Richard Bruce Nugent, who also published under the names Richard Nugent and Bruce Nugent, was born in Washington, D.C., on July 2, 1906. He was raised in middle-class family. His mother, Pauline Minerva Bruce, was a pianist who attended normal school. Nugent’s father, Richard Henry Nugent, was a Pullman porter who died of tuberculosis and asthma when Nugent was thirteen. His younger brother, Gary Lambert “Pete” Nugent, was a successful tap dancer and dance instructor who performed nationally in vaudeville shows in the 1930s. Nugent briefly attended Dunbar High School before moving to New York City with his mother, who passed for white while working in the service industry. Nugent found employment as a bellhop at the Martha Washington Hotel. Around this time, he began drawing and developed the itinerant lifestyle of a bohemian, often walking around town barefoot. He later contributed artwork to journals, including Opportunity.
When Nugent moved back to Washington, D.C., he began attending Georgia Douglas Johnson’s Saturday-night literary salons at her home. In 1925, he met Langston Hughes and became close friends with the already established poet. Nugent returned to New York with Hughes and met other key Harlem Renaissance figures, including the novelist Wallace Thurman. Nugent developed the idea of Fire!! magazine during late-night discussions with Hughes and invited Thurman to be the magazine’s editor. Nugent published two drawings and the short story “Smoke, Lilies and Jade” in the short-lived journal—the first published literary work by an African American to discuss homosexuality. A single issue of Fire!! was published in November 1926 before the magazine folded due to debt. Nugent published his first poem, “Shadows,” in a 1925 issue of Opportunity; it was reprinted in Countee Cullen’s Caroling Dusk (Harper & Bros., 1927). Nugent published the prose poem “Sahdji” in Alain Locke’s anthology The New Negro (Albert and Charles Boni, 1925). He later worked with Locke to adapt the work into Sahdji—An African Ballet, with music composed by William Grant Still. It was performed at the Eastman School of Music in the summer of 1932 and featured in the anthology Plays of Negro Life (Harper & Bros., 1927), edited by Locke and T. Montgomery Gregory. In 1927, Nugent published the illustrated series, “Drawings for Mulattos” in Charles S. Johnson’s Ebony and Topaz (Opportunity: National Urban League, 1927). The following year, Nugent co-edited the short-lived magazine, Harlem: A Forum of Negro Life, with Thurman. He also contributed to novelist Dorothy West’s shortlived Challenge magazine (1934–37).
Other ventures outside of publishing included performance art and activism. In 1927, Nugent was featured in the cast of DuBose Heyward’s play Porgy. In the 1960s, he helped found the Harlem Cultural Council with artist Romare Bearden. For the first time, Nugent’s artwork and writings were collected in the posthumously published Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance: Selections from the Work of Richard Bruce Nugent (Duke University Press, 2002). His sole novel, Gentleman Jigger: A Novel of the Harlem Renaissance (Da Capo Press, 2008), was also posthumously published.
Nugent died on May 27, 1987, in Hoboken, New Jersey.