Nancy Cunard, the only child of Sir Bache Cunard, of the shipping family, was born in 1896. Educated at several exclusive schools, Cunard's poetry first appeared in magazines in 1916. Three volumes of poetry followed: Outlaws (1921), Sublunary (1923) and Parallax (1925), a book published by Virginia Woolf and her husband, Leonard Woolf.
Cunard's relationship with African-American musician, Henry Crowder, caused a major scandal and led to a break with her family. The couple moved to Austria where Cunard wrote the pamphlet, Black Man and White Ladyship (1931). With Crowder she also published Negro (1934), an anthology of African-American art. Cunard also became involved in the campaign to free the Scottsboro Boys, where nine young black men were falsely charged with the rape of two white women on a train.
On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War Cunard went to Spain where she wrote for the Manchester Guardian. In 1937 she polled British writers on their attitudes towards the Spanish conflict and published their comments in the booklet, Authors Take Sides. Cunard argued that: "Spain is not politics but life; its immediate future will affect every human who has a sense of what life and its facts mean, who has respect for himself and humanity."
Cunard also campaigned for Spanish refugees and Republican prisoners. Cunard joined Sylvia Townsend Warner and Mary Valentine Ackland as part of the British delegation to the Second Congress of the International Association of Writers for the Defence of Culture in Madrid in 1937.
At Le Perthus, from nine o'clock this morning until 4.30, I have been watching soldiers pass between the two stone posts that are actually the frontier-line. They have come by in thousands and thousands, in groups, singly, and in numberless lorries. At the posts stand the French soldiers, who immediately search them for arms. The Spanish soldiers give up their arms in an orderly fashion. The pile of rifles, revolvers, cartridge belts, dirks, and even a knife or two grow throughout the day. Two machine-guns have been brought in; farther up, an armoured car.
But all this is only the beginning; we are told: 'Tomorrow the rearguard of the army, and afterwards - the army that has fought.' On the mountains each side they come, so that the whole landscape seems to be moving. Soldiers on horseback, wounded men, women, children, a whole population, and cars and ambulances. Many of the ambulances are British and of the 'Centrale Internationale Sanitaire', one of whose doctors tells me of the appalling lack of supplies, of staff, and of help.
In fact, there is enough of nothing save the now excellently distributed food rations which are made by France. There was a good supply of food at La Junquera, as the food parcels that had been intended for parts of Catalonia now taken by the enemy were being used there. All medical centres and staffs are over-powered, however; at Cerbere, for instance, a doctor told me, are 1,500 wounded soldiers with hardly any sanitary necessities at all. Lack of sufficient transport for them is another difficulty. Dr Audrey Russell, who is well known for her fine work in Spain for many months, said that she had just been able to get her last canteen into French territory.
General Molesworth was another English worker at Le Perthus, where he was indefatigably trying to get the internationals together. 'Only a handful have come through so far,' the General told me.
Some of the camps to which the Spanish refugees are going are not fit to receive human beings. The problem has been too vast to be dealt with as yet.
At the great central camp at Le Boulou are thousands of men, women, and children. On one side of the road is an enclosure with wire fencing. On the other the refugees who walked down from Le Perthus yesterday are lying, sitting, standing, doing nothing this cold end of a February afternoon. It is a horrible sight, and all of them, men, women and children, are in the utmost depression. This 'camp' is a large, flat, bare area, the grass trodden down into a sort of grey compost. They sleep here, in the open. A few have rigged up some vague kind of shelter.
As for medical aid -just one case I saw will show the state of things. A woman lamented that she could do nothing for her child. She took off the little girl's bonnet and said: 'These dreadful sores are the result of typhus.' They come and stand around you and talk; they argue among themselves in front of you: 'Are we worse off here today than we might be in Spain?' Then a woman cries out, 'I shall never get into a train without knowing where it is going, for I have heard that they want to send us back to Franco.' Other voices broke out: 'Ninety-five per cent of us want to go to Mexico - anything rather than return to Spain as it will be under the fascists.' At the village town hall a girl I knew in Spain says she thinks the women she is one of in a long queue may get a permit to go to Perpignan some time soon. All the men, says a French guard, are going to Argeles; when? No one knows. In all of this families get separated; the men are taken from their families in some cases. Every phrase ends in 'I don't know.' As for the wounded - they are lying in the ditch among their crutches; a man limps by in obvious agony.
Somehow one becomes accustomed to such sights after ten days. But they become more real again when I try to set down just a fraction here and compare this mass-wretchedness with the 'business-eye' of some Marseilles white-slave traffickers who have made their appearance. There are many pretty girls in the Spanish migration.
Nancy Cunard was kind and good and catholic and cosmopolitan and sophisticated and simple all at the same time and a poet of no mean abilities and an appreciator of the rare and the off-beat from jazz to ivory bracelets and witch doctors to Cocteau but she did not like truffles at Maxim's or chitterlings in Harlem. She did not like bigots or brilliant bores or academicians who wore their honors, or scholars who wore their doctorates, like dog tags. But she had an infinite capacity to love peasants and children and great but simple causes across the board and a grace in giving that was itself gratitude and she had a body like sculpture in the thinnest of wire and a face made of a million mosaics in a gauze-web of cubes lighter than air and a pinata of a heart in the center of a mobile at fiesta time with bits of her soul swirling in the breeze in honor of life and love.
I knew Nancy Cunard only slightly; but enough to be impressed by her, to honor and admire her. We who talk and write about nonconformity rarely have the courage to live the lives of nonconformists, but Nancy Cunard had the courage and paid the price society still demands. England and America are bad enough, but Nancy when I knew her was the dissenter, the rebel, the heretic in the Spain of today, which is still in the shadow of the 17th century.