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.