Being Geniuses Together
Those Remarkable Cunards, Emerald and Nancy
Nancy Cunard: Brave Poet, Indomitable Rebel
Nancy Cunard was a paradigm of the Twenties so assiduously accurate in her ingredients and measurements as to be a parody, and it is not surprising that she served as the model for numerous portraits of girls in the fiction of the period, most notably as Lucy Tantamount in Point Counter Point and Iris March in The Green Hat. By the time she was ready to kick over the traces, her qualifications were in order. The only child of a beautiful and spirited American mother and an English country squire who fancied fox-hounds and topiary, Nancy was brought up in a vast umbrageous house, Nevill Holt, in Northamptonshire. Lady Cunard (who was to change her name from Maud to Emerald) was bored by foxiana and hippoculture and she was bored by motherhood; she evaded the first two by staying indoors reading (she read Surtees as a concession to her husband but would rather have read Zola) and rearranging the furniture; and she dodged the last by consigning her daughter to governesses who were advocates of cold baths and tepid porridge.
Daphne Fielding, in her light and agreeable portrait of the beautiful mother and beautiful daughter, sketches in a background of Victorian domestic style that is both sedate and silly. Lady Cunard, like her fantastic monarch, was a formidable goose. She dressed Nancy in white lawn or in dark velvet with lace at the neck and wrists in the manner of a Velázquez infanta; in this finery, she could not climb trees or penetrate wilderness of brier; she had the company only of grownups, but, in one of them, she found an ally, George Moore, her mother’s star boarder for many years—such was the style of his tenure that it was sometimes proposed that G.M. was, in fact, Nancy’s father; once she forthrightly asked him if he was and he replied, “You must ask your mother, my dear.” When she was still a trammeled child at Nevill Holt, he went with her on tame botanical excursions and entered into her daydreams of escape and vagabondage. They remained close friends until he died and her best piece of work is generally considered to be her book of reminiscences about him.
In 1911, when Nancy was sixteen, Lady Cunard met and was swept off her feet by Sir Thomas Beecham and, needing elbow room for this fling, she quit Sir Bache and quit Nevill Holt and took a house in London where she filled her drawing room with musicians and political luminaries and established herself as a patroness of the arts and an accomplished hostess. Nancy was at first homesick for the country (there was a streak of Colette in her and later on, when she lived in Normandy and in the Dordogne or took houses in the pastoral shires of England, she interested herself in beetles and ferns, in bees and fruit and shells and moss) but she found friends—notably Iris Tree and Lady Diana Manners—and fell in with the Bright Young People of the early novels of Evelyn Waugh. She frequented the Eiffel Tower in Percy Street, the Cafe Royale, Limehouse pubs, and Bloomsbury attics and talked politics, poetry, Cubism, and Negro jazz. She was somewhat schooled in Germany and in France, she came out conventionally and was received at court. Briefly (for twenty months) she was married to a crashingly boring young Australian officer of the Guards. Having then fulfilled all requirements for her novitiate, she launched herself into a tempestuous life lived on the lip of a maelstrom of hi-jinks and good deeds, of booze and parties and causes and wars. Harold Acton, in his tribute to her in Hugh Ford’s book, writes, “Gradually I watched the transformation of what the Press might describe as a ‘popular society girl’ into a militant propagandist for miscellaneous prickly causes, fighting in improbable surroundings, for the Scottsboro Negroes, the Spanish republicans, refugees and down-and-outs of sorts, hardening her will to overcome exhaustion, courting physical discomfort, indifferent to calumny, smiling at risks. Her austerity was voluptuous. In the middle ages she would have become a mystic.”
She was bizarrely beautiful: tall, shiningly blonde, and white-skinned, lean as a lath, she habitually wore—into the Sixties when she was in her sixties—the bandeaux and kiss-curls of her heyday, and her arms, from wrist to shoulder, were caparisoned with heavy African bracelets of ivory with which, from time to time, late at night she used to cudgel her adversaries; she did not brook dissent and anyone who disagreed with her or was indifferent to her benevolences was victim to this unusual chastisement. Her romanticism was intransigent and humorless; almsgiver to the outcasts and the needy of the world, she could not give alms to or receive them from individuals, and her love affairs with men were spoiled by anger and ruined by the essential frigidity of the sentimental woman.
Early on, she espoused the Negro race and for a number of years lived with an American black pianist and composer, Henry Crowder, whom she met in Venice when he was playing with a quartet called Eddie South’s Alabamians. In the course of their liaison, she conceived the idea of compiling a comprehensive anthology to deal with every aspect of Negro art and she found it necessary to go to London for research at the British Museum. She and Henry moved into lodgings in Soho upstairs over the Eiffel Tower.
London was not big enough to accommodate both this ménage and Lady Cunard’s in Mayfair and Lady Cunard, not surprisingly, was outraged; provoked further by Nancy, she threatened to have Henry deported, she set detectives on them; finally, ousted reluctantly by their Percy Street host, they left England, Nancy in a towering rage that alarmed Henry, a quiet man who must often have found her a handful. Soon afterward she wrote a diatribe against her mother entitled Black Man and White Ladyship in which she was not content to lambaste her mother for her racial prejudice but went on to vivisect her morsel by morsel. This excruciatingly embarrassing document was shoddily printed on sleazy paper in Toulouse and sent by mail to all Lady Cunard’s friends. Later, Nancy made screaming headlines by taking the docile Henry to Harlem where she was to put the finishing touches on her anthology; they went back to France but Henry did not linger long: he went home and married a black woman, who, years later, in a note informing Nancy of his death signed herself, “his only true and loving wife.”
Although in Brave Poet, Indomitable Rebel, a garland of encomiums to her, her panegyrists are clamorous in their praise of her wit and her beauty and her unfathomable goodness of heart, they do not persuade me that I missed the most stirring (or the pleasantest) experience in life by never having seen or listened to her. The fault is theirs, I think, not hers or mine; they seldom let her speak for herself and when they do she does not measure up to their blurbs—Wyn Henderson, for example, having announced that she had humor as well as wit, submits this fizzle to illustrate: the two ladies were driving in Miss Henderson’s decrepit car and as Nancy looked down uneasily, she said, “I hope the floor won’t fall through. I don’t think I can run very fast in these high heels.”
Her claque (numbering a good many discriminating observers like William Carlos Williams, Kay Boyle, Raymond Mortimer, Langston Hughes, et al.) drowns out her voice by bawling that her voice was uniquely lovely; there are so many outriders milling about and kicking up dust that it is impossible to see the gait of this thoroughbred which we are told “enchanted,” that her walk was “a delicate dance,” “a miracle…she flowed swiftly forward…like a cheetah, and also rather like a slim splendid fish.” Her eyes were, depending on the beholder, “an Arctic blue,” “startlingly turquoise,” “an impersonal green”; son regard, like her voice, was idiosyncratically bewitching. From the photographs and drawings and paintings of her (she took the eye of Cecil Beaton and Man Ray, of Oskar Kokoschka and Wyndham Lewis) one gets the impression not so much that she was beautiful but that she was singular, having a clarity of form and a cleanliness of line more metallic than organic—a cheetah, perhaps, but one made of platinum. she ate nothing, remembering the nursery gruel (she had the appetite of “a dyspeptic butterfly,” according to Norman Douglas, who was devoted to her) and instead drank quantities of red wine and whiskey; she had fragile health (breakable bones, a flimsy respiratory system) and was never in repose; always elegant and groomed and white-gloved, she was several times arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct, and she was charged with moral turpitude by the United States government at one time and thereafter was refused trespass on this soil.
She wrote voluminously—poetry, dispatches from the Spanish Civil War, political pamphlets, memoirs of G.M. and of Norman Douglas—and not very well; but she knew good writing and was both reverent and adventurous and at the Hours Press, she published Louis Aragon, Richard Aldington, Robert Graves, Ezra Pound among others, and she was the first to discover and to publish Samuel Beckett. She was hysterical and supercilious, preposterously open-handed and vixenish, she made scenes in public and kicked the police, and she was late, often hours late, to every appointment she ever made, but her friends, while they suffered and suffered long, were a huge and loyal host.
As she declined, beset by emphysema and arthritis, her anger became more vociferously robust. Her close friend Solita Solana said, “The glands that activate anger are so bafflingly small to cause so much havoc; these mere gobbets were the cause of Nancy having to leave her home, her class and her country; because of them she never had time to profit by the experiences of love, guilt or remorse… Her life’s purpose was to use her universal anger for the moral evolution of mankind. It was her mania, her madness.” Toward the end of her life, she was certified insane and was kept in a mental hospital for some months where, paradoxically, she conducted herself with serenity and resignation. It is surprising that her rickety machinery held up as long as it did. She was sixty-nine when she was found by the police in a Paris street, bruised and unconscious; she faltered briefly back to life and asked for wine and a pencil and paper but she went into a coma, not remembering who she was, and died two days later.
Contemporaneously with Nancy Cunard, a prominent habitué of the Eiffel Tower in Soho and the cafés of Montparnasse was Robert McAlmon, a minister’s son from the middle west, a writer and publisher, drinking comrade of Joyce and Ronald Firbank, Hemingway and Hilaire Hiler, dancing partner of the elegant, witty women of the times—Djuna Barnes, Mary Butts, Kay Boyle; he was the husband, but not forever, of Winifred Bryher, who was rich and wrote a great many historical novels in a highly literary vein and who, with H.D. and Marianne Moore, formed a triumfeminate with an idiom of its own. In 1938, he published an autobiographical book, Being Geniuses Together that covered the years from 1920 to 1934, and three decades later, Kay Boyle revived and revised it and added alternate chapters of her own annals.
The arrangement is not altogether happy, for the threads of the narratives are snapped too often and sometimes they become snarled; it is more satisfactory to read each writer straight through. One could, with little loss, expurgate McAlmon altogether for his postures are offensive, his literary dicta are dictatorial, he is acidulous and patronizing and his writing is repetitious and boring. Miss Boyle, on the other hand, is instinct with grace and gallantry.
Eliot, according to McAlmon with “his cerebral tearfulness, his liverish and stomach-achey wail…became…quite a butler to the arts, the ‘classes,’ and later to the Church”; both Joyce and yeats “go Irishtwilighty” from time to time; Dostoevsky does not bear re-reading, and Hemingway was largely a slob. Einstein, in the end, will probably be no great shakes. Marianne Moore and Dos Passos passed muster and so, despite the fact that “the quiverings of his sensibility are so constant he hasn’t the time to clarify his observations,” did William Carlos Williams. McAlmon is not above taking pot-shots at sitting birds or of being as cheaply cruel as a bad, bright child: of Evelyn Scott, he says, “She’d be more restful if she would just admit her mediocrity.” Perhaps in some cases, his astringency served a purpose and I am obliged to accept on faith Kay Boyle’s assertion that he was much sought after and that his “ruthless honesty…demanded that those he faced with his icy stare look closely at themselves and their pretenses. It was a demand that made the presumptuous turn the other way.”
What both McAlmon and Miss Boyle, the former unconsciously and the latter much aware, achieve is the construction of the landscape of the Twenties so similar to that of the Sixties that the traveler is somewhat dizzied. They cut their second teeth on Eugene Debs and Sacco and Vanzetti as a new generation has cut its on Eldridge Cleaver. Kay Boyle, studying architecture at the Ohio Mechanics Institute, had as her classmates and boyfriends “casual, penniless lads…who spent every weekend in jail for stealing cars and other justifiable offenses, and who were back in class on Monday mornings, wan, and their homework not done, but their spirits as bright as brass.” In Berlin, where McAlmon, fed up from time to time with Paris, occasionally went, “Dopes, mainly cocaine, were to be had in profusion at most night places. A deck of ‘snow,’ enough cocaine for quite too much excitement, cost the equal of ten cents. Poverty-stricken boys and girls of good German families sold it, and took it, as they congregated in the dreary night clubs for the warmth not available on the streets or in their homes, if they had homes…crazy, despairing days, when there was no gaiety or joy, only recklessness.”
Kay Boyle, as a young woman in Paris, wore great white hoop earrings from the five and ten, a huge black hat, a scarlet scarf around her shoulders and she says, “It was not carnival time, or anything like it. I was decked out merely to conform with the total absurdity of my particular despair. And now, almost half a century later, girls wearing their grandmothers’ clothes wander the city streets of the world barefooted, their hair to their waists under the floppy brims of velvet hats. Hand in hand with them go bearded, questing young men in the piecemeal uniforms of Comoderate soldiers or of shepherds in ponchos, leather-thonges sandals laced to their knees. But listen, world, it is not carnival time. It is not mardi gras. The hearts are not light. There is absolutely no confetti to throw.”
The cult of boredom had its adherents; George Antheil, the composer, used in his Ballet Méchanique “a great variety of trick instruments…one of them being a huge electric fan”; in Copenhagen, McAlmon met a man who had “filled five pages of his last novel with x’s, line after line of xxxxxxxxxxx. as a symbol of dead soldiers and their graves.” There was a passion for all things African.
They were migratory, the young, as they are today and if they did not get as far as Katmandu, they got as far as Raymond Duncan’s crackpot colony in Neuilly where his health foods were not at all a far cry from the macrobiotic Zen diet of the present time. They went, in groups, to Pampelona to the bull-fights, changed the scene of their binges from France to Mussolini’s Italy, showed up in Amsterdam and Dublin and Berlin. Kay Boyle has remained faithful to her earnest and exuberant youth and to youth in general; according to the press, she seriously called S.I. Hayakawa “Dr. Eichmann” and promised to carry to the Sorbonne the spirit of San Francisco State. It is an honorable and poignant position; the best parts of the Twenties were just that, honorable and poignant, a pretty safe parlay. The worst parts, embodied in the countless undistinguished supernumeraries who were along for the ride, were raucous and soft-boiled.