Nancy with the Drinking Problem

 Nancy Cunard is a worthy biographical subject. A writer, poet, journalist, style icon, publisher and political activist who moved in the same circles as many of the leading literary and artistic figures of the 1920s and 1930s. She was the daughter of Bache Cunard, heir to the Cunard shipping line and Maude “Emerald” Cunard, central figure in the Edward VIII abdication crisis. Nancy is a biographer’s dream.

 I wanted to love Lois Gordon’s biography of Nancy, Nancy Cunard: Heiress, Political,Idealist. Finally I’d found a book devoted to a woman I’d seen glimpses of in other memoirs, biographies and histories. Unfortunately, Nancy is too often a supporting player in her own story and, even more unfortunately, Gordon does not delve into what drove and shaped her. For instance, very early on we learn that “Nancy’s dislike of continued throughout her life and as an adult she remained model-thin in figure.” Let me put this in perspective – this is a woman who was regularly described as tall who weighed 57 pounds when she died. That sounds like more than a mere “dislike” of food. Anorexia? Serious digestive issues? Who knows? Gordon doesn’t pursue it.

Nor does she pursue the root causes of Nancy’s “promiscuity” other than to rack up all the famous men she bedded. Was Nancy truly promiscuous or did she simply enjoy sex without emotional entanglements? Again, who knows? Nancy blamed her promiscuity on her despair over World War I but it continued well beyond the war and even the 1920s, leading her into relationships with men who beat her (we learn that in one sentence), destroying romantic relationships and without appearing to provide Nancy with any satisfaction. The author mentions Nancy’s promiscuity frequently, so frequently that when she describes Nancy going to the local train station to greet the soldiers with a sense of mission it sounded like she was giving out numbers like a deli counter. Gordon doesn’t pursue the subject, never truly delving into, say, the impact of George Moore (a man Nancy adored and believed to be her biological father) asking Nancy for details about her sex life and to see her naked. Just as a for instance. Ditto Nancy’s very serious drinking problem. Smashed relationships, broken bones and a trip to the mental ward are just a few of the by-products but Gordon just mentions it an moves on to the next famous person Nancy meets.

Gordon leaves too much un-examined for my taste. Nancy’s lost love gets a few pages but no insight. We aren’t even sure when Nancy met him or when he died. We don’t learn why Nancy’s marriage failed – except for Gordon to dismiss another biographer’s theory – or examine why Nancy had a hysterectomy at such a young age and how it might have effected her.

Instead we get pictures of Virginia Woolf (who barely makes an appearance in Nancy’s life,) a slightly bitter take down of the Bloomsbury Group and long, long stretches of narratives about the famous writers Nancy encountered. It’s as if Nancy’s own life is only interesting because she knew Pablo Neruda. At least provide a few details about how she came to love bangles so much.

If, like me, you want to learn more about Nancy Cunard this isn’t the worst place to start. The chapters are a bit odd – they start with a summary of the entire chapter and then move on to the details. (In the Kindle version it wasn’t clear that’s what was going on so for the first five chapters I couldn’t figure out why Gordon was repeating things.) 

Anne Chisolm's biography of Nancy Cunard is out of print.

Unlucky in murder

Most true crime buffs know the story of Lord Lucan and the nanny. The aristocratic gambler tried to drive his wife insane then decided to simply kill his wife but botched the job killing the nanny by mistake. "Lucky" Lucan then went on the run, aided by his wicked friends from the Clermont Club. That, as author Laura Thompson would say, is the myth. It's a myth that has powered countless books, fiction and non-fiction, as well as many a journalistic boondoggle to track down the latest Lucan siting.

In A Different Class of Murder Laura Thompson thoroughly, convincingly and most of all entertainingly dismantles the myth. She starts out by ruminating on "domestic murders" - oh life would be perfect if it just weren't for my spouse/ex/family-member - and questions why the Lucan case was treated as an example of Aristocrats Behaving Badly instead of as a domestic murder. To explore this Thompson revisits not only the case and the cast of characters but the economic and social climate of England in the 1970s.

I've read three books on the Lucan case, the most recent being John Pearson's fabulous The Gamblers, and thought the whole business was open and shut. Thompson proved me wrong. Simply by presenting the facts and questioning assumptions she makes clear that the case against Lucan was driven by class prejudice. She presents a different, more complete, picture of John Bingham (Lord Lucan) and the man she reveals bears little resemblance to the myth.

Whether Lucan killed Sandra Rivett or not can probably never be proven or disproven. The investigation appears to have been a slap dash affair with the police relying a bit too much on estranged-wife, title-lover, perma-victim, and mental patient Veronica Lucan. The police viewed Veronica as a plucky gal who rebelled against the restrictions of Lucan's aristocratic milieu. Based on the quotes Thompson provides the lady, well, the Countess, likes her title. She's also still a bit fixated on old Lucky. Check out her "official" website if you don't believe me.

This is a fascinating, highly entertaining book. A must read for any true crime fan and anyone interested in 70s Britain. (I recommend When the Lights Went Out by Andy Beckett as a companion piece to any reader not familiar with the events of 70s Britain.) Based on this book I'm ordering Laura Thompson's biographies of Agatha Christie and Nancy Mitford - this is a writer to watch.