Monday, 16 May 2011

A significant Nancy

And Beauty walked alone there
Unpraised, unhindered
Defiant, of single mind
And took no rest and has no epitaph.

(Nancy Cunard, Parralax)

Nancy Cunard by Man Ray

In the words of Carla Kaplan:
If you were looking for a paragon of the flapper, Nancy Cunard would seem to be an ideal candidate. The daughter of British aristocrats, Cunard was a stylish, rail-thin beauty, alternately celebrated as an icon of rebellion and reviled as a sexual adventuress. Harold Acton claimed she inspired (and probably slept with) "half the poets and novelists of the 'twenties.'" As much as anyone, she embodied the sexual freedom of the 1920s; indeed, her slick-haired, smoking, dark-eyed image became synonymous with that decade. (Cunard herself could not have cared less: "Why the smarming over 'The Twenties'?" she would later sneer. "To hell with those days! They weren't so super-magnificent!") Yet she also fought tirelessly for other kinds of freedom ("equality of races ... of sexes ... of classes" -- the "three things that mattered"), taking up the cause of workers, black Americans, anarchists, Spanish Republicans, anticolonialist revolutionaries and avant-garde artists.

The New Yorker's exacting Paris correspondent, Janet Flanner (aka Genêt), judged her to have "the best mind of any Anglo-Saxon woman in Europe." You wouldn't know any of this from Cunard's reputation: She is mainly remembered, if she's remembered at all, as a rich white girl who crossed the Atlantic to sleep with black men. Not that Cunard would have been surprised. As she once remarked, "Reputations are simply hell and there's nothing -- or little enough -- to be done about changing them."
Nancy Cunard biography

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