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.