Their Mad Gallopade
- Selected Poems by Nancy Cunard
Carcanet, 304 pp, £12.99, October 2016, ISBN 978 1 78410 236 4
When male poets have dramatic, bohemian or tragic lives, it is a triumph of consistency; when they have boring ones, it is a triumph of manly compartmentalisation. The rules are different for women: their tragedy and bohemianism must occlude their writing (while also keeping it marketable), and any gift they display for normality – or, worse, happiness – must be proof of the unlivedness of their poetry, its existential insincerity.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 40 No. 4 · 22 February 2018
It is enlightening to find Patrick McGuinness treating Nancy Cunard as a serious modernist poet rather than an upper-crust dilettante with a garish life that parallels, and may have inspired, an episode of Downton Abbey (LRB, 25 January). It was through that life, with ‘plenty to distract from the work’, as McGuinness notes, that I first learned of Cunard’s existence. In particular I was struck by her obscure but direct connection with the founding of California’s most raffish city, Oakland.
Nancy’s mother, Lady Emerald Cunard, was born Maud Alice Burke in San Francisco. At the age of 18 she became the ward of a wealthy lawyer and land speculator named Horace Carpentier. He had once been keen on Maud’s mother, a divorcée and socialite; and when she remarried, he offered to look after Maud in his household in New York. Fresh out of Columbia College, Carpentier had joined the Gold Rush in 1849. Like most of the tycoons who emerged from that moment, he prospered far from the motherlode by squatting on a muddy spit of land on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay until he could ‘negotiate’ a sale with the reluctant owner, Don Vicente Peralta. The debts Peralta had incurred defending his Mexican title to a vast rancho that covered most of the East Bay soon forced his hand. With two neighbouring squatters, Carpentier laid out streets and lots, and as the new state took shape, by various machinations got himself elected to the legislature. He won incorporation of the town – previously known as Contra Costa or Encinal – as a city, which he renamed Oakland, wangled a deed to the whole of the city’s waterfront and was elected its first mayor.
He went on to become president of the Overland Telegraph Company, which outmoded the Pony Express. He was a director of the Central Pacific Railroad and a figure in the ‘China trade’. And in 1890 he dutifully whisked his new protegée, Maud, to Europe in search of a noble suitor. She landed a prince: André Poniatowski, a French-born descendant of Polish kings.
Their engagement was announced and Poniatowski travelled to San Francisco, where he invested profitably in gold mines, railroads and electric utilities – but promptly fell for another California heiress, a member of the Crocker banking and railroad clan. Maud rebounded with aplomb. In 1895, aged 23, she married Sir Bache Cunard, the mustachioed, 43-year-old fox-hunting heir to a British steamship fortune. In London, as Lady Cunard, she became known as an unconventional and effervescent hostess of country weekends for a musico-literary crowd. She had a daughter. She became the foremost patron of the Royal Opera. She took Sir Thomas Beecham as her longtime lover. She solicited enough donations from her circle to keep James Joyce writing through the 1920s. And she promoted the liaison between her American friend Wallis Simpson and the future King Edward VIII.
Horace Carpentier, meanwhile, pursued a life of bookish seclusion. He served on Columbia’s board, and he made several significant gifts to the university, among them endowing a chair in Chinese. Maud and Nancy visited him once, in 1906, at his country home in upstate New York. He was 82 and Nancy, who was ten, was not impressed. He included neither of them in his will. Instead, he gave $1 million each (when that really meant something) to Columbia and its women’s college, Barnard, with a scholarship ‘for deserving girls, not excluding Chinese’. He left $100,000 to the University of California to purchase books and research materials on ‘the five great areas of Asiatic civilisation: China, Japan, India, Arabia and Babylonia’. He financed a home for the poor and gave a significant amount to the Tuskegee Institute in memory of its founder, Booker T. Washington. All this at a time of heightened Oriental exclusion and Jim Crow fervour – with passing bows to environmental protection, animal welfare and women’s education.
So maybe Nancy Cunard’s iconoclastic commitment to avant-garde writers, her love of jazz, her social conscience, her leftist politics and her public relationship with a black man (‘Do you mean to say that my daughter actually knows a Negro?’ sniffed Lady Emerald, severing her allowance), skipped a generation but owes something to her mother’s benefactor. It certainly bears the Oakland stripe.
All that and an estimable poet too.
David Ollier Weber