The title of Anne de Courcy’s riveting new book might give the impression that Nancy Cunard had no more than five lovers. In fact she had many, many more.
Born in 1896, Nancy was the only child of fantastically ill-matched parents. Her mother, Maud – she later changed her name to Emerald – was an American heiress and socialite. Her father, Sir Bache Cunard, was a fox-hunting squire busily engaged in spending the fortune he inherited as the grandson of the founder of the shipping line. Maud neglected Nancy, leaving her in the charge of an odious governess. The only person who had any time for the lonely little girl was the writer George Moore, her mother’s lover. Some said he was Nancy’s father, but this seems unlikely. He was Nancy’s faithful friend, for whom she had a lifelong affection – the friendship of the book’s title.
When Nancy was 11 her mother fell in love with the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham and left Sir Bache to move to London, where she embarked on an ambitious career as a leading society hostess. Nancy was sent to Miss Wolff’s school in South Audley Street, and then ‘finished’ in Munich, Paris and Venice. She made friends with the children of the Souls and was seen everywhere with Lady Diana Manners (later Cooper). As de Courcy points out, the two girls loved to shock, but there was a difference between them. Diana flouted convention in order to attract attention; for Nancy, the revolt went deeper, fuelled by a simmering resentment against her mother and all that the Edwardian generation stood for.
To escape Maud’s control, Nancy made a hasty wartime marriage to a cricket-playing army officer named Sydney Fairbairn who had been wounded at Gallipoli. They had nothing in common and the marriage predictably failed. Fleeing her mother, Nancy left London for Paris in 1920. Aged 24, she had shingled straw-blonde hair, kohl-lined eyes and a crimson mouth. She smoked in public, drank continually and went to bed at 5 a.m. The first love affair of de Courcy’s five was with Michael Arlen, who based the heroine of his 1924 bestseller The Green Hat on her.
Aged 24, Nancy had a hysterectomy, caused by complications from a previous operation. It wasn’t what she wished, but far from ruining her life it proved a liberation. It meant that sex was one thing and love quite another. She had a seemingly insatiable appetite for sex – I didn’t count the number of men in this book she is supposed to have slept with. For Nancy, writes de Courcy, sex was ‘an itch to be scratched’.
Affair number three was with Aldous Huxley, for whom she acted as a muse, as she had with Arlen. So obsessed was Huxley with Nancy that his wife gave him an ultimatum, telling him she would leave the country the following day with or without him. He went with her. The next book he wrote, Antic Hay, has echoes of Nancy in its heroine, though she did not reciprocate his passion, remarking that being made love to by Huxley was ‘like having slugs crawl all over you’. She was, however, besotted with Ezra Pound (lover number two), writing pencilled notes summoning him to come to her, failing to realise that her demands imposed an impossible strain on his marriage. Pound championed T.S. Eliot’s poetry, which Nancy also admired, and she seems to have seduced Eliot too – the sole fling of his career.
De Courcy conveys vividly the Paris of the 1920s – the narrow, dark streets, the cheap restaurants, the dosshouses without lavatories. Café society was a world of aimless drifting and drinking, and Nancy was never quite sober. This was the background to affair number four, with the Surrealist writer Louis Aragon. Nancy took him to the farmhouse in Normandy which she bought to get away from the American alcohol tourists who crowded Montparnasse escaping Prohibition.
By now she was something of a monster – a selfish sexual tyrant with a habit of going off with a good friend of her current lover and hoping that neither man would realise she was two-timing them. She was violent too. Covered from wrist to elbow with African ivory bracelets, she would hit her lover with a braceleted arm when she was drunk, inflicting painful injuries.
In 1928 she fell in love with the man who changed her life – Henry Crowder, a black American pianist whom she spotted playing in a hotel in Venice. ‘I was infatuated beyond all reason,’ she wrote. Devastated by her betrayal, Aragon tried to commit suicide.
The affair with Crowder was a step too far for Emerald Cunard. At one of her grand lunch parties, Margot Asquith said in a loud voice, regarding Nancy: ‘What is it now, Maud? Drink, drugs or n—s?’ With this remark, Emerald was forced to confront her daughter’s relationship with Crowder. Nancy stuck the knife in with her polemic Black Man and White Ladyship, a vicious attack on Emerald, mocking her as vain and snobbish. She never saw her mother again, though Emerald continued to send her money.
In spite of the red wine and her exhausting sex life, Nancy was a significant cultural figure. In 1928 she installed a printing press at her farm in Normandy, and here she hand-printed small runs of short books and poetry written by her friends. The Hours Press was a successful business, especially after it moved to Paris. Samuel Beckett, a discovery of Nancy’s, was first published by it.
The project that mattered most to her was her anthology of African and African-American culture, titled – unfortunately to modern ears – Negro. Her long-term interest in African culture and artefacts expanded into a ‘socio-economic credo’ of racial equality. As de Courcy says in her enjoyable, deftly written book, it is hard to find a label for this remarkable woman. Selfish lover, alcoholic, campaigner – they all fit.