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Mad, Bad and Glad to Know: The chic, emaciated, and emancipated Nancy Cunard

August 29, 2011

On a flight to London in 1979 I began reading a biography of the shipping heiress Nancy Cunard by Anne Chisholm. This was the first time that I became aware of this truly amazing woman. After completing my post graduate degree in Film Production, I wrote a film script on Nancy that’s still somewhere in the bottom drawer. I have always admired this courageous difficult woman.

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I’ve always had the feeling
that everyone alive can do
something that is worthwhile” Nancy Cunard

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Picture: John Hoerner

During the first quarter of the 20th century Paris became the epicenter for young artists, poets and musicians. The American poet Ezra Pound described it as the place for those who had “cast off the sanctified stupidities and timidities” and were looking for radical new directions.

At this time Parisian artistic and intellectual life centered around the restaurants of Montparnasse .There is a description of the poet Ezra Pound dining at La Dome clad in black and white chequered trousers, sweeping black cape, large black hat ( his signature) yellow chamois leather gloves. Pound was also a fabulous raconteur and, believe it, or not for a poet, a fantastic dancer.

Heiress Nancy Cunard was another who loved to dance to the syncopated africam rhythms, the beats of  African American jazz groups in Paris. Nancy became the “It” girl of the 1920’s – slender, elegant, wealthy and stylish. Her wealth and her early hysterectomy made it possible to lead the flamboyant life she craved. Her blonde short Eton cropped hair, her seamless stockings, African earrings and Ivory bracelets, leopard skin coats, fabric and bejeweled bandeaus, cloche hats were endlessly copied by other stylish women who all wanted to be “chic, emaciated and emancipated”.

Unlike many of the heroines of the jazz age, Nancy rejected her privileged upbringing choosing to live the life of an anarchist in bohemian Paris. With her school friend, beaded and bandanered Iris Tree, she seemed to be ‘electric with rebellion’ and ran with a fast crowd. They dubbed themselves the ‘Corrupt Coterie’. Nancy’s lovers included Wyndham Lewis, Tristan Tzara, Ezra Pound and Louis Aragon. She had brief relationship with Aldous Huxley and influenced several of his novels. Nancy played the occasional tennis match with Ernest Hemingway. James Joyce would drop in for a chat and she modeled for the sculptor Constantin Brancusi. Langston Hughes called her “one of my favorite folks in the world.” William Carlos Williams, kept a photo of her, deemed her ‘one of the major phenomena of history’. Sylvia Pankhurst, Janet Flanner, Solita Solano, Kay Boyle, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Norman Douglas were life-long friends.

La Dôme was where Henry Crowder, black lover of Nancy Cunard since 1928, sang a song by Samuel Beckett in 1930. Lenin an earlier frequenter of La Dôme – it sold Russian newspapers – would have frowned on Nancy Cunard wearing an elegant turban her gold lame dress by Poiret purchased by her hated mother Lady Emerald Cunard. Later when Nancy lived in Harlem with Henry she distributed her haute couture dresses many by Poiret, Worth, Molyneaux and Chanel among the glamorous wives of many of the African American Jazz musicians she knew. Nancy could be trouble but she was always generous. . . . . . . . . . . .

In the iconic Cecil Beeton photo – above, main picture – Nancy Cunard wears a green turban with fine black chiffon as a veil. Her defiant smoky eyed glance looks directly into the camera her thin lips pursed. You can be sure that under the black jaguar collared jacket her slender arms are festooned with her thick African carved wooden and ivory slave bangles. This was an asthetic as much as it was a political comment, showing her affinity to African culture – Nancy literally wore her politics on her bangled sleeve.

Through Henry Crowder, Cunard became aware of the American civil rights movement. Over the next several years Cunard worked on a volume which was to create a record of the history of African Americans in America. She sought contributions for the volume from black and white artist in America and Europe and in 1934 Negro was published at her own expense.

Picture: John Hoerner

For 10 years Tim Burstall the Melbourne based film Director and I would argue about the merits of Nancy Cunard. He thought she was just a wealthy dilettante – she was much more than that. She was a poet, a publisher, a journalist, a translator, and a muse who inspired many artists of her time.

Nancy became actively involved in civil rights, particularly the Spanish Civil war and actually wrote reports from the front line, housed and fed many woman and children in makeshift camps in Spain and took in Spanish refugees in her own house just outside of Paris.

She was not only a political activist she was the first person to publish Samuel Beckett, who praised her “spunk and verve”. She founded her own publishing house with its own hand press that she actually often manually operated herself. Hours Press became known for its beautiful book designs and high-quality production. She worked tirelessly for the French Resistance during WW II and all her life would be passionately anti-racist and anti-fascist.

Picture: John Hoerner

She was found at the age of 69 on the streets of Paris, penniless and suffering from years of untreated mental illness. That’s how the story is told in all the biographies, in actual fact she had assets of about 60,00 pounds, however  in her delusional mental state she had convinced herself that she was a pauper. In 1965 she died in the Hôpital Cochin Paris, with  no one knowing who she was. Her body was riddled with health problems.

There is no doubt about it, Nancy was self destructive, promiscuous, an alcoholic, she smoked heavily and was an occasional drug addict.

Weighing not much more than an armfuls of bangles, she died two days after she was brought to hospital, not before she had convinced the kindly nuns to bring her pencil and paper.

Before falling into a coma, Nancy composed poems and letters to friends. Friends continued to receive her crazed correspondence days after her death.

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This blog is about hats – and Nancy loved hats. As discussed in previous posts, I have hats in my collection inspired by writers I love. In this post I am wearing a rather battered 1930’s Chanel hat that gives me the rather haunted look – so quintessentially Nancy Cunard –  in 2007 that is precisely how I felt.

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Bandeaus, cloche hats and turbans -Turbans can be a bit tricky to wear. Turbans are just fabric twisted around the head, another way to wear cloth and colour, certainly they can look very distinctive – in a 1920’s Nancy Cunard kind of way. It’s the same with the bandeau – Nancy would not go anywhere without one – I too fell in love with the Bandeau and took it into my own style library. You can make a bandeau virtually out of anything. When Nancy felt she was really poor she made her bandeaus out of the distinctive netting of onion bags from the Parisian markets.

Poet Mina Loy on the death of Nancy Cunard: This poem alludes to Nancy Cunard’s very pale complexion – moonstone whiteness  – her lips and nails always painted vermillion. Mina Loy was another smart, stylish woman. I have a Mina Loy hat in my collection – I will write about her in another post.

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“The vermilion wall

receding as a sin

beyond your moonstone whiteness,

Your chiffon voice”

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From the poem Nancy Cunard by The Poet Mina Loy: friend, fellow poet, and editor of The Hours Press.

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