The Nancy Cunard who journeyed from Nice to the outskirts of Paris in early March, 1965 – drunk, drug-addled, half-mad, paranoid, crippled, emaciated – was a long way from the Nancy Cunard of popular memory, the poet, progressive publisher, proponent of black activism (though sincere in this last point, her insight into the black experience was not terribly nuanced – “be more African,” she chided her lover Henry Crowder; “But I ain’t African,” he replied, “I’m American.”)
That Nancy Cunard was long gone: the heiress who turned her back on the torpor of English high society to become an icon of the 1920s avant-garde, her penetrating gaze and armfuls of ivory immortalised by Man Ray and Cecil Beaton. With her Hours Press she had championed Modernism by publishing writers such as Samuel Beckett, Louis Aragon, Ezra Pound and Brian Howard. Beautiful, rich, outspoken, well-connected, she appeared in the lightest fictional drag in contemporary writings by Aldous Huxley, Wyndham Lewis and Michael Arlen. The first version of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” included an unflattering portrayal of a woman called Fresca who has much in common with Cunard.
Now Eliot was dead, and one of Nancy’s last pieces was a prose poem recalling her first meeting with the poet. On the train she kept drinking, defiantly swallowing her ticket when the inspector approached. She made it to a friend’s house outside Paris, causing alarm with her skeletal form – just 26 kilos – and her demented, disjointed conversation. She dashed off rambling, often bitterly reproachful letters to friends who she believed had wronged her.
The next day she made it to Paris, turning up unannounced at the house of an ex-lover, who took her the following day to a hotel on the Left Bank. Her room was on the third floor and she was determined to climb the stairs unaided, though in her appalling physical state it took over one and a half hours. She paused now and then to ask passers-by if they knew Pablo Neruda, and requested that Samuel Beckett be summoned.
Once alone in her room she tried to burn her papers, but by the time the fire was discovered Cunard was gone. It’s not known how she left, but somehow she ended up in hospital where she died on this day, at the age of 69.
Friends continued to receive her crazed correspondence days after her death.