NANCY CUNARD by Anne Chisholm


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Those who know beautiful, bright, brittle Nancy Cunard--of steamship-line descent--as a flitting presence in memoirs of the Twenties will suspect that she's not worth 400 pages of anyone's time; but this excruciatingly detailed, absolutely unimaginative account of a spectacularly squandered life robs it of whatever glamour it may have had--and most of its awful sadness. This Nancy is a ""sensitive, spirited"" child who grows up to despise her socialite/hypocrite mother, and after a brief unhappy marriage (""she may have found the sexual side. . . difficult. It is hard to imagine any other specific reason for the violence of her reaction""), moves into the European literary orbit where she exerts a fatal fascination on famous men (Michael Arlen, Aldous Huxley, Louis Aragon); takes on a black lover, jazz musician Henry Crowder, in whom she finds ""a cause, a symbol, a weapon, a victim""; and plays out her days as a fervent fringe radical and high-toned sexpot. In her relationships with men, she comes across as demanding, destructive and unfeeling; as a left winger, she has it in for her mother--the undisguised target of Black Man and White Ladyship--as much as for public enemies of the people. And in this context, her ""greatest achievement,"" the 1934 anthology Negro, appears as only the least sullied issue of her frantic pursuit of a raison d'ˆtre. After some Spanish Civil War reporting and memoirs of Norman Douglas and George Moore, her life ebbs away in dissipation, outright madness and incarceration, and emaciated, incoherent degradation--drawn out, like everything else, for page after page. Nancy Cunard left a quantity of published and unpublished papers, and this is the dismal result.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1979
Publisher: Knopf