“Maddened, but not mad.” – Charles Burkhart
I had never heard of Nancy Cunard until a friend lent me a biography of her by Anne Chisholm. The cover, a photograph of Nancy Cunard taken by Cecil Beaton in 1930, shows an eccentrically dressed woman with a deeply intense gaze. I was intrigued. As I perused the pages of the book I was moved by Cunard’s history, but was struck above all by how she chose to cut herself off from it and forge a path entirely of her own making.
Cunard was born in 1896 to American heiress Maud Burke and Sir Bache Cunard, a British noble man of little monetary wealth, though it was often rumoured that her biological father was Anglo-Irish writer George Moore. She spent much of her childhood in a large house in Leicestershire, before moving to London when her parents separated. Her mother was a famed hostess, throwing lavish parties to which she would invite a scintillating array of intellectuals, politicians and artists. Though Cunard eventually publicly spurned her mother’s lifestyle, she inherited the exceptional ability of the social butterfly, easily conversing with whomever she met and coming to symbolise the 1920s as a result.
Cunard had a brilliantly varied life, moving permanently to France and spending time in Paris and Normandy. She was acquainted with a vast array of authors and artists, and her stint in publishing lead to her “discovering” Samuel Beckett. She wrote poems, edited anthologies and was an active journalist during the Spanish Civil War. Despite her tragic end, her stunning looks, unquenchable energy and eternal propensity to be a renegade made her one of the most impressive women of the twentieth century.
I particularly enjoyed reading Cunard’s story with a mocha, sipped on the terrace of Karsmakers in Brussels. A mocha is a shot of espresso with foamed milk and cocoa powder. Delicious with a sprinkle of nutmeg on top. Best to drink something strong when in the presence of formidable characters and I’m still of the opinion that Karsmakers is the best place for coffee in town.