Paris playground

Received wisdom has it that any life worth writing can be written again after twenty years. What is required is a new point of view; fresh material helps. In choosing, for her latest biography (previous subjects have included Diana Mosley and Lord Snowdon), to look again at the rebellious society beauty, poet, publisher and campaigner Nancy Cunard, Anne de Courcy deploys all her considerable skills to add to previous accounts. She certainly takes a different angle, focusing on the time and place that interest her most – Paris in the 1920s – and structuring her account around her subject’s relationship with the Irish writer George Moore, the friend of the title, and five love affairs of varying length and significance, with Michael Arlen, Ezra Pound, Aldous Huxley, Louis Aragon and Henry Crowder. De Courcy is an assiduous researcher with an eye for detail and anecdote, and she has made full use of all available papers and studies; in particular, as she generously acknowledges, my biography, the first, published in 1979. As that book was written before usage changed, I shall continue to call my former subject Nancy.

It may seem a touch retrograde to look at a famously independent and free-living woman mainly through her affairs with men, but de Courcy soon establishes the fact that Nancy held the upper hand. She places new and useful emphasis on the central importance of Moore. A devoted admirer of Nancy’s mother, Maud (later Emerald), Lady Cunard, a rich American-born hostess, he befriended Nancy when she was a child and never wavered in his affection; but even he often had to beg for her time and attention. Nancy was, almost without exception, the pursuer, not the pursued.

De Courcy finds the origins of Nancy’s rebelliousness and emotional elusiveness as an adult in her lonely childhood and complex relationship with her mother. Growing up in the large house in Leicestershire where her kindly but remote father, Sir Bache, pursued the sporting life and her mother entertained the social and artistic lions of the day, Nancy – a precocious, sensitive only child – was often left in the care of an unkind governess. That led, de Courcy thinks, to her lifelong hatred of rules and authorities. Moore’s attention and affection were vital to her, not least because he had been something of a rebel himself and encouraged her to write. Later on she seemed to take in her stride the rumour, discounted by de Courcy but to my mind possible, that he was her real father.

By the time Nancy was sixteen, Maud had left Sir Bache for the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham and moved to London. Nancy went with her, and began to impress not only London society, but the artists and writers of her mother’s salon – among them Arlen, Huxley and Pound – with her intelligence, originality and striking blonde beauty. During the First World War she made a conventional marriage to a wounded officer, then fell in love with another and ended the marriage after he was killed. By the early 1920s she had decided that London life in her mother’s orbit was intolerable, and moved to Paris.

De Courcy has always been good at conjuring up a social milieu, and her account of Paris between the wars, while hardly unfamiliar territory, is fresh and entertaining. She suggests that Nancy both discovered and helped to create Paris as the legendary high bohemian JazzAge playground, where wine and living were cheap, especially for wealthy expatriates, and the cafés, salons and nightclubs were full of artists and writers keen to explore and break all boundaries.

Many of them were fascinated and inspired by Nancy, and many became her lovers. She was photographed by Man Ray, painted by Alvaro Guevara, Oskar Kokoschka and John Banting, sculpted by Constantin Brâncuşi and depicted, not always flatteringly, by novelists. Arlen, the first of de Courcy’s chosen five and close to Nancy for a while, was the Armenian-born, social-climbing author of the bestseller The Green Hat (1924); he gave a faithful depiction of her as Priscilla in an earlier novel, Piracy (1922), but Iris Storm, the dashing heroine of The Green Hat, who dies “for purity”, had Nancy’s appearance and glamor, and not much else. More significantly, she was the model for the detached, drifting, emotionally blank heroines of Huxley’s early novels, in particular Antic Hay (1923).

The affair with Huxley was brief. It was Sybille Bedford who told me that Nancy likened sex with Huxley to being crawled over by slugs. According to contemporaries I spoke to (including one lover), Nancy never enjoyed much sex. The hysterectomy she had in Paris in 1922 was probably the outcome of a botched abortion and may well have affected her emotionally and physically for the rest of her life.

Nancy first met Pound in London, where she was drawn to him not just for his looks, but because he was revolutionizing poetry and she was intent on being a poet herself; after some early success and advice from Moore it became clear that she was a minor talent. Pound’s long, helpful letter to her, kept in a scrapbook all her life, was more critical, urging her to avoid being consciously poetic – excellent advice that she did not follow. Until now it has seemed that they only had a fling; but, making good use of hitherto unavailable correspondence, de Courcy shows that it was, at least for Nancy, more serious than that. Her loving letters make clear that for once she wanted a man she could not get. Elsewhere de Courcy writes that “Nancy had also met Eliot, whose work she admired … It also seems … that she managed to seduce him”; she quotes Nancy’s poem “The Letter”, which includes the lines:

Bored by it all was I. After many dances, we went down
Alone, by the grand staircase to the supper room.
It was then, Eliot, you came in, alone too …

Nancy is thought to have inspired a section in The Waste Land that Eliot deleted on Pound’s advice. Sex with the society girl “Fresca”, with her poetic aspirations, “unreal affections and real appetite”, caused Eliot, as his letters to Emily Hale have shown, huge guilt.

De Courcy has also added new detail to the story of Nancy’s relationship with the French surrealist Louis Aragon, who took her into the most subversive and original group of artists and thinkers in Paris. They became intimately involved, and he helped her set up the Hours Press in 1928, where they set type together at her new house in Normandy. This venture was a serious and briefly successful, producing well-designed small editions of work by, among others, Moore and Pound, and a competition-winning poem, Whoroscope, by the then unknown Samuel Beckett. The association with Beckett led to a lasting friendship, though not, he later assured me, a love affair.

The romance with Aragon was ended, to his lasting distress, by Nancy’s discovery, in Venice in 1928, of a cause as well as a new lover. Henry Crowder was a Black American jazz musician, and through him Nancy learned about racism and became determined to fight it in any way she could. Crowder left his own rueful account, which came my way by accident and was later published, of what it was like for him to be at the center of the storms and scandals Nancy provoked in Paris, London and New York. He often felt uncomfortable, especially when she published a pamphlet, Black Man and White Ladyship (1931), attacking her mother’s prejudices, and when she drew close to the Communist Party, of which Crowder greatly disapproved. He was also somewhat bemused by Negro, an enormous, groundbreaking anthology of poetry, fiction and nonfiction compiled and edited by Nancy and published in 1934, in which she celebrated Black history and achievement, deplored the exploitation of African countries by white imperialists and campaigned for social justice for African Americans threatened by lynchings in the Deep South. The book was variable in content and overlong; But it was a historic achievement, well ahead of its time, and deserves to be celebrated.

By leaving Nancy in the aftermath of her affair with Crowder in 1935, summarizing what came next and ending with a short account of her decline into acoholism and death in 1965, Anne de Courcy inevitably risks doing her subject less than justice. We hear little of Nancy’s support for Republican Spain, her campaigning journalism for the Manchester Guardian and the Chicago-based Associated Negro Press, or her efforts on behalf of the Resistance and the Free French in London during the Second World War. But as an always entertaining account of her most glamorous years, and the Parisian world in which she shone, Five Love Affairs and a Friendship may well revive serious interest in a flawed but remarkable woman.

Anne Chisholm‘s edition of Carrington’s Letters: Her art, her loves, her friendships was reissued in paperback in 2019

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