identification that Cunard was criticized for practicing too recklessly. Even Carl Van Vechten, the period’s most notorious white race-crosser (Cunard called him “the spirit of vulgarity”), is more often given the benefit of the doubt.

Michael Arlen remarked that Cunard was like “some invention, ghastly or not, of her own…. She didn’t fit anywhere.” That inconsistency or “passionate inconstancy,” as William Carlos Williams called it, consisted of, as one male friend described it, “baffling contradictions”–she was passionate but unromantic, loyal but unforgiving, unconventional but fastidious, emotional but unsentimental, hedonistic but anorexic. Huxley summed her up as “one of those women who have the temperament of a man.” Ghastly indeed. We don’t have much in the way of flattering language for high-fashion, pleasure-seeking, charming and seductive female revolutionaries. Trying to classify or categorize Cunard must have been like trying to put together Emma Goldman and Myrna Loy, or Paris Hilton and Betty Friedan. But beyond uncanniness, with which Cunard abounds, is the problem of what to say about someone whose steely determination could be as alienating and self-destructive as it was effective and admirable, whose failures were often as spectacular as her successes, and who, despite titling a poem “Remorse,” seems to have felt very little of it. To her credit, Cunard knew these things about herself.

Nancy Cunard paid a high price for her nonconformity. She was disinherited, arrested, beaten, institutionalized and eventually declared insane. Her legacy includes her refusal to regret, or attempt to explain, any of it.