A dazzling beauty, heiress to one of England’s greatest fortunes, and the toast of European society—had she never lifted a finger, Nancy Cunard would still have been a memorable figure of the Jazz Age. Instead, Cunard chose to become a writer, publisher, and an outspoken political activist who championed Black writers and avant-garde literature. With so much going for her, how did Cunard end up dying penniless and alone? Find out in these 50 fearless facts about Nancy Cunard, the rebel heiress.
Nancy Cunard Facts
1. Their Ship Came In
Nancy Cunard was the heiress to the extravagantly wealthy Cunard family. The Cunard Line, founded by Samuel Cunard in 1840, was the most famous shipping firm of the age. Sadly, the phrase “poor little rich girl” doesn’t come from nowhere. Despite her luxurious upbringing, Cunard was painfully isolated as a child.
2. New Money
Cunard’s father, Sir Bache Cunard, was the 3rd Baronet Cunard of Bush Hill. The Cunards were by no means an old and noble family: the Cunard Baronetcy was created in 1859 in recognition of Samuel Cunard’s standing as a shipping magnate. In other words, the Cunards had money…and they used their sweet, sweet cash to buy nobility.
3. End of the Line
Nancy Cunard was an only child and a girl, and because of this, she entered adulthood with a cruel betrayal. When her father passed, the Baronetcy did not go to Nancy but to her uncle, Gordon. Ouch.
4. Town and Country
Nancy’s mother, Maud, was an American heiress 21 years Bache Cunard’s junior. Known to her many admirers as “Emerald,” Maud was a famous hostess in her day, renowned for her scathing wit. Less happily, Maud and Bache had little in common, and spent largely separate lives. While Bache hunted from his country cabin, Maud hosted parties for artists and society types from her London apartment. They separated in 1911, and Nancy, then just 15, moved to London with her mother permanently.
5. Who’s Your Daddy?
After the separation from Bache, Maud began a relationship with the composer Thomas Beecham. This was disappointing news to the writer George Moore, who had engaged in a long affair with Maud. But that’s not even the most dramatic part of Maud’s extra-marital activities. Some even suspected that it was Moore, not Bache Cunard, who was Nancy’s father.
6. Poor Little Rich Girl
Like your prototypical heiress, Nancy Cunard was educated at several boarding schools and spent time travelling through France and Germany. Against the backdrop of her family’s lavish wealth, her father’s stern distant coldness and her mother’s glamorous hard-partying lifestyle, Nancy was, as one biographer put it, “gifted and lonely.”
7. Father Figure
Cunard did find one affectionate role model: of all people, it was her mother’s secret lover, George Moore. The novelist was a doting intellectual mentor to the neglected young heiress (who may or may not have been his daughter). She would later reflect on his influence in her moving 1956 memoir GM: Memories of George Moore. Cunard’s public writing about her mother would not be as positive…
8. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Among the schools attended by Cunard was a private school run by the modernist author Virginia Woolf and her husband, Leonard. Evidently, Cunard and Woolf got along famously. The creative women would remain in close contact over the years and Cunard would even publish a book of poems with Woolf’s publishing company, the Hogarth Press.
9. Honeymoon’s Over
In 1916, Cunard tried to be the proper lady that her family wanted. She dressed in delicate, fashionable clothing and even went so far as to get married to Sydney Fairbairn, a professional cricket player. They lived together in a London home gifted to them by Cunard’s mother, but the marriage was short-lived. Not even two years into the union, Cunard shocked her family by demanding a divorce. This rebellious streak would define her entire life.
10. Bad Influences
Through her friend, the poet and model Iris Tree, Cunard was introduced to the Coterie, a group of upper-class libertines whose wild parties frequently made the press. While the primary business of “the corrupt Coterie” was drinking and partying, it did provide Cunard with witty, intellectual conversation, stimulating her latent literary talents.
11. The Unknown Soldier
During the war, Cunard began an affair with Peter Broughton-Adderley. Like Cunard’s estranged husband, Sydney Fairbairn, Broughton-Adderley was a cricket player enlisted in the British army. Just one month before the war ended, utter tragedy struck. Brougthon-Adderley was killed in France. Cunard supposedly never got over this loss.
12. Something Going Around
In 1919, Cunard fell prey to the Spanish Influenza that swept through Europe after the war. Though she would survive the ordeal, Cunard suffered the effects of the Influenza for years afterwards.
13. The Wheel Starts Rolling
Having excelled at Woolf’s school, a young Cunard decided to try writing some poetry of her own. She contributed the title poem to the first instalment of Wheels, an annual anthology put together by literary siblings Edith, Osbert, and Sacherevell Sitwell. Cunard’s best friend, Iris Tree, also contributed to the anthology.
14. Brave New World
A young Aldous Huxley also placed writing in Wheels, but neither he nor Cunard realized that this was just the beginning of their intense relationship. The future author of the influential dystopian novel Brave New World had a brief affair with Cunard. Evidently, Cunard enjoyed their fiery fling—it was just the first of her many notable literary affairs.
15. Quite the Character
While the short-lived relationship was just one of many romances for Cunard, the passionate affair had a lasting effect on Huxley. Many of his novels would be influenced by the relationship, with Cunard serving as the model for characters in novels like Antic Hay and Point Counterpoint. Because of Huxley’s work (and more that we’ll discuss later on), Cunard was a famous muse in the 1920s.
16. Spilling the Ink
Cunard’s list of lovers is a who’s who of early 20th century literature. She was linked, at one time or another, to Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, Louis Aragon, and Tristan Tzara, among others. But not everyone had good things to say about her when the flame went out. One partner, the poet Richard Aldington, compared Cunard to “a lecherous octopus.” Another wrote that he thought she derived “personal satisfaction” from hearing that a lovelorn man might kill himself over her.
17. Prince Charming
According to one of Cunard’s biographers, Cunard even caught the attention of Edward, Prince of Wales, and the future King Edward VIII. Had Cunard reciprocated the prince’s feelings, she could have gone on to become the queen of England. But playing by the prim and proper rules of the royal family was never in the cards for someone like Nancy Cunard.
18. Spy Games
Cunard had a secret affair with Indian socialist leader V.K. Krishna Menon—that information comes from the British intelligence agency MI5.
19. Emergency Surgery
In 1920, Cunard nearly lost her life. She underwent an emergency hysterectomy and appendectomy, the reasons for which have never been explained. What we do know, however, is that the operation nearly killed her and had terrible consequences. Of course, she could no longer have children, but even worse, the operation was so traumatic that many people speculated that it caused Cunard to develop a life-long habit for drugs and alcohol.
20. Lost and Found
In 1920, Cunard moved to Paris, where she lived briefly with the novelist Michael Arlen. This relationship would later lead to confusion when a manuscript for a short story “A Lost Night” was found among Arlen’s papers. Some critics continue to insist that the story was written by Arlen himself…despite the fact that Cunard’s name is on the title page. Ah, the joys of being a woman writer.
21. Career Highlights
In 1925, Cunard published the long poem Parallax with Virginia Woolf’s esteemed Hogarth Press in England. A response to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Parallax is considered by many critics to be Cunard’s best work. But when it was first published, cruel critics dismissed it. They claimed that Parallax was an imitation of Eliot’s poem, before one reviewer transitioned to a long essay about a hat Cunard wore. Cunard would not have been impressed.
22. Yours, Mine, and Hours
Cunard left Paris in 1927, retiring to a farmhouse La Chapelle-Reanville. Along the way she and French artist Louis Aragon acquired the remains of a small French-American publishing house called Three Mountains Press. Cunard would use her publishing company—which she renamed The Hours Press—to support some of the most important experimental artists of her day.
23. Rush Job
Through The Hours Press, Cunard published some of the most notable Modernist, Surrealist, and Dadaist writers of the era. From Ezra Pound and Richard Aldington, to Roy Campbell and Laura Riding, the Hours Press was the publishing house for the daring writers of the Jazz Age. Memorably, The Hours was the first company to publish Samuel Beckett. His long poem, Whoroscope was written in a single night, in the hopes that it would win a cash prize offered by Cunard.
24. Rich People, Amirite
At Cunard’s wedding to Fairbairn, her mother Bache refused to throw rice on the bride and the groom. Instead, she threw silver coins at the guests.
25. Modern Love
In 1928, Cunard began a relationship with jazz musician Henry Crowder. The idea of one of the wealthiest white women in Europe dating an African American jazz musician was shocking and undesirable to many in Cunard’s social sphere, including her own mother. Her response to the news was ice cold. She asked, “Is it true that my daughter knows a Negro?”
26. Getting Woke
Cunard herself would later say the relationship “made” her. Crowder was instrumental in alerting Cunard to the struggles and prejudices faced by Black people in both North America and Europe, as well as the burgeoning Civil Rights movement. With Crowder’s support, Cunard began exploring and promoting Black literature, while advocating publicly for civil rights causes.
27. Love Letters
Cunard’s relationship with Crowder was met with curiosity, scandal, and even mockery. Furious about this response, Cunard decided to take matters into her own hands. She published a pamphlet, defending interracial relationships and reflecting on the idea of interracial romance and anti-racism. Black Man and White Ladyship was published in 1931.
28. In Their Defense
Among Cunard’s most devoted causes was trying to secure the release of “the Scottsboro Boys,” nine Black teenagers who had been falsely accused of assaulting two white women in Alabama. Cunard organized the British Scottsboro Defense Fund, a charitable organization which demonstrated and raised money for the defense. Fellow writers Rebecca West and Virginia Woolf also supported the fund. Despite their best efforts, the Scottsboro Boys were convicted.
29. Limousine Liberal
Cunard’s work on the British Scottsboro Defense Fund put her in contact with the International Labour Defense, a left-wing legal rights advocacy group that was backed by the Soviet Comintern. In addition to her anti-racist activism, Cunard also began to advocate for communist causes as well. In her words, she advocated for three kinds of equality: of race, of gender, and of class.
30. Out of Africa
During her relationship with Crowder, Cunard adopted an unconventional personal style informed by African art. She cropped her hair short and kept her eyes heavily lined with black kohl. Among her most notable accoutrements were the dozens of ivory, gold, and wooden bracelets she wore—they stretched from her wrist all the way up to her elbow.
31. Cunard the Barbarian
At the time, Cunard’s look was considered “eccentric.” Fashion critics termed Cunard’s style “the barbaric look”—a reflection of the racial insensitivities of the day. Nonetheless, notable fashion houses and jewellery designers began developing pieces to suit Cunard’s style. This legacy continues even now: In 2011, iconic fashion brand Gucci revealed their “Hard Deco” collection, a direct tribute to Cunard.
32. Hard Wear
But none of the designers knew the disturbing truth behind Cunard’s bracelets. After their break-up, an ex-partner revealed that Cunard would use the bracelets as weapons during fights. When a friend noticed bruises on his arms, he blamed Cunard’s heavy bracelets.
33. You Oughta Be in Pictures
Cunard’s striking image was captured by some of the most experimental and famous artists of the early 20th century. She was drawn or painted by Wyndham Lewis, John Banting, and Alvaro Guevara, and photographed by Man Ray and Barbara Ker-Seymer.
34. A Cast of Millions
The Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi was immediately drawn to Cunard and he showed his devotion with a surprise tribute. He based his celebrated sculpture La jeune fille sophistiquée (Portrait de Nancy Cunard) on Cunard, who he felt embodied the sophistication and freedom of the Jazz Age. After two years of hard work, the sculpture debuted in 1932. In 2018, it sold at auction for $71 million.
35. Poem is Where the Heart Is
The famous modernist poet Mina Loy also felt inspired by Nancy Cunard. Loy’s poem, “Nancy Cunard” begins “Your eyes diffused with holly lights / of ancient Christmas / helmeted with masks / whose silken nostrils / point the cardinal airs.”
36. A Gathering of Giants
Cunard released what may have been her crowning achievement in 1934. Years in the making, Negro compiled a number of works about the Black experience and race in the western world. Cunard solicited pieces from some of the most important Black writers and thinkers of the early 20th century, including W.E.B. Dubois, Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes.
One contributor, Nnamdi Azikiwe, would go on to become the first President of Nigeria. There were also contributions from well-known white writers like Ezra Pound and Samuel Beckett, bringing the total number of contributors to 155.
37. The Big Book
In all, Negro came to 866 quarto-sized pages and weighed more than eight pounds. The ambitious tome gathered together poems and stories, but also essays, press clippings, drawings, diagrams, maps, lists of statistics—anything that might represent the range of Black experiences. Cunard referred to it as “a symposium,” rather than an anthology, while other critics have called it “an avant-garde ethnography.”
38. Black and White, Unread All Over
Despite its achievements, and praise from such notable figures as Alan Locke and Langston Hughes, Negro sold poorly. There were contributing factors to the book’s poor sales, however: for one thing, sale of the book was banned in a number of British colonies for its “seditious,” Communist content. But the failure was even more upsetting for one key reason: Cunard had paid for the book herself. By this point in her wild life, the Cunard family had basically disowned their daughter.
39. In Stores Now
An abridged version of the anthology was released in 1970, but original copies of Negro were all but impossible to find until 2018. In 2018, the full, unabridged version of Negro was published for the first time since its original publication in 1934.
Cunard considered herself, at times, a communist, and at other times, an anarchist. She supported a number of anti-fascist causes. Throughout the second World War, she worked as a reporter and as a translator for the French Resistance. An anthology of poems celebrating France, compiled by Cunard in 1944, got her placed on Adolf Hitler’s personal enemies list.
41. Survey Says…
During the Spanish Civil War, Cunard, in collaboration with poets W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender, sent out a questionnaire to 200 of the most notable writers in Europe, asking if the writers supported or denounced Francisco Franco’s fascist coup in Spain. Of the 147 replies, most denounced Franco. A few, including Evelyn Waugh, supported him. H.G. Wells, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound chose to remain neutral on the subject. James Joyce and Virginia Woolf were among the notable few who did not return an answer.
42. A Little Preoccupied
Results from Cunard’s questionnaire were published in the Left Review. The magazine left out perhaps the most entertaining response, from George Orwell. Orwell had actually been serving in the civil war against Franco. The dystopian writer tartly replied that, having just been shot, he had no time for answering stupid questions.
43. Bearing Witness
Cunard seemed to get Orwell’s message. She immediately mobilized, travelling to Spain in order to support Republican prisoners, feed starving villagers, and house refugees. She may have even personally participated in guerilla activities. Later, she travelled to other war-torn nations, particularly former British colonies, to better understand and experience first-hand the effects of colonialism.
44. End of an Era
Cunard and Crowder shared a passionate love, but sadly they went their separate ways in 1936. Crowder spent over a year in PoW camps in Brussels and Germany, then retired from performing and returned to the United States. Years later, he dealt Cunard a brutal betrayal when he published a scathing book about their relationship. Crowder lambasted Cunard as an ignorant and angry alcoholic. He also said that not only did she have affairs, she flaunted her trysts in Crowder’s face. Ouch.
In the meanwhile, Cunard remained in France throughout the war, before leaving the country to travel.
45. The Wind in Her Sails
Cunard left France after the second World War to travel the world. She settled briefly in the Caribbean but returned to England in 1948. Cunard’s voyage home was not accidental. She chose to return alongside more than a thousand Jamaican immigrants, the first of a wave of West Indian immigrants to arrive in England following the war.
46. Squaring Off
That voyage, aboard HMT Empire Windrush, became a pivotal moment in modern British history. In 1998, the 50th anniversary of the voyage, a section of Brixton was renamed Windrush Square in recognition of the contributions of West Indian immigrants and their descendants.
47. If the Shoe Fits
Cunard’s later life was marked by struggles with mental illness and alcoholism. She suffered bouts of paranoia brought on by alcohol, and was even briefly incarcerated in a mental hospital after throwing her shoes at two police officers in London. Always thin, her svelte frame wasted away into emaciation. When Cunard died, she weighed just 57 pounds.
48. A Hard Ticket
Cunard returned to France following her release from London’s Holloway Sanitorium, but fared little better. Up her return, it became clear that she was not much better. En route, security ordered her to get off a train when she opted to sit on the floor and eat her ticket rather than give it to the conductor.
49. The Streets of Paris
In 1965, a passer-by found Nancy Cunard unconscious on a street in Paris. Once one of the wealthiest women in the world, Cunard was completely penniless. An ambulance took her to a nearby hospital where she awoke and, though weak, struggled to write an anti-war poem. But sadly, she died just two days later. The hospital listed Cunard’s official cause of death as emphysema, brought on by years of heavy smoking.
50. In Good Company
Cunard’s body was returned to England for cremation, then returned to Paris. Her final resting place is the Cimetière du Père-Lachasse in Paris, alongside many other great artists.