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Nancy Cunard: Rebellious Heiress, Inspired Life

Jul 21, 2007 (All Things Considered)

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For Nancy Cunard, the beautiful heiress to the Cunard shipping fortune, a life like Paris Hilton's wasn't an option.

Though she partied with celebrities and had many lovers, Cunard rejected her privilege and fortune to fight for the oppressed. She was a poet, a publisher and a paramour of many writers of the 1920s and '30s.

And though she died penniless and alone in 1965, she was a pivotal player in many historical events of her era.

In her new biography, Nancy Cunard: Heiress, Muse, Political Activist, author Lois Gordon shines a spotlight on a woman history seems to have forgotten. Unhappy with a life of privilege, Cunard rebelled early from a lonely childhood and took up with writers such as Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and Wyndham Lewis. Dazzled and inspired by these men who became lovers, Cunard eventually published her own books of poetry.

But she could never truly settle down anywhere or with anyone. Her restlessness brought took her to France, where she encountered Ernest Hemingway and William Carlos Williams, as well as the Dadaists and Surrealists, who shared her views about art and the influence of the ruling class.

It was black jazz pianist Henry Crowder who changed the course of her life. Cunard's relationship with Crowder opened her eyes to the racial injustice blacks were experiencing, and she dedicated her life to civil rights, though it would cost her both her family and her fortune. She edited and published Negro in 1934, with contributors including Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes.

She also fought fascism on the battlefields of Spain and reported firsthand on the atrocities of the French concentration camps. Cunard established shelters for camp survivors and even begged on the streets of Paris for starving children in Spain.

Despite her accomplishments, Cunard was self-destructive and alcoholic — traits that led to her death.

Gordon tells Jacki Lyden about Cunard's fascinating life and times, and what led to her downfall.

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