Tag Archives: 1920’s

“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.


Searching The Sky

Irene Rich stands like a subdued bride.

She holds a silken bouquet behind her, drooping yet hopeful. The coat she wears is of white mink, and there are three rows of severed tails at the hem, decorative and barbaric.  Hidden shoes – satin, undoubtedly, with curving Cuban heels – tap the floor with delicate impatience.  The floor bearing the brunt of Irene’s disquiet bears the terse design that typifies the beginnings of Art Deco.


The photo must therefore date before 1925, before L’Exposition Internationale Des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes.  This was Paris’ months-long introduction of the new symmetries to a world still dreaming in the Ophelia-like embrace of Art Nouveau.  The old sentimentality and weak femininity had expired on the killing fields of Europe and the Middle East, and in the choking factories of the home front.

Irene has not cut her hair – not yet – but the curls have been piled into a soft volcano, until neck, back and shoulders show white and bare, an anthem to the new exposure of the 1920’s. She is not a beauty – there is a thickness to the neck, and a suspicion of fullness to the torso which might have been harbored within a corset in her younger days.  For Irene was born in 1891 and her body would therefore have known fashion’s shackles as well as its liberation.  She would be in her late 20’s when she stood for this photo and an actress for almost 10 years.  Later she worked in talkies, in radio, on the stage.  Her acting career would span three decades.

But Irene had another career, albeit a more emotional one. She had a marital calling; one that was more lengthy than her dramatic one.  Her first marriage was in 1909, a pre-emptive jump to the altar to presumably escape the plans of boarding school which her parents had for her.  One daughter and two years later, she divorced.

There quickly followed another wedding, in 1912. The end of this marriage led to Irene seeking work in the new frontier of Hollywood in order to support her family.  This fortuitous decision would promise that bauble in southern California a future of selfish hostesses, gallant frontierswomen, and strong-willed housewives.

When this curiously bridal photograph was taken, Irene stands waiting for her third husband, whom she would wed in 1926. Once more, it would not last long.  But finally, in 1950, she married a New York business executive; a union that lasted until the end of her life, in 1988.

But shortly before this final, stolid relationship; there was one more – a volatile and deadly one.

In 1949, secretary Agnes Elizabeth killed her employer: politician and business owner John Edwin Owen.  According to the sheriff’s report Garnier shot Owen and blamed Irene Rich for coming between them.  According to Garnier’s story the gun had gone off accidentally, as she took the gun from an intoxicated Owen as he was going to bed.  Rich claimed an innocent friendship, Garnier plead innocence.  In the end, Garnier was convicted of manslaughter, serving one and a half years out of her “one-to-ten” year sentence.  And Irene by then was very happily married.

I had found Irene some time ago, I forget where. I was taken with her face, her slightly debauched cloak, her sprite’s modesty.  So I bought her and framed her, and so she has hung in sepia glory in my hallway for many years.  Her photo was one of a few that I own where the image comes with an autograph – a key ready-made for any owner to use who is willing to research the past of a new possession.

So I had only recently decided to find where her name led me: a history of unions – most unsuccessful – one calamitous relationship based on conflicting stories, explanations and affections…and a body of work in television and radio which led to her two stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.

In a way, I think, such research is like looking into the sky – the things that suddenly come into view when you look into vistas that most people will ignore.


A Disapppointed Child

I bought her a long time ago, when my interest in collecting photographs had just begun; when I was new to the hobby of introducing strangers into my home.

I was only an ingenue.  But I knew enough to realize that an image of a young woman – straddling a staircase, wearing a housecoat and rolled stockings, taking a high and shameless swig from a flask – was worthy of purchase.

But her home is unadorned wood.  There is a cellar door behind her.  Garbage cans are in the distance.  There is nothing to inspire her, except her youth and resentment.

Her brows are straight and angry – her eyes watch the photographer in narrowed defiance, in concentrated fury.  Cocked elbows compliment each other in an outline that dares and swaggers.

Perhaps this is her vision of a gin-runner's moll:  staggering out of doors in the mid-afternoon after a night of speakeasies full of the sharp perfume of smoke, cocaine and jazz.  A night when the neon air had colored her marcelled hair into sleek, unnatural rivers.  And later in the daytime:  a liquid breakfast that went down her cigarette-shredded throad like a coil of unadorned alcohol and acid.

Only she can't help but taste and feel her reality:  the drink is Volstead-approved water, the dress is Woolworth's and not Lanvin, and her life is plain and moral – not vulgar and illegal.  This is no scintillating life of short skirts and gangsters.

The disaffection of this child is universal and ageless – every decade harbors its bitter populations.  Their thin dramas, carefully dressed poses and detailed fantasies take what they want from newspapers and the radio:  the world's informants.  The unwanted facts are jettisoned into a swill of superfluous data; a slow-moving sewer of unwelcome words and pictures.

It happens now.  And it happened then, 80 years ago, by the side of a blank, lonely house.

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A Willing Victim

Seek your confessional.  Reach through the grille of Reconciliation, the dainty face of your penance.  Pull aside the faded rose curtains, the color of a dusty, distant sacrifice.

See who would listen to  you:  a silver harlequin; pale, angular and thin like a bolt of lightening.  Your blanched confidante is an emblem of your generation's debauchery, hiding a woman's undeniable cruelty behind a feral mask.  It lingers in the air like incense.  Your shoulders tighten, waiting for her heel.  This is who would siphon your secrets with a kiss and a sneer.

Kneel.  Close your eyes – and rest your burning cheek against the cold, white bones.


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A Game Of Hazard

I had been waiting impatiently for her to arrive.  For weeks, in fact.  And I was more than willing to pay her way.  Her lachrymose, melting eyes went far to validate her value.  I would spare no expense.

And last Friday when I got home, she was waiting for me.  She no doubt had been waiting for hours, but she still remained as I had first seen her:  a serene, sublime, dangerous girl.  A Deco vamp, with eyes yearning from the shadows, beneath the lengthened coastlines of her brows.  Her hair short and lacquered into an Eton Crop:  the slick, harsh masculinity challenging the muted planets of her pearls, the crocheted yoke of her dress, the shape of her mouth.

The mouth.  Whoever painted her let all other colors recede like tides returning to their islands:  they faded into her cheeks, her temples, her neck.  The painter spent all his time and skill creating a perfect, poisonous mouth colored with liquid rubies.

The dark eyes crying out of two wells of silence, the rouge, the broad plains of snowy skin…these qualities of light and color created the face of a vampire who has surrended her will to romance.  The 'vamp'  was originally called 'vampire':  a woman so beautiful, so alluring, with a face so full of peril, that she could suck the life out of her willing victims.  She left them bloodless servants, and collected them in her grim, locked household.

Within a face too beautiful to ignore, there are forbidden shores, hidden depths, buried secrets and hidden intents.  Approach at your own risk.

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Amazon On The Shore

Clearly I did not purchase this photo for its beauty.  There are smudges which might be the thumbprints of someone who possessed her long ago.  There are mysterious pen strokes above her left shoulder, as if someone had once used her as blotting paper.

No, I purchased the photo for her beauty.  Her statuesque aplomb, her black Jantzen swimsuit, the smoldering gaze sneering from beneath her swim cap, hands and arms poised to dare and invite, to both shield and show.  How the poor photographer must have trembled before such an aquatic warrior!

The nose is short and broad – a little pugnacious, too.  Her neck is surprisingly graceful:  one would think that a bulkier structure would be needed to support such a face full of fight, full of defiance, full of the devil's own mischief.

This is no androgynous flapper, pallid from long nights under artificial lights, emaciated from meals of cocktails – sidecars, martinis, manhattans, Cubans, gin slings, Bennetts, fizzes, millineums, rickeys – with a figure flattened and squeezed into slips of sequined silk.  No, indeed – her limbs are rounded and substantial; her figure bold, bulky and magnificent.  She is proud of her curves; she wears a belt to accent a healthy waistline.  And faded sepia cannot disguise the rosy color in her cheeks.

Sheer black stockings roll down calves of an undeniable shapeliness, emphasizing their slender strength.  One leather-shod foot is tilted upwards, the toe bent against the floor in a pose that could have come from a magazine, a movie, a mannequin…but most likely it came from her own madcap mind.

This is no Botticelli Venus, gliding like a blossom on an opened scallop.  This girl punched her way out of a closed shell into the world; she brushed away the nacreous crumbs brave enough to clutch to her broad shoulders and then strode onto shore, where kingdoms awaited her.

She must have stood like a powerful and curving tree, the ocean currents swirling around her calves, the tides seeking other avenues in their constant advance towards land.

This Amazon possessed no Achilles heel. 

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