Wednesday, October 14, 2009
NANCY CUNARD: REBELLIOUS HEIRESS
NANCY CUNARD: BORN TO BRITISH UPPER CLASS, THE BEAUTIFUL HEIRESS OF THE CUNARD SHIPPING FORTUNE, NANCY CLARA CUNARD (1896-1965) WAS A WOMAN WHOSE REMARKABLE JOURNEY TOOK HER FROM A PAMPERED LIFESTYLE TO DEVOTING MUCH OF HER TIME TO FIGHTING RACISM AND FASCISM.
ONCE A FASHION ICON, MUSE OR LOVER TO SCORES OF DISTINGUISHED WRITERS AND ARTISTS SHE REJECTED A LIFE OF PRIVILEGE AND FORTUNE CHAMPIONING INSTEAD THE OPPRESSED.
IN HER EARLY INCARNATION SHE WAS A FASHION TREND SETTER, A POET AND WRITER OF ACCLAIMED MERIT. AN ATTRACTIVE SHIPPING HEIRESS, SHE SET STYLE AND HAD A FASHION SENSIBILITY THAT CAPTURED THE ATTENTION OF THE WORLD'S PRESS. PHOTOGRAPHED BY MAN RAY SHE WAS KNOWN FOR WEARING DOZENS OF AFRICAN BRACELETS ON BOTH ARMS AND THIS STYLE IN PART REFLECTED HER INTEREST IN AFRICA AND BLACK CULTURE. SHE WAS AN ASTONISHING BEAUTY BUT HER BRAIN AND COMPASSION RULED HER HEART.
Her name was linked with Aldous Huxley, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Langston Hughes, Man Ray and Constantine Brancusi to name a few. Perhaps the most profound relationship she shared was with Henry Crowder, an African-American jazz musician who was working in Paris and became her black lover. At this time she became an activist concerning racial politics and dedicated her life to civil rights but it cost her both her family and her fortune. Negro; An Anthology, edited by Nancy, came about because of her affair with Crowder and they both shared in its creation. The 850 page collection of articles, gathered by Cunard and Crowder was inspired by the excitement of the Harlem Renaissance, the negrophilia craze that swept Europe in the 1920s, and Cunard's desire to create a book that would help Blacks understand their African ancestry.
However, her mother, the aristocratic Lady Cunard, born Maud Alice Burke, an American Heiress in her own right, did not approve of such an Inter-racial relationship and Nancy became alienated from her family, and at one point she was cut off financially. Her pursuit of the Black cause created a great deal of negative publicity but she bulldozed her way ahead reflecting in her work her rage against her family and the London and American societies that rejected her. In that era of widespread prejudice it enraged the general public that a woman of such impeccable breeding could choose to 'get down' with Blacks. In May 1932, two years before the book was published, Cunard received anonymous threats and hate mail which included phrases like "you are a disgrace to the white race," and " either give up sleeping with your nigger lover or face the consequence." Any other woman with less fortitude of purpose would have fainted. Not Cunard, she put some of the hate mail in the book and rallied on as a champion of the Black race.
Such is the legend of Nancy Cunard but who would have ever guessed that the beautiful heiress of the Cunard shipping fortune would spurn a life of privilege and fortune to become a pivotal player in many historical events of her era. Fight for the oppressed was her mantra. In the mid-1930s her attention focused on the anti-fascist fight and the Spanish Civil War. Lois Gordon in her book, "Nancy Cunard: Rebellious Heiress, Inspired Life," recounts that as the only eye witness reporter for the Manchester Guardian she trudged to battlefronts in the midst of artillery fire. Her stories about the suffering of Spanish refugees became the basis for a fundraising appeal in the newspaper. Cunard herself helped deliver supplies and organize relief effort. Plagued by poor heal and the dreadful conditions she was forced to return to Paris, where she stood in the streets collection funds for refugees. She predicted accurately , that the "events in Spain were a prelude of another world war."
It is sad to know that in later years Nancy Cunard had on one to rally to her side and help her in her to fight to battle of mental illness. Her health deteriorated and she weighed only sixty pounds when she was found on the street in Paris and brought to the Hopital Cochin, where she died at 69. Her ashes rest in an urn number 0916 in the Cimetiere du Pere-Lachaise in Paris. Adieu, Nancy Cunard, an amazing Art Deco woman. Let's pay homage to the memory of this rebel crusader who spurned a life of celebrity to champion just causes.