At three in the morning…I crawled up the stairs and climbed into Nina’s bed with all my clothes on. She was bundled up in the other room. I heard a mouse poking his nose around her drawings. I struck a match and noticed little deposits of rat turds on the bed. The pillow crawled. I started to scratch myself. From the next room I heard the moan of a woman who finds a man too heavy, too pleasurable, or herself delighted. Nina had a man in bed. The bed squeaked. She kept up a running line of chatter. More moans. I decided to leave.
It hadn’t always been like this. Oh Nina had always been careless about hygiene, and was certainly never one to decline a drink or a handsome stranger, but there was a time when she was not to be pitied but envied.
Born in the Welsh seaside town of Tenby in 1890 (like fellow bohemian Augustus John), Nina Hamnett — at least in the first half of her life — had the gift for being in the right place at the right time. She first travelled to Paris in 1912 and spent much of the following two decades between there and London, working as both an artist and a model and meeting more or less the entire artistic avant-garde of both cities. She was vivacious, high-spirited, up for anything; a typical evening might find her singing off-colour sea shanties to a delighted André Gide, or dancing naked on a table in a Montparnasse bar long after closing time for an audience including Brancusi and Modigliani.
This first half of Hamnett’s life was lived at such a pace, and with such hunger for novelty and passion and adventure and laughter…and then suddenly seemed to stop dead. By the late 1940s she was living in squalor and penury, much of her time spent in the pubs of London’s Fitzrovia, exchanging anecdotes of her glory years for drinks. And when she talked about her pre-war exploits she wasn’t necessarily referring to the most recent war.
After the last round she would stumble home to her filthy bedsit, not infrequently accompanied by a fleeting acquaintance. It was around this time that a landlady took her to court for urinating in the sink of said bedsit, but the case was dismissed by the magistrate who thought such an action logistically impossible for a lady.
By now Nina Hamnett was both relic and (barely) living treasure. If she had proved an unreliable witness to her own life, there were plenty of others to memorialise her, and she had at least a walk-on part in many accounts of the era. She also appeared thinly disguised in fictional portrayals of the Fitzrovian set, and it was one of these that in all likelihood inspired her horrific death, an act as chaotic and impulsive as her life had been.
A radio play broadcast in December 1956 featured a character intended as an affectionate parody of Hamnett, but the portrayal of her drunken dissolution proved devastating for its model. She fell or — as most assumed — jumped from her window and was impaled on the railing spikes below. She lingered miserably in hospital for three days before dying.
Even in the depths of squalor Hamnett never pitied herself and we shouldn’t either. She fit more living in one of her Paris sojourns than most of us do in a lifetime, and as the Times obituary noted, “Miss Hamnett was a complete success as a person; generous, good humoured, loyal, and witty.”