“Black Man, White Ladyship”

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.


9 responses to ““Black Man, White Ladyship”

  1. Society doesn’t reward people who are too far ahead of her time. Today Nancy Cunard would be the star of a reality show (her feud with her dreadful mother would be too delicious not to be turned into media fodder), a regular on the talk show circuit, and feted on the cover of Vanity Fair. Instead she was treated with derision and ended up starving to death on the streets of Paris. I admire her for making difficult, unpopular choices at the cost of her status and wealth.

  2. What an amazing story. Thanks, Aubrey.

  3. Quite a story. I wondered if that was Nancy’s bangle loaded arms in the photograph of Henry Crowder? Also love the Harlem map.

  4. In the history of mother-daughter conflict, this rates right up there. And then, of course, there are all the other conflicts: racial, societal, legal. that final detail — her 57 pounds, wandering Parisian streets — is too intriguing to ignore. A little research is in order.

  5. Hangaku – Yes, as terrible and spite-filled as this mother-daughter relationship was, ‘delicious’ would be a definite descriptor. Scandal has its place in all decades, in all centuries. There is nothing new under the sun.

    Lurkertype – Thanks! I heard of this story on ‘Million Dollar Princesses’ a rather disappointing documentary series on the Smithsonian Channel: hosted by Elizabeth McGovern, who never lost a chance to shill for Downtown Abbey. There were still a few interesting tidbits, however.

    fifepsychogeography – Oh, without a doubt; even though her face isn’t shown, one gets a clearer impression of the lady and her personality than the better-known Man Ray photograph.

    shoreacres – I believe that during her final, lonely years she was thrown into a mental institution; probably because the authorities in charge of sweeping up the streets didn’t know what else to do with her. So many lost souls, lost stories, lost histories – all because some personalities surpass all understanding.

  6. I too was disappointed in “Million Dollar Princesses.” But this post came out of it, which I find far more compelling and influentia. Not all of that American money was wasted on preserving the status quo, it seems. The world needs like her. Thank you, Aubrey!

  7. sorry– the link swallowed up my whole comment!

  8. What a fascinating and passionate woman Nancy Cunard was – I had never heard of her before. I cannot imagine being a position where I would need to be ashamed of my mother and attack her for her hypocrisy and racism. But sadly, I imagine it happens often. Thanks for introducing her to me.

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