Nancy Cunard’s face is a stark and inescapable presence on my wall. It is arsenic-white and cruel, wracked with a harsh intellect and a furious and judgmental beauty. Her eyes are wild and pale, surrounded by thick kohl borders. Her fleshless hands, like those of an unconvincing angel, are lightly clasped beneath her chin.
Equally remarkable are her arms, hidden beneath a cascade of thick bracelets, a carved paradise of wood, bone and ivory. None of the massive bangles are the same: they are an exotic anthology of colors and textures, an inviolable river extending from wrist to elbow. They are eloquent accoutrements that weigh heavily on her skin and speak of a desire to escape and explore. Their reflection of Nancy’s interest in Cubism and African culture, her feral, eccentric appearance and her family name were like spurs that goaded the media into action. Throughout the 1920’s her pale and intense face could be seen everywhere.
At first she was mocked for what surely seemed like the artistic pretensions of an heiress yearning for some bohemian freedom. However eventually fashionable society came to recognize this style, labeling it “the barbaric look”. But it’s very possible that Nancy Cunard did not care one way or the other.
Her mother, however, cared very much. She was Maud Alice Burke – an American heiress and influential London society hostess called by the London Times “probably the most lavish hostess of her day”. She invited to her salons politicians, poets, writers, artists…anyone, so long as they could insure an amusing evening. She was a supporter of Wallis Simpson – hoping the American would marry her king and so possibly be given a court appointment herself. She renamed herself Emerald – she would be seen with oceans of bracelets covering her arms in a green froth. She ignored her daughter when she was a child. When she was an adult, she disinherited her altogether.
Doubtless, she was displeased with Nancy for many reasons – she was a member of society as well, but the uninhibited society of experimental thought and act. Nancy investigated the artistic underbelly of the 1920’s, a world of modern frights which would have sent the Bright Young Things skittering away in their rolled down nylons and beaded dresses.
But the one truly unforgivable thing that Nancy did was to be seen – and to move in with – an African-American man: Henry Crowder, a gifted jazz musician whom she met in 1928 in Venice. Self-taught, with a career that began in the parlors of the brothels in Washington D.C., he rose to importance when he moved to Europe.
When she first heard of this association, Maud exclaimed, in tones of high-pitched aristocratic outrage, in a voice trained for the patrician slur:
“Is it true that my daughter knows a Negro?”
It was. In addition, Nancy became an activist for civil rights in the United States. She visited Harlem – not to sit with the curious audiences at the Cotton Club, or Gladys’ Clam House (where Gladys Bentley wears a tuxedo and high hat) – but to see for herself the racist attitudes that stewed there and beyond.
She befriended the mothers of the Scottsboro boys, exchanging letters with them and taking over much of the fundraising involved in their campaign. This case involved nine African-American teenagers accused in Alabama of raping two white women on a train in 1931. It was a legal embarrassment: with lynch mobs, frame-ups rushed trials and bigoted judges.
Three years later she helped edit the groundbreaking Negro Anthology, which she dedicated to Crowder. It included prose and poetry by African-American writers such as Langston Hughes and George Padmore, in addition to her own account of the Scottsboro case. The media – still fascinated by her cultural eccentricity – paid such extensive attention to her project that she began to receive anonymous threats and hate mail. Some were published in the book, though some were not because as she explained, with regret, that they were “obscene, so this portion of American culture cannot be made public”.
But it was in 1931 that Nancy published her most savage assault: on racism and on the English aristocracy, culminating in an attack on her mother: an icon for all that was wrong in society. It was a pamphlet entitled, “Black Man and White Ladyship”. Lady Cunard’s high-strung query, undoubtedly still ringing in her daughter’s ears, is quoted. She suggested that her mother attend one of the “choicer lynchings” in the “cracker southern states of U.S.A.”
The work is full of questions that riddle its pages like bullet holes:
“How come, white man, the rest of the world is to be re-formed in your dreary and decadent image?”
“I believe that no fallacy about the Negroes is too gross for the Anglo-Saxon to fall into. You are told they are coarse, lascivious, lazy, ignorant, undisciplined, unthrifty, undependable, drunkards, jealous, envious, violent, that their lips, noses and hair are ugly, that they have a physical odour-in the name of earth itself what peoples, individually, can disclaim any of these?”
Throughout her life Nancy Cunard railed against society’s racism and the “stultifying hypocrisy” that tainted its sweet shallows. Her passion was such that it seared the flesh from her bones, until all that remained were her undisciplined good intentions. At the end of her life she was found wandering the streets in Paris, with nothing left of her triumphant life as political and artistic muse except her wits, twisted into paroxysms of fury. She weighed 57 pounds.