Yvonne Kapp (nee Mayer) was born in London on April 17th 1903, to a German Jewish family from the Rhineland, her father being engaged in the vanilla trade. She was briefly at King’s College London but in 1922, at the age of 19, she married the considerably older (by thirteen years) artist and musician Edmond Kapp (known as Peter) X Kapp, who personally knew, drew and painted most of the literati of the day. (The `X’, seemingly, signified nothing more than an attempt to distinguish himself from his father, who had the same name.)
The Kapps led a bohemian life, travelling around Europe and earning their living through art and writing, staying extensively on the Italian Riviera, on Capri, and in English country cottages. Whilst engaged in this literary milieu, she encountered many famous people, including Quentin Bell, Rebecca West, Paul Robeson, John Heartfield, Melanie Klein and Herbert Morrison, to name only a few. Some, such as D H Lawrence, sat for a portrait by Edmond. She also edited `Pastiche: A Music-Room Book’, which contained 28 illustrations by Edmond X Kapp.
She found herself bringing up her daughter effectively as a young single mother, as Edmond Kapp periodically disappeared, arising from psychological disturbances from his experiences in the First World War; Yvonne Kapp turned to journalism and writing to support herself and her child. In the late 1920s she was employed as the literary editor of Vogue in France and, under the pseudonym of Yvonne Cloud, she wrote four novels, all outspoken social comedies.
But, after 1933, her writings were practical nature; like many others of her generation, Hitler’s rise to power in Germany led her towards Communism. She met Harry Pollitt following a visit to the Soviet Union and joined the Communist Party in 1935 and remained a member of the CPGB until its dissolution. In the mid-1930s, she began working with Basque refugees and, during 1937-1938, was employed by the Medical Department of the Jewish refugees’ committee and then the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia as an assistant to the Director, a post from which she was dismissed by the Home Office in 1940.
Out of this experience, Yvonne Kapp collaborated with an associate, Margaret Mynatt, in writing `British Policy and the Refugees 1933-1941′. This was written in 1940, though not actually published until 1997; it was highly critical of government immigration policy, especially on the internment of refugees as enemy aliens in 1940, on the basis of nationality rather than anti-fascism. Margaret Mynatt was an Anglo-German Communist, a friend of Bertolt Brecht, who had arrived as a half-Jewish refugee from Berlin in 1933. She later inspired and edited the English edition of the `Collected Works Of Marx And Engels’; she and Kapp became life companions, until Margaret’s death in 1977.
In 1941, Kapp briefly worked with the then Communist dominated Labour Research Department (LRD) then becoming Research Officer for the Amalgamated Engineering Union, 1941-1946. In 1943, she saved a large part of former ASE leader, John Burns’, vast book collection for the labour movement. During the war she wrote the union’s submission for Royal Commission on equal pay for women. Being the main speech writer to Jack Tanner, President of AEU, she studied him as if she was an actress so as to write in the terms in which he would say them. He got so used to this that he would not even read the speeches before he had to deliver them. This, inevitably, brought problems and she parted company with him – and the union -over policy differences.
Kapp then moved to the Medical Research Council, undertaking field work in the East End of London, 1947-1953. She held the positions of editor and translator for Lawrence and Wishart Publishers from 1953-1957. She was one of the translators of `Collected Short Stories by Berthold Brecht’ and translated much Soviet fiction.
At the age 66, Kapp started work on the biography of Eleanor Marx, a task that required considerable research, mostly abroad. The two volumes that resulted were both scholarly and superb, it is undoubtedly her finest memorial and a lasting piece of work. She conceived the idea of writing the life of Eleanor Marx while translating the correspondence between Frederick Engels and Laura and Paul Lafargue. (Laura was Eleanor’s sister and Paul was a French socialist.) Kapp saw Eleanor in the shadows of this correspondence, in a way that she found tantalizing. She was now in a position to pursue her subject full time, to devote whatever resources were necessary to retrieve her subject from obscurity. The project took Kapp ten years to complete, in the process she rescued Eleanor by drawing `in one way or another upon my whole accumulated experience’.
She lived with Betty Lewis (Reid) for much of her later years; Yvonne Kapp died on June 22nd 1999, aged 96 and her unfinished memoirs, `Time will tell’, were published by Verso in 2003.
As Yvonne Cloud:
`Short lease’ (1932)
`Nobody Asked You’ (1932)
`Beside the seaside: six variations’ (?)
`Mediterranean Blues (1933)
`The Houses in Between (1938)
As Yvonne Kapp
Yvonne Kapp and Margaret Mynatt `British Policy and the Refugees 1933-1941′. (1997);`Eleanor Marx: VOL. 1; Family life (1855-1883) (1972); vol. 2: The Crowded Years, 1884-98 (1976)
Sources: The University of North London holds papers of Yvonne Kapp relating to her work for the AEU. http://www.unl.ac.uk/library/tuc
The Institute of Germanic Studies holds Mynatt/Kapp Papers , http://www.monthlyreview.org/
Guardian June 29th 1999http://www.sas.ac.uk/igs/