One afternoon, many years ago, I was on my way to the movies when I passed a guy selling books on the street. As I scanned his wares, which were neatly displayed on a blanket spread out on the sidewalk, I soon realized that all the novels were by authors whose names began with V. It turned out that this hippie entrepreneur had acquired his small stock from Lowdermilk’s when that used bookstore went out of business. Fiction, he told me, was auctioned off by letter and he could only afford the Vs.
I bought two books for a couple of dollars apiece, both by Carl Van Vechten. One was “The Blind Bow-Boy” (1923), a comic novel in which a rich father hires a dissolute tutor to introduce his sheltered, sissified son to the Real World. He finds the right man through a classified ad in the newspaper (ah, those were the days!): “Wanted: Young man of good character but no moral values. Must know three languages and possess a sense of humour. Autodidact preferred, one whose experience has led him to whatever books he has read. It is absolutely essential that he should have been the central figure in some public scandal.”
In this excellent biography of Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964), Edward White describes “The Blind Bow-Boy” as “a whip-smart, funny, and deceptively insightful novel about a group of New York sybarites” and “one of the great forgotten American novels of the 1920s.” But Van Vechten wasn’t just a satirist admired by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis. He was one of the most exceptional figures in American culture during the first-half of the 20th century.
Growing up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the younger son of liberal, educated parents (his father was a prosperous businessman), Van Vechten was drawn to the theater, music and dance. After graduating from the University of Chicago, he headed east, where he landed a job as a second-string cultural reporter for the New York Times and was soon writing enthusiastically about Richard Strauss’s opera “Salome,” the dancing of Isadora Duncan and all that was new in music and the arts.
In “The Tastemaker,” White portrays the young critic as deeply self-centered and ambitious, but also immensely charming and sexually complicated. A sartorial peacock with a taste for jewelry, Van Vechten was essentially homosexual, being drawn to handsome youths throughout his life, yet he also married twice, and his second marriage to the actress Fania Marinoff lasted half a century. He was, at least initially, passionately in love with both his wives, and may even have fathered two children (secretly given up for adoption).
For 30 years, Van Vechten was everywhere on the cultural scene. He was an early regular at the “Evenings” of the rich, artistic hostess Mabel Dodge, reported on the 1913 Armory Show (which introduced modern art to Americans, most notoriously Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2”), attended the second performance of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” (because he arrived late at the Paris premiere to find it sold out), promoted the brilliantly campy novels of Ronald Firbank, and even became the foremost advocate and interpreter of Gertrude Stein (who made him her literary executor).
Van Vechten published several collections of his journalism, notably “Music and Bad Manners” (1916) and “Interpreters and Interpretations” (1917). But after World War I, he turned to fictionalizing the Jazz Age in novels, such as the autobiographical “Peter Whiffle” (1922) and the somewhat world-weary “Parties” (1930). During this time, he also became a tireless crusader for African American culture.
In fact, he remains one of the key figures behind the Harlem Renaissance. After reading Walter White’s fierce novel “Fire in the Flint,” Van Vechten asked to meet White, then the secretary of the NAACP. The two men quickly hit it off, so much so that White named his son Carl. Before long, Van Vechten’s circle of black friends included Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, Nella Larsen and Langston Hughes (whose poems he convinced Knopf to publish). Van Vechten even helped organize Paul Robeson’s first solo concert in Greenwich Village and later acted as “creative consultant” on “La Revue Nègre,” the cabaret extravaganza that made Josephine Baker an international star. Typically, his three groundbreaking essays for Vanity Fair celebrated black theater, spirituals and the blues in the same respectful language he used when reviewing opera and ballet.
And then Van Vechten decided to write a novel about Harlem. It was to be a tragic love story between a mousy librarian and an educated young intellectual, set against a backdrop of parties and nightclubs, with a femme fatale named Lasca Sartoris and a wonderfully stylish ladies’ man known as the Scarlet Creeper. The book is, in fact, a wildly melodramatic entertainment, full of digressions and lively conversations about black culture. Unfortunately, Van Vechten insisted on the title “Nigger Heaven.” This was the term then used for the high-up balcony seats in segregated theaters, and it captured, he believed, the shock and irony he wanted to emphasize. In the book, a young woman adopts the offensive phrase as a nickname for Harlem itself.
Van Vechten’s novel divided the African American community. W.E.B. Du Bois attacked the book as exploitative and racist, but Walter White defended it, and Alain Locke and Robeson sent its author letters of congratulation. Hughes coolly suggested that people actually read what Van Vechten had written rather than simply react to his deliberately provocative title.
The clash between Van Vechten’s supporters and detractors highlights what Edward White calls a question that has “twisted itself through twentieth-century American culture: Is positing the notion of racial difference in itself fundamentally racist, or is it a greater act of intolerance to reduce the uniqueness of racial groups by suggesting they all are essentially the same? To Van Vechten the answer was axiomatic. He not only believed in racial difference as a self-evident fact but thought it a blessing, part of the rich diversity that made urban life in the United States such a thrilling experience.”
By the end of the 1920s, Van Vechten’s career as an influential critic and best-selling novelist was over. No matter. In the 1930s, he enthusiastically reinvented himself as a portrait photographer, gradually winning the admiration of such camera giants as Edward Steichen and Man Ray. Actually, Van Vechten may be most widely known today for his iconic images of the many artists and celebrities he knew, among them actress Anna May Wong, playwright Eugene O’Neill, blues legends Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday and, in his last years, the young Marlon Brando, Truman Capote and Gore Vidal.
Throughout his life, Carl Van Vechten championed an American culture that transcended all walls and boundaries. It is thus characteristic of the man that he would help establish, with donations from his own voluminous archives, the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of Negro Arts and Letters at WASPy Yale and the George Gershwin Memorial Collection of Music and Musical Literature at the historically black Fisk University.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.
Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America
By Edward White
Farrar Straux Giroux. 377 pp. $30