Mina Loy and the “Crowd” — Modernists in 1920s Paris

Mina loy photo by Man Ray

Though not as well known today, Mina Loy was well entrenched in the modernist circles that included leading figures of arts and letters of the 1920s. This musing on Mina Loy and the “Crowd” is excerpted from Everybody I Can Think of Ever: Meetings That Made the Avant-Garde by Francis Booth. Reprinted by permission.

Mina Loy (1882 – 1966), who practiced both as a writer and visual artist, was a vital member of the group of creatives that launched the modernist movement. Born in Hampstead, London, she was a painter, poet, novelist, and playwright, and also achieved some renown as a lamp designer.

The core of the “Crowd” was the largely lesbian 1920s New York circle that included Margaret C. Anderson, Jane Heap, and Georgette Leblanc. Djuna Barnes was there too; she was a lesbian by that time but, like Georgette, she hadn’t always been. Barnes was a close friend of the very heterosexual English poet Mina Loy; Djuna told Mina, in the presence of Mina’s teenage daughter Joella, that she had had nineteen male lovers, most of them Americans, before she had given up on men and taken a female lover.

She took many others later, though not Mina, who was famously beautiful, however much she might have wanted to. Margaret Anderson said that the “Crowd” included three “raving beauties”: Mina and her two daughters, Joella and Fabienne.


Meeting William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams was among the men attracted to Mina, though he seems never to have done anything about it – he may be the only person in this group who was faithful to a single life-partner, if not entirely voluntarily. In an interview in I Wanted to Write a Poem he said ‘I had a flirtation with Mina – fruitless.’ His wife, Flossie, who was present, said “I don’t think you had enough money for Mina.”

Wiliams had met Loy when she first came to New York in 1916; they had acted together in the Provincetown players, Williams playing Loy’s husband. He said that Mina was “a very English, very skittish, and evasive, long-limbed woman too smart to involve herself, after a first disastrous marriage, with any others – though she was friendly and had written some attractive verse.”

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Mina Loy and her crowd

Mina Loy (front row, center) and some of the “Crowd” in Paris, 1923
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Arthur Cravan

After the failure of her first marriage to artist Stephen Haweis, Loy lived with writer and boxer Arthur Cravan, who broke into Paris society by claiming to be Oscar Wilde‘s nephew. Loy took Williams to meet Cravan at a party in 1916, where Williams also first met Marcel Duchamp.

“I was a bit late and the small room was already crowded – by Frenchmen mostly. I remember of course, Marcel Duchamp. At the end of the room was a French girl, of say eighteen or less, attended by some older woman. She lay reclining upon a divan, her legs straight out before her, surrounded by young men who had each a portion of her body in his possession which he caressed attentively, apparently unconscious of any rival. Two or three addressed themselves to her shoulders on either side, to her elbows, her wrists, hands, to each finger perhaps, I cannot recall – the same for her legs. She was in a black lace gown fully at ease. It was something I had not seen before.”

When she first saw Arthur, Mina had “no premonition of the psychological infinity that he would later offer my indiscreet curiosity as to the mechanism of man,” he was merely “dull and square in merely respectable tweeds; not at all homosexual.”

The next time they saw him he was drunk; Duchamp and Francis Picabia had made sure that he would be in bad shape for a lecture he was giving on “The Independent Artists of France and America.” He swayed and shouted and banged the table, he was arrested and taken to jail; Duchamp said “what a wonderful lecture.”

The next day Mina was present at a costume ball where everyone was watching Arthur. He had come wearing a bedspread as a toga, which he took off before sitting down next to Mina and putting his arm round her. His “unspoken obscenities chilled my powdered skin.”

At the time Cravan was largely homeless and often slept on park benches. He asked if he could stay at her apartment and sleep on the table. Loy agreed, but he didn’t sleep on the table; they became lovers. She stayed with Cravan and went to Mexico with him, where they were married in Mexico City in 1918.

Soon afterward Cravan disappeared in Mexico, presumed drowned off the coast, one of two writers in this book to drown off the coast of Mexico. He was never found and the mystery has never been solved.

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Everybody I can think of ever - meetings that made the avant-garde

Everybody I Can Think of Ever on Amazon U.S.*
Everybody I Can Think of Ever on Amazon U.K*
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Sylvia Beach and James Joyce

Sylvia Beach said that of the three beauties in the “Crowd” – Mina and her two daughters – Mina “would have been elected the most beautiful of the three” but that, despite his glaucoma, James Joyce, “who could see as well as anyone when he wanted to, observed that Joella was a beauty according to all the standards: her golden hair, her eyes, a complexion, her manners.”

So Joella had Joyce’s vote, although she was born in the same year as Joyce’s own daughter Lucia, who will appear in this story later on. Joella had Robert McAlmon’s vote too; he recalled some of the women in Paris at that time in Being Geniuses Together:

“Mary Reynolds, Mina Loy and her daughter Gioella [sic], Catherine Murphy, Djuna Barnes stand out in my memory as the more elegant, witty, beautiful of the girls or women about at the time.”

His description of Joella as a teenager is rather disturbing, given her age at the time, though not as disturbing as his reference to the ‘lovely twelve-year-old Fabie’ [Fabienne], Joella’s younger sister. (Fabienne was ‘done’ by Berenice Abbott, looking very fetching in a fashionable Louise Brooks bob.) McAlmon here sounds like Humbert Humbert (of Lolita) describing Dolores Haze:

“Gioella was then a bit gangly with adolescence, but very lovely, with sleepy blue eyes, long pale eyelashes, and slender, childish arms which made Mariette Mills [a sculptor who did the head of McAlmon] wish to sculpt her, and abstract painters talk of doing her portrait.

Gioella had a proper youthful scorn for me and used to ask when I was going to pull myself together and why I acted like a cynical old uncle to her. We took long walks in the wood; deer crossed our path from time to time, and Gioella lectured, and she didn’t think for a second that any of us were getting satisfaction out of being ‘intellectual.’ Only occasionally she would cease being patronising and confess wonder and confusion. Generally, however, she preferred scolding me mildly.”

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Mina Loy

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Encounters with Sinclair Lewis

McAlmon published (and misspelt the title of) Mina Loy’s poetry collection The Lost Lunar Baedecker. He was with her when he met Sinclair Lewis, first American winner, in 1930, of the Nobel Prize for literature; his novel Babbit, about middle-American boosterism, was published in 1922.

Lewis introduced his wife to Robert McAlmon. (husband of convenience of Annie Winifred Allerman, better known by her nom de plume, Bryher, and as the longtime lover of H.D., aka Hilda Doolittle). Over gin fizzes, she suddenly “fired three questions at me: if I thought Lewis the greatest American writer, a fine artist, America’s first. Her questions were too fast, and I said so, whereupon she flew out of the door, refusing to drink with me.”

That was their first proper meeting but McAlmon had nearly met Lewis earlier when he was with Djuna Barnes in a bar one night. He had “known Djuna slightly in New York, because Djuna was a very haughty lady, quick on the uptake, and with a wise-cracking tone that I was far too discreet to rival.”

But one night, when he was out with a male friend, after a few drinks “I finally asked her to dance with me, drink having freed me of the fear of rebuff. As we danced she said, ‘Bob McAlmon, why do you act so nice to me? You know you hate my guts’”. He denied it, she wasn’t convinced, but nevertheless, they became friends, if only in the literary sense. One night when he was out with her:

“Sinclair Lewis barged in, some three sheets in the wind. He had once written a story about hobohemia and evidently feared Djuna would believe he had used her as one of the characters in it. Or perhaps he merely had an admiring eye for Djuna or a respect for her undoubted talent, however uneven it may be. But Djuna was well up with drink too and was not going to get chummy. I recall that Lewis looked wistful and went away from the table, with Djuna not having introduced him.”

At the time McAlmon hadn’t read Lewis’s work; when he did he concluded that Lewis didn’t “know a bit more about Main Street, or Minneapolis, or Babbitts, than did I.”


Meeting Djuna Barnes

The only record of Barnes’ and Loy’s first meeting is the fictionalized version in McAlmon’s novella Post-Adolescence, a roman à clef in which they both appear, as does Marianne Moore, thinly disguised. In the novel, the fictional version of Barnes wants to meet Loy and gets McAlmon to introduce them, in a New York cafe on Sixth Avenue that sells bootleg whiskey.

Barnes tells McAlmon that “she doesn’t sound a hell of a lot different from the rest of us, except I suppose she’s more of a lady than I am.”

The two women become confidantes and the fictional Mina tells the fictional Djuna about her lost husband, a fictional version of Arthur Cravan. She tells her she wishes it had been her first husband who had disappeared. Barnes also talks about her disappointments with men. The Loy character says to her: “We’ll have to form a union of women to show the men up.” The Barnes character replies “and make ourselves exhibits A and B.”


Enter Peggy Guggenheim

Fabulously wealthy gallery owner and art patron Peggy Guggenheim was a patron of both Mina Loy and Djuna Barnes. Guggenheim supported Barnes, who lived in the same apartment block as Loy, with a monthly check.

Peggy took Djuna with her to England, where she had rented a large house in Devon; “the bedrooms were simple and adequate except for the beds which were as hard as army cots. One bedroom, however, was rather dressed up in rococo style and it looked so much like Djuna that we gave it to her. It was in this room, in bed, that she wrote most of Nightwood.”

“Mina Loy, who was not only a poetess and a painter, was always inventing something new by which she hoped to make a fortune. She had just created a new, or old, form of papier collé – flower cut-outs which she framed in beautiful old Louis Philippe frames she bought in the flea market. She asked me to take these to New York for her and sell them.”

Peggy did so, and had them exhibited on Madison Avenue, with great success. When she moved back to France and took a villa in a remote area in the south, “one of our first guests was Mina Loy, who came with her daughters, Joella and Faby. Mina painted a fresco in her bedroom. She conceived lobsters and mermaids with sunshades tied to their tails.” Later, back in Paris, Mina and Peggy went into business together: they opened a lampshade shop.

“I had set up in a shop on the Rue du Colisée, and she had a workshop next to Laurence’s studio on the Avenue du Maine where she employed a lot of girls. I ran the shop and she and Joella, her daughter, ran the workshop … We allowed my mother to invite her lingère to exhibit some underwear at the same time, as we then thought to make some money; this upset Mina so much that she refused to be present at the vernissage.”

Peggy eventually relented on the underwear and the shop became very successful, so much so that Mina had no time to write. So instead, she put the celestial imagery that had been in her poetry into the lampshades, designing illuminated globes that she called mappemondes [world maps] and globes célestes [celestial globes] advertised under the name l’Ombre féerique [fairy shadow]. Sadly, as the name suggests, they were very delicate and none are known to have survived.

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Contributed by Francis Booth,* the author of several books on twentieth-century culture:

Amongst Those Left: The British Experimental Novel 1940-1960 (published by Dalkey Archive); Everybody I Can Think of Ever: Meetings That Made the Avant-Garde;  Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in the Mid-Twentieth Century Woman’s Novel; Text Acts: Twentieth Century Literary Eroticism; and Comrades in Art: Revolutionary Art in America 1926-1938.

Francis has also published several novels: The Code 17 series, set in the Swinging London of the 1960s and featuring aristocratic spy Lady Laura Summers; Young adult fantasy series The Watchers; and  Young adult fantasy novel Mirror Mirror. Francis lives on the South Coast of England. He is currently working on High Collars and Monocles: Interwar Novels by Female Couples.

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