Nancy at the Hours Press in 1930

The solipsistic siren

The sexual liberation and unrequited search of Nancy Cunard emblematises 1920s Paris


This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In October 1926 Ernest Hemingway’s novel, The Sun Also Rises, with its portrait of the disillusionment, aimless drifting and drinking with little moral compass experienced by many of his age, was published in the U.S. to great acclaim. Those who had emerged alive from the Great War were, it seemed, shattered by what they had experienced and were damaged for years afterwards.

She enjoyed a sexual freedom not available to most women

This is the so called “lost generation”, or at any rate the section of it on which Anne de Courcy focuses, who spent much of the 1920s shrouded by the mists of alcohol and lurching from one relationship to another.

At the book’s heart is a portrait of the beautiful and privileged Nancy Cunard, who embodies this relentless quest to find meaning in life. She was the only child of the American heiress Maud (later Emerald) and Sir Bache Cunard, heir to the shipping fortune.

Five Love Affairs and a Friendship: The Paris life of Nancy Cunard, Icon of the Jazz Age, Anne de Courcy (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £22)

Their home was Nevill Holt in Leicestershire, where Nancy was more or less neglected, which might explain why her early rejection of a comfortable, aristocratic life in the English shires swiftly became a constant search for the man, or way of life, who would provide a deeper purpose. There was nowhere better to indulge this frenetic search than in Paris, where sexual freedom and cheap wine played their part in encouraging increasing numbers of romantic Americans to sample its delights in the interwar years.

When Nancy first went in 1920, a mere 5,000 or so Americans lived there. By 1924 it was home to almost 30,000, many of whom were artists magnetised partly by the absence of censorship, which meant that books and articles forbidden by the obscenity laws of other countries could be safely published in Paris.

By the time Nancy arrived in her early twenties, she had been married, unhappily, and was already separated but not yet divorced. She was also an experienced woman who had had many love affairs and, quite possibly, seen the one man she truly loved killed in the First World War. But, following a hysterectomy, she was able to enjoy a personal sexual freedom not available to most women at the time.

The first man de Courcy describes as a lover of Nancy’s in Paris was Michael Arlen, the Armenian writer who immortalised her as Iris Storm in his wildly successful novel The Green Hat. The second was Ezra Pound. There were constantly other men with whom Nancy was involved in varying degrees of intimacy before her brief flirtation with Aldous Huxley, with whom she was never in love but who was allowed to fall passionately for her. Nancy described Huxley making love to her as “like having slugs crawl all over you”.

Nancy needed men as badly as she needed alcohol

There followed a much longer and more serious liaison with the communist French poet, Louis Aragon, which went through many painful twists and turns before Nancy, increasingly dependent on alcohol, turned her attentions to the black jazz pianist, Henry Crowder.

Henry had a hard time putting up with Nancy’s promiscuity and often tried to leave her, but it was during her years with Crowder that she found professional success through her private hand press, a painstaking endeavour through which she hoped to publish young modern poets.

The Hours Press was the first to publish Samuel Beckett, a hitherto unknown assistant to James Joyce who had written a 98-line poem that came out in an edition of 300 and sold well. This, and her long-term interest in African culture and artefacts, more than her fame as a muse for other artists, is what she deserves to be remembered for.

Anne de Courcy writes engagingly and non-judgmentally and captures the atmospheric restlessness of another restaurant, another man, another trip constantly on the horizon. And she is deeply knowledgeable about the myriad ancillary characters who waltz in and out of each other’s lives and beds.

What, however, does it all add up to? For the reader the whole picture is rather dizzying and exhausting. Nancy needed men as badly as she needed alcohol, but as soon as she had captured a man, she began quarrelling. De Courcy thinks this is because she was a natural rebel for whom there came a point in any amorous relationship when she was compelled to reject the idea of fidelity.

She was given to sudden rages and, beset by insecurities, could be cruel and solipsistic. She never offered exclusivity to her lovers and some believed she was driven by a desperate fear of solitude. Friendship, however, was a form of commitment she could tolerate. In addition to the deep and lasting friendship of the man who never stopped loving her mother, Irish novelist George Moore, she also enjoyed friendships with several women, including the journalists Janet Flanner and Solita Solano.

In 1931, after ten years in Paris, she had a massive falling out with her mother over her relationship with Crowder and her passion to promote a book about African-American culture. Perhaps this irrevocable break with her background and her past as well as with her mother was Nancy’s final act of rebellion.

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