By Anne De Courcy

Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2022

ISBN: 978 1 4746 0742 0

RRP: $32.99 (PB)

Reviewed by Anne Henderson


It would be hard to number the lovers of shipping heiress Nancy Cunard whose fame for slipping in and out of bed with men was rivalled only by her propensity for the booze. That she became an icon of the Jazz Age is no mean feat given these two addictions. Clearly, there was more to her than primal indulgence and it is this indomitable personality which social historian Anne De Courcy captures with the touch of the novelist in Five Love Affairs and a Friendship – The Paris Life of Nancy Cunard, Icon of The Jazz Age.

Born in 1896 to wealthy parents Sir Bache Cunard and his American heiress wife Maud (later to be called Emerald) Nancy grew up in the vast country estate known as Neville Holt experiencing a childhood De Courcy describes as “typical for the upper class – numerous servants, fresh flowers in her room every morning and absentee parents”.  After the Cunards separated in 1911, Nancy lived with her mother in London where she found the constraints suffocating. In spite of accepting London hospitality from her mother and occasional luxury gifts of clothes, Nancy would become for the most part distant from both her parents in adulthood, especially after her brief marriage in 1916 to Australian cricketer and army officer Sydney Fairbairn. For Nancy, the marriage was about her chance to separate her life from that of her mother, by then a leading London society hostess and recognised as the companion of conductor Thomas Beecham.

Given the social milieu of the Cunards, Nancy was no empty headed butterfly. Her mother was noted as a serious reader of Latin and Greek writers, as well as Balzac and Shakespeare. Maud’s strong friendship with Irish writer George Moore is the “friendship” part of De Courcy’s title. With his long visits to Nevill Holt, Moore become the parental figure and mentor Nancy’s parents failed to provide. For Nancy, it became a life-time friendship, Moore offering eccentric observations, risque perspectives and an anchor in the worst of Nancy’s at times troubled future. But in his later life, Moore would become conflicted in his loyalties to both Nancy and her mother.

Connections to the rich and talented came with the Cunard lifestyle. By the time of her coming out, aged 18, Nancy had not only experienced stints in Munich and Paris for the study of language but had also befriended Osbert Sitwell and Augustus John, Iris Tree – daughter of Sir Beehohm Tree and his wife Helen – the Duchess of Rutland and her daughter Diana, along with Ezra Pound. Margot Asquith, wife of the former prime minister was another of her mother’s good friends. Nancy danced with the Prince of Wales when presented at court who gave her a gold cigarette case engraved with his crest. Such a life among the gilded set, however, would not suit Nancy.

Anne De Courcy has a mountain of resources to hand – letters, diaries, published memoirs, regular news reports – to chart Nancy’s development from the young, if headstrong maid who danced with the Prince of Wales, giving her mother high hopes of a royal match, to the renegade and tearaway she would become with her life in France. De Courcy weaves though the various early influences on Nancy unravelling and recording bohemian Britain, especially as it would re-emerge after the First World War and take Nancy with it.

From early on, De Courcy captures an energy in Nancy that resisted her complacent privileged circumstances alongside a personality propelled by the risks of breaking rules for personal pleasure. With the rebellious Iris Tree, she broke establishment rules in inventive ways, with the pair renting their own studio apartment as teenagers where, as De Courcy puts it, they could do “what was then done largely only by actresses and prostitutes”. In spite of all this “battle against everything her mother thought suitable”, Nancy would set herself serious courses of reading from Shakespeare and Dickens to Corneille, Goldsmith, Daudet and Borrow. With her marriage ended, after the war, Nancy had her first poem published in The English Review.

Nancy found her escape to be Paris. Its publicly funded brothels alone gave her hope it offered a freedom not to be found in London. She diarised later, “On 7 January 1920, I went to France – alone – ‘for ever’”. De Courcy writes, “From her debutante years onwards, much of Nancy’s life took place at night, and for most of it she drank too much.”

Isolating just five of Nancy Cunard’s lovers is no mean feat. Yet each five of De Courcy’s offers something important in Cunard’s quest for satisfaction both carnal and intellectual. Nancy was not one to observe empathy in her relations when in love or otherwise. Many of her relationships revealed more about her needs and contradictions than the importance of the affair itself.

Michael Arlan, whom Nancy came to know in London as part of her intellectual set was the youngest son of an Armenian merchant family raised in England. Changing his original name of Dikran Kouyoumdjian to Michael Arlan, and unable to join the war because of his status as Bulgarian, he moved slowly into the literary circles of Aldous Huxley and D H Lawrence from where he produced his first novel which earned him little but launched him.

As Nancy eased herself into life in France, Arlan joined her. Various friends expressed puzzlement at the connection, one opining, “I really can’t see why you like this ghastly oriental rug-merchant – no, no, really, really”. Their relationship endured some serious medical emergencies for Nancy including eventually a hysterectomy. And, like all of Nancy’s relationships, it also endured the friction between strong willed personalities alongside Nancy’s indifference to personal feelings. But Arlan, besotted by Nancy and her beauty, wrote her into his sensationally best selling The Green Hat, the novel that made him not only rich but also a celebrity – his consolation prize when Nancy dumped him.

As De Courcy writes of The Green Hat’s heroine, “[I]n Nancy, Arlan had the perfect model for Iris Storm, a woman who met men on their own ground, dazzled them, was to some extent a nymphomaniac, and then usually left them”. Nancy Cunard would increase her fame and notoriety again and again over the decade to come in the many works of art she inspired – her visual impact a legacy in art and photography, her unique personality and lifestyle reworked in literary output.

With Ezra Pound and Aldous Huxley, the story of Nancy Cunard’s love affairs took a new turning. Pound was introduced to Nancy at one of her mother’s soirees in 1915 and captured her with his intelligence and attraction to women generally. His entry into London literary society as an academic from Indiana was guaranteed by an invitation to the salon of Yeats’ former lover Olivia Shakespear. He would go on to marry her beautiful daughter Dorothy. By the time war broke out in 1914, Pound was considered a “motivating force” behind modern poetry. In 1921, he and Dorothy moved to Paris.

Nancy’s first book of poetry was published early in 1921 and critically reviewed by her friend George Moore in Observer. In Paris, that year, as Nancy recuperated from her hospitalisation, Pound visited her. They moved in similar literary circles but Nancy was mostly interested in Pound publishing one of her poems in the Dial of which he had been London editor. His advice with regard to her work was that she not use “overblown language”. She refused to follow his advice. At the time she had begun an affair with British writer, painter and critic Wyndham Lewis.

Pound was fascinated by Nancy’s beauty but it seems that, as they developed an intimacy later that year, most of it is to be found in letters, especially those of Nancy begging Pound to meet her at various stages of her constant journeyings in France and Italy. De Courcy records Nancy’s longing – “Dear Ezra, write to me very soon.” And “Do come and stay in my apartment. I have taken a floor of the Villa Mainella on the Grand Canal … Will you come?” – made in numerous jottings and letters.

Pound seems not to have managed to take up Nancy’s offers of hospitality. Pound was not only married (not important to Nancy) but also was in a long affair with a beautiful married woman named Bride Scratton to whom he had been devoted even as he married Dorothy. With Ezra Pound, Nancy had met a force she could not conquer. Old fashioned infidelity as opposed to her amoral view that sexual attraction only mattered for the moment it existed.

With Aldous Huxley the boot was on the other foot. Huxley became part of Nancy’s literary set when sheltering at Ottoline Morrell’s Garsington Manor during the war years as many such pacifists or those unfit for service did. In 1919, he married Maria Nys, a young Belgian refugee brought to England by her mother whom he had met a few years earlier at Garsington. By 1923, Huxley was on his way to fame as a novelist following the success of Chrome Yellow in which he satirised the life led at Garsington Manor.

In January 1923, Huxley signed a contract with Chatto & Windus to write two new works of fiction only to find he was unable to concentrate owing to having become besotted by Nancy Cunard. The relationship was, however, very much one way. After a brief two-day affair, Nancy declared that being made love to by Huxley was “like having slugs crawl all over you”. She would also never allow him to follow her to France. In time, Maria forced Huxley to escape to Italy where he completed Antic Hay which contained echoes of Nancy in its heroine Myra Viveash. This was followed by Point Counter Point in 1928 where, as De Courcy puts it, Huxley captured “Nancy’s terror of being alone, her constant hope that something better would turn up and her restlessness”. De Courcy writes:

In Italy under a different sky, and without the constant possibility of seeing Nancy, Aldous’s obsession gradually drained away. It caused both Huxleys much anguish – but it had been a great help to Aldous’s novels.

While the lovers came and went, nothing really changed in Nancy’s priorities or way of life. It was in Louis Aragon – poet and one of the founders of Surrealism and in time member of the Communist Party – that Nancy believed she had found a soul mate. Their affair, however, only lasted for two years from January 1926. Nonetheless, it began and continued as a true romance with Nancy funding their travels. By the end of 1927, when Nancy bought a farmhouse on an acre in Normandy, however, the relationship was strained by quarrels. Aragon was also in conflict with Surrealist and communist colleagues over the lifestyle he enjoyed as the lover of a wealthy woman. Meanwhile the new project – a farmhouse to renovate and a printing press they called the Hours Press to install there – helped to ease tensions.

The affair with Aragon came to an end as Nancy linked up with black musician Henry Crowder. Nancy had become intrigued by African art and culture and had taken to wearing multiple African bracelets on her arms. Henry Crowder, besotted by Nancy, would become her statement to the world as she proclaimed racial equality in her choice of lover to her mother’s horror. Her campaign to awaken public awareness of intolerance and racism in Europe and America would culminate in the production of Negro – “An anthology of 150 voices of both races” – two thirds of its 250 contributions from black authors. It was 855 pages long and weighed 8 pounds. It would also be a publishing flop and a metaphor for her affair with Henry Crowder who had not only inspired it but worked long beyond their time together helping to finish it. In the end, Henry and the cause was as expendable as all the others.

Anne De Courcy uses these five lovers as a spine to track the frenetic meanderings of a forceful and dominant personality in Nancy Cunard. Her end would be a predictable tragedy as she wasted away physically while still seeking her alcoholic binges. In tracking such a life, De Courcy follows others – the Hemingways, Janet Flanner and Solita Solano, Gertrude Stein (huge fraud or huge influence?), the Scott Fitzgeralds, Sylvia Beach at her Shakespeare and Company in Paris, Wyndhan Lewis, Man Ray, Jean Cocteau, among others, alongside the artists and writers of Le Quartier and the literary circles of London. It is a romp of a read – but the five lovers and Nancy’s friend George Moore also reveal the raw truth of Nancy Cunard who mystified so many.

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History.