Cunard, Nancy (1896–1965)

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Cunard, Nancy (1896–1965)

English poet, journalist, publisher, and aristocrat who crusaded against racial and class prejudices and fascist oppression. Name variations: Nancy Fairbairn. Born Nancy Clara Cunard at Nevill Holt, in Leicestershire, England, on March 10, 1896; died at Hôpital Cochin in Paris, France, on March 16, 1965; buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris; only daughter of Sir Bache Cunard and Maud Alice (Emerald) Burke Cunard; married Sydney Fairbairn, London, on November 15, 1916 (divorced, mid-1925); no children.

Published Wheels (November 1922); published book of poems, Outlaws (1921); had affair with Aldous Huxley (1922); published Sublunary (1923); published Parallax (1925); had affair with Louis Aragon (1926–28); established Hours Press in Paris (1928); met Henry Crowder (1928); visited U.S. (1931 and 1932); published anthology Negro (February 1934); journeyed to Moscow (August 1935); covered Spanish Civil War (1936–39); traveled to Chile (February 1940); spent World War II in London (1941–45); traveled to liberated Paris (February 1945); published Grand Man: Memories of Norman Douglas (1954); published G.M.: Memories of George Moore (1956); declared insane, committed to Holloway Sanatorium, London (1960).

Nancy Cunard was the archetypical spoiled English upper-class rich girl, a 1920s "new woman," sophisticated, unconventional, and independent. A published poet at age 20, a crusader for "causes," an advocate of the avant-garde, and an inveterate traveler, she often suffered from lack of direction and purpose in life. She engaged in shocking behavior, alienated friends and family, and treated her many lovers as sexual objects to be used and discarded. However, Cunard's commitment to racial equality for blacks and her abhorrence of social inequality were genuine. Even those who knew her best could not agree on the motivation behind her undaunted "crusading" efforts on behalf of those who suffered injustices. In a collection of remembrances of Cunard, a friend remarked on her "profound love for humanity [which] compelled her to participate … in every drama that burst out in this, our sad world." However, another friend could state that "there was no universal love of humanity about [Cunard]." She was an enigma: who she was is obvious, what she was is not so evident. But there is general agreement on the impression Cunard made on people. She was beautiful, tall, slender, aggressive, reckless, sexually promiscuous, unconventional to an extreme, and an immutable hater.

Daughter of an English country gentleman, Nancy Cunard was born on the family's 13,000-acre estate of Nevill Holt and raised among the exclusive upper class that she came to despise. Great-granddaughter of the American steamship line magnate, Samuel Cunard, she also had American ties through her wealthy mother, the lovely socialite Maud Alice Burke (Lady Maud Cunard ) of San Francisco. Despite wealth and privilege, Nancy received only sporadic attention and little affection from her parents. Lady Cunard found motherhood distasteful, "a low thing—the lowest," but relished her role as host to writers, prime ministers, and even the prince of Wales (later Edward VIII). Nancy's father Sir Bache Cunard was more interested in hunting and the outdoors than in his brilliant houseguests. Intelligent and curious, Nancy listened avidly to her mother's friends talk of literature and public affairs.

Cunard, Maud (1872–1948)

English-American socialite and patron of the arts. Name variations: Lady Maud; Lady Emerald Cunard. Born Maud Alice Burke in San Francisco, California, on August 3, 1872; died in England on July 10, 1948; her father was related to the Irish patriot, Robert Emmett; her mother was half French; married Sir Bache Cunard (grandson of the founder of the shipping line), in April 1895 (separated 1911); children; Nancy Cunard (1896–1965).

When Lady Maud Cunard married Sir Bache Cunard, grandson of the founder of the shipping line, she became mistress of his estate Nevill Holt in the heart of fox-hunting country in Leicestershire, England. British country life before the turn of the century, however, was a little too pastoral for the ex-Miss Burke, late of San Francisco. After a dalliance with the writer George Moore, she ran off with conductor Sir Thomas Beecham and changed her name to Emerald. A patron of the arts and friend of artists and royalty, Lady Maud regularly gave dinner parties at the Dorchester during the London blitz, in defiance of the falling bombs. In those early days, her pals were Violet Rutland , American portrait painter Pansy Cotton , and Jennie Jerome Churchill . Emerald Cunard was the subject of many books and paintings, including a portrait by Marie Laurencin .


Fielding, Daphne. Emerald and Nancy: Lady Cunard and her Daughter. London: Eyre and Spotteswoode, 1968 (published in America as Those Remarkable Cunards, Atheneum).

suggested reading:

Moore, George. Letters to Lady Cunard, 1895–1933. Edited by Rupert Hart-Davis. 1957.

Nancy's life drastically changed when she was 15. Lady Cunard fell in love with Sir Thomas Beecham, separated from her husband, and moved with her daughter to a fashionable address in London. Nancy never experienced a normal, settled existence from that time until her death. Her peripatetic lifestyle as an adult was one of her most enduring traits. Enrolled at Miss Woolf's exclusive school in London, Cunard excelled in her classes and won several prizes. In 1912, she went to Munich to study German and

music; the following spring, she attended a girls' finishing school in Paris. Having visited Italy with her parents in 1909, she was an experienced traveler at an early age. Her fluency in French, German, Italian, and Spanish allowed her to move easily around Europe, and later in Mexico and Latin America. She also knew some Russian. As an adult, Nancy Cunard was more European than English.

Typical of her class and time, Cunard had her "coming out" as a London debutante in 1914. Elegant balls and parties, attended by the "proper" young men and women, bored her. She was drawn to a group of more rebellious upper-class friends who composed the "Corrupt Coterie." This rather bohemian set included her friend Iris Tree with whom she rented a room in the Bloomsbury area of London. Cunard wrote poetry, frequented clubs that featured American jazz, and gained a reputation as a modern, independent "New Woman." Occasionally, she attended her mother's brilliant social gatherings; the Irish writer George Moore, Lady Cunard's platonic admirer, had great influence on Nancy's promising career as a poet. Nancy was greatly impressed by Ezra Pound and admired his poetry, but not his politics. After the Second World War, Pound was declared insane for his wartime support of the Fascists in Europe, brought back to the United States and confined in St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C. In 1946, Nancy wrote him, saying, "It is inconceivable to me that an 'intellectual' should collaborate with Fascism."

You have the conviction, a rather despairing one, that she didn't fit in anywhere, to any class, nay, to any nationality…. She was just herself.

—Michael Arlen

Lady Cunard approved of Nancy's writing, but that did not preclude marriage. What is surprising is not that Nancy became engaged to the handsome, rather prosaic, Sydney Fairbairn, but that she married him. Fairbairn was an army officer, wounded in the war (1914–18), and was on leave after recuperating in Cairo. Lady Cunard had assumed Nancy would marry a wealthy, well-born gentleman; Fairbairn, a graduate of Eton and a German university, was acceptable but not "top-drawer." According to Cunard, she married in order to get away from her mother and to have an independent life of her own. The wedding, in November 1916, received a great deal of attention in the London society pages; ignoring convention and fashion, Nancy wore a gold dress and dispensed with bridesmaids and bouquets. Less than two years later, the marriage collapsed. Cunard was a spirited non-conformist, who found marriage stifling and Fairbairn a philistine. Moreover, she had fallen in love with Peter Broughton Adderley, an officer on leave from the western front. Adderley was killed one month before the war ended.

At the end of the war, Nancy told Fairbairn their marriage was over: "I had married a foul man…. I loathed him." In early 1919, after con tracting flu and pneumonia, she went with a friend to southern France to convalesce. From her diary of 1919, one glimpses the mature Nancy Cunard: her need to shock, her melancholy and restlessness, and concern over her future—what kind of career, where to live, how to give purpose to her life. These concerns were never resolved satisfactorily through a lifetime of searching and experimenting; "I seem to want too much," she confessed, "hence a mountain of unhappiness." At this time, Cunard drank to excess and picked up strangers for casual sex. Already her health was affected by alcohol, cigarettes, and not eating. Dissatisfied and longing to escape the narrow confines of English society, Cunard decided to move to France, a decision that would change and define her life for the next 45 years. "I had determined to leave England," she wrote in 1955, "and leave I did—on January 7th 1920, I went to France—alone 'for ever'."

There were frequent visits to London, but France was her home. Her interest in the avantgarde brought her into contact with Dadaism and Surrealism and its founders, Tristan Tzara, André Breton, Louis Aragon, and others. Cunard considered herself a poet, and her unorthodox tastes drew her into the maelstrom of Parisian culture and the liberated lifestyle of the 1920s. Affairs with the writers Michael Arlen and Aldous Huxley were brief and unsatisfying. To Cunard, Arlen was too materialistic, seeking fame and wealth, and Huxley was sexually repugnant. Both novelists used Cunard as a character in their novels; she was portrayed as Iris March in Arlen's The Green Hat, a woman who "gave you a sense … that she was somehow outside the comic, squalid, sometimes, almost fine laws by which we judge as to what is and what is not conventional." In one of Huxley's works, he described her as "bleak, magnetic, destructive." In truth, Cunard tended to separate her carnal appetites from love and warmth, with what Anne Chisholm called "masculine detachment." And often her lovers, including Arlen and Huxley, suffered from her "detachment." (She was also said to be Hemingway's model for Lady Brett in The Sun Also Rises.)

The year 1920 was certainly momentous for Nancy. She left England, began her affair with Arlen, and had a hysterectomy in a Paris clinic, from which she almost died. The reason for the operation is obscure. She may have had a miscarriage or an abortion, or perhaps it was simply to prevent future pregnancy. In her letters, Cunard makes it clear that she never wanted children. And she achieved what she desired—sexual freedom. She scorned the double-standard imposed on women, refused to conform to feminine conventions, and threw aside discretion in sexual relations.

In France, Cunard began to give some order to her life. She took an apartment on the Ile Saint Louis in Paris, filled it with modern art and friends from the international literary and artistic community, and continued to write poetry. She published two collections in 1921 and 1923. But to say she settled down would be inaccurate. From the end of summer to December 1921, Cunard spent time in Paris, Normandy, Monte Carlo, Berkshire (England), Deauville (France), Spain, Venice, the south of France, and London. By constantly moving about, she hoped to fill a void that existed in her life, but as she admitted, "There's a vague promise of excitement in the air and nothing ever happens. C'est la mal des voyageurs." Nancy Cunard considered herself a poet, but was writing a vocation or an avocation in her case? There is no question that she had talent and the technical skill required of an artist; Parallax, published in 1925, is one of her best works and was well-received by the critics. At the same time, Cunard discovered an interest in African art—ivories, masks, fetishes, and especially ivory bracelets, the latter worn from wrist to elbow, which became her trademark. Louis Aragon, the young Surrealist intellectual, shared her interest in primitive art and admired her taste and enthusiasm. Unfortunately, he also fell in love with her. Cunard was unfaithful despite her genuine affection for him: "I don't think anyone has ever loved me save Louis," she wrote years later, "I, on the other hand have truly and entirely loved many…. So much for love." Aragon had become a communist, and though Cunard never joined the party, any party, she identified with the political left. Like Aragon, and many other French intellectuals, she became an ardent anti-Fascist.

In the late '20s, Nancy bought a house in Réanville, about 60 miles from Paris, where she lived until the Nazi occupation of France in 1940. Shortly, Cunard's new business venture, a small publishing house, occupied an outbuilding on the property. She purchased a rare centuryold hand press and hired a French printer to teach her how to operate it. The Hours Press was born. Cunard intended to publish works in limited editions of high quality, works that would not appeal to commercial publishers. Ezra Pound, Norman Douglas, and the first published work of Samuel Beckett made a reputation for her press among the numerous small publishing houses flourishing at this time. Nancy handled all aspects of the business; she operated the hand press, chose the authors and books, wrote publicity, and kept the accounts. Eventually, she moved the press to Paris but gradually lost interest in the enterprise that had realized a small profit. Money was not a factor in her decision to abandon the press. Publishing was time consuming, and Nancy needed to be on the move.

Cunard and Aragon were on holiday in Venice when their affair ended with his attempted suicide. This act of sad desperation left Nancy untouched, unmoved. After he left for Paris, Cunard stayed on and continued to party with her cousin Edward Cunard and his friends. Here she met the African-American Henry Crowder who played piano in a jazz group called Eddie South and His Alabamians. Cunard initiated an affair that would change her life and Crowder's. Her biographer states that she had found a new lover, one of color, and "she found a cause, a symbol, a weapon, a victim." Cunard intended to help Crowder; she encouraged him to write music, and she aided him financially for many years. They returned to Paris together, but Cunard never intended to have an exclusive affair. Her casual sex with other black American musicians in Paris made Crowder threaten to end their affair. But he was no match for Nancy's strong will. She was said to lack "sexual warmth," and she often treated Crowder badly, not because of his color, but as a lover.

From Crowder, Nancy became aware of American racism, segregation, and black culture, and she began planning to edit a black anthology "to demonstrate the dignity and genius of the black race and to expose the injustice of prejudice." To experience first hand the black experience in America, Cunard made two trips to the United States (1931 and 1932). She sailed to New York and stayed in a hotel in Harlem where she was impressed with the Harlem Renaissance then in full flower. But she was vocally critical of American blacks' lack of interest in their African heritage. She met W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes and other eminent blacks whom she persuaded to contribute to her anthology. While in America, she learned of the case of the Scottsboro Boys, the nine black youths wrongfully accused of raping two white girls, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates , in Alabama. As a crusader for racial justice, Cunard embraced the blacks' cause, collected money in Europe, and rallied support for their legal defense. Race and class prejudice were anathema to her. Lady Cunard had been furious to learn of Nancy's affair with Crowder, and Nancy reacted savagely by attacking her mother's perceived bigotry in Black Man and White Ladyship, which she had privately printed and distributed to friends. She and her mother never communicated in any way from this time on.

Nancy's second trip to the United States caused a sensation in the press. It was alleged that she had come to New York because she was attracted by the black singer Paul Robeson. She received hate mail and was hounded by reporters. During a short visit to Jamaica, she met Marcus Garvey and agreed with him that blacks should return to Africa. On her return to France, Cunard plunged into the work of collecting and editing articles, poems, and music for the anthology. In spring 1933, she went to London to find a publisher. Negro appeared in February 1934, dedicated to Henry Crowder. This impressive book contained 250 contributions from 150 authors, two-thirds of whom were black, and covered all aspects of black culture and history. Crowder criticized the collection as "shallow and empty," and his estrangement from Nancy led him to charge that white women could never understand the black man's feelings towards them. Crowder's version of their troubled, often absurd, "love" affair became the subject of his book, As Wonderful as All That?

In August 1935, Nancy visited Moscow, possibly because of her sympathy with communist ideals. That fall, she began work as a correspondent for the Associated Negro Press (Chicago), which took her to Geneva to report on the League of Nations meetings and to Spain to cover the Civil War. From 1936 to 1939, this brutal conflict consumed her time and attention. She also wrote articles for the New Times (London) and the Manchester Guardian, determined to inform the world of Fascist atrocities inflicted on innocent civilians. She collected money for Spanish refugees and helped settle them in London and in France, many at her house in Normandy.

With war in Europe imminent, Cunard sailed for Chile in January 1940. France was soon occupied by the Nazis, and Nancy realized that she too was a refugee. She decided to return to London. During the war years, she wrote articles for various British journals, reviewed plays, wrote poetry, and worked for General Charles De Gaulle's Free French organization in London. In early 1945, six months after the liberation of Paris, she returned to France; she had heard that her house in Réanville had been ransacked by German soldiers and local French collaborators, but the extent of the damage shocked and distressed her. Her collection of African art, her valuable books and paintings had been vandalized, not stolen, and her house was in ruins. Even the large thyme bush behind her house had been destroyed, which led her to remark, "The missing bush seemed to say: 'No more, no more of any of this for you. Don't try to come back'." It was obvious she could not live there any longer, not among those who had maliciously ravaged her house, her only home. Despite repeated attempts to secure compensation for her losses from the French government, she ultimately failed. Restless and rootless, alone and without a career, Cunard wandered around France, England, and Mexico. She finally bought an isolated, primitive farm house at La Mothe-Fénélon in the Dordogne.

Poetry and articles continued to pour forth from her much maligned French typewriter, but her life still lacked direction and meaning. Cheap wine, chain-smoking, and numerous meaningless affairs undermined her health and fueled her depression. Despite her unstructured lifestyle, Cunard wrote and had published two books (in 1954 and 1956) on her friends Norman Douglas and George Moore. While working on the latter, she wrote: "My idea of writing, of really writing and enjoying it, is when ideas, etc. come so fast that there is barely time to pick up another sheet to put into the typewriter… Some kind of fluid is there and oneself merely the transmitter." She dreaded solitude and tried, as usual, to fill the emptiness of her existence with travel. Unfortunately, she began to exhibit signs of mental instability that led to serious altercations involving the police in various countries; she was arrested and detained and eventually expelled from Spain in the spring of 1960. Shortly after, she was incarcerated in London for being drunk and disorderly.

Cunard became increasingly violent, babbled incoherently, and made sexual advances to strangers. She was declared insane and incompetent and was committed to Holloway Sanatorium (outside London) for four months. After 30 years of alcoholism and promiscuity, Nancy Cunard had self-destructed. While confined, she wrote to her friend Janet Flanner in July 1960, "not being one who wants to go through life entirely alone in every sense and at every hour, I have loathed my life, all of it, and spit on it, at present, for the future and the past." Within a few months of her release from the sanatorium, she returned to France with her new lover Tomás, a young Spanish blacksmith. He left her in July 1961, for which she was grateful. But she was alone again, often ill, and in need of money. Never had Cunard earned a living. Like so many upper-class women of her time, she lived off family inheritances, in Nancy's case from her father and then one-third of her mother's estate after her death in 1948. In the summer of 1963, Nancy began work on a book about the Hours Press with an American scholar, Hugh Ford. To escape loneliness and the isolation of La Mothe during the winter of 1963–64, she lived with her friend, Jean Guerin, in his villa at Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. She wrote poetry, corresponded with friends, drank, and flew into uncontrollable rages. The following winter, she fell and broke her leg while living again at Guerin's villa. Alcohol and erratic behavior forced Guerin to ask her to leave.

In early March, on board a train for Paris, Cunard drank heavily and behaved irrationally—she ate her ticket rather than give it to the ticket collector. Without warning, she arrived at a friend's house in a village near Paris. The next morning, she was sent off in a taxi, to be met in Paris by Janet Flanner and taken to a doctor. Instead, Nancy ordered the driver to take her to the apartment of a former lover. From there, she checked into a small hotel; when she called for a taxi, the driver turned her over to the police. Ill and muttering incoherently, the gendarmes brought her to the Hôpital Cochin where she died three days later—alone. Nancy Cunard was cremated and buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, this talented, lonely woman who, as she wrote in a poem, "walked alone … defiant, of single mind" and who "has no epitaph."


Chisholm, Anne. Nancy Cunard. NY: Penguin Books, 1979.

Ford, Hugh. Nancy Cunard: Brave Poet, Indomitable Rebel, 1896–1965. Philadelphia, PA: Chilton, 1968.

suggested reading:

Burkhart, Charles. Herman and Nancy and Ivy: Three Lives in Art. London: Victor Gollancz, 1977.

Crowder, Henry. As Wonderful as All That? Henry Crowder's Memoir of His Affair with Nancy Cunard. Navarro, CA: Wild Tree Press, 1987.

Cunard, Nancy. These Were the Hours. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969.

Fielding, Daphne. Emerald and Nancy: Lady Cunard and her Daughter. London: Eyre and Spotteswoode, 1968 (published in America as Those Remarkable Cunards, Atheneum).


Correspondence, papers, diaries, scrapbooks, photographs and memorabilia are located at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin, Texas.

Jeanne A. Ojala , Professor of History, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah