Lily-white Carl Van Vechten, born in lily-white Iowa in 1880, escaped Cedar Rapids when he was twenty and—after a string of extraordinarily lucky breaks—ended up in New York City, where he helped birth the Harlem Renaissance in the mid-1920s. Some of his success (mostly in journalism at the beginning of his career) was fated because of his repressed homosexuality. Cedar Rapids certainly wouldn’t work for his sexual desires. Chicago (where he went first) was much better, but New York took the cake not only because of its sexual openness, but also because of his interest in Negro life and his conviction that black people (still primitives) had no fears or repressions as far as their sexuality went.
Van Vechten’s background was liberal. His wealthy parents employed black servants but always called them Mr. or Mrs. Still, the exoticism he attributed to the race drew him to black people (often low-lifes and prostitutes) as soon as he escaped Cedar Rapids. His experiences were still mostly straight in those years, and as an arts critic for the Chicago American, first, and soon after that (1907) The New York Times, where increasingly he wrote about black cultural events, it didn’t take long before he knew black artists of all disciplines: musicians, actors, writers, painters. He began seeking out drag balls and other supposedly low-life events. There was a brief marriage to Anna Snyder, followed by a New York Times position in Paris, but by the time of the divorce (five years later) it was apparent that Van Vechten’s real interest was men, not women, the darker the better.
Back in New York City and highly visible as an arts critic, he appeared to know everyone in the arts (black and white), including George Gershwin and Paul Robeson. At Mabel Dodge’s salon he first heard about Gertrude Stein. He would not use the word “nigger,” yet as Edward White says in his superb biography of Van Vechten, “the word for him held the allure of the forbidden, a quality he associated with much African-American culture.” When Stein made her successful tour of the United States in 1913, Van Vechten became her chief promoter. In 1913, he became the drama critic for the New York Post. There were reviews of dramas about black life and the few plays written by black writers, essays written for more academic venues than his newspaper reviews, novels (that had nothing to do with black life), constant chatter about Gertrude Stein and, above all, a premise underlying much of his writing: “In its essential primitivism, blackness contains the essence of modern art.” Black life he saw as liberating, certainly not repressive as his own youth had been. White refers to him as “a one-man publicity machine for American modernism…a self-styled tastemaker who embraced taboo and sprayed camphor on moth-eaten ideas of good taste in everything he did.”
That’s a bit of a mixed metaphor. Yet Van Vechten embraced New York City’s ethnic diversity in a way few others had done before. A second marriage to the actress Fania Marinoff provided the necessary cover for his increasing homosexual relationships. The two of them apparently adored one another, and it was clear that when he was traveling and they were separated, he longed for her. Yet Van Vechten had dozens of male lovers, some for brief periods of time, others for many years, white and black, not always serially.
Van Vechten’s own novels began appearing in 1922 with the publication of Peter Whiffle, published by Knopf. Always generous, Van Vechten introduced a number of young black writers (Langston Hughes, Nella Larsen, Walter White) to the publisher who subsequently brought their books into print. Van Vechten contributed to the reevaluation of Herman Melville’s work, long forgotten by American readers and critics. It began to appear that Van Vechten could do no wrong, but then the bubble burst. He pushed things too far by writing a novel called Nigger Heaven, published by Knopf in August of 1926. The publication brought Van Vechten more notoriety and money—it was a huge commercial success—but a growing backlash against the writer, with two distinct camps of black artists, either defending him or attacking him as a shameless promoter of lower-class black life. There were more attackers than defenders.
“Soon all manner of stories began to circulate: an elderly white man had been verbally and physically attacked in the 135th Street branch of the public library when mistakenly identified as the author of Nigger Heaven; a preacher had burned copies of the book as part of a protest against southern lynchings; Van Vechten had been barred and disowned by establishments all across Harlem and hanged in effigy on St. Nicholas Avenue. Some of these tales were accurate; others, apocryphal. But all conveyed the outrage that as many black people saw it, a wealthy white man from downtown had come up to tear around Harlem and then taunted its inhabitants with a book portraying black life as dripping in sex and drugs and violence, capping it off with the most offensive word possible. The Afro American of Baltimore summed up the incredulity when it reported a conversation about Nigger Heaven supposedly overheard in a Harlem beauty parlor: ‘You mean to say a man when to people’s houses and accepted their hospitality and then called ‘em nigger?’”
Van Vechten sneaked away from New York, first to Taos, where Mabel Dodge had had her own racial awakening by marrying a Navaho named Tony Luhan. But Mabel had her own agenda, wanted Van Vechten to write about Indians next. Van Vechten by this time also had a serious drinking problem. After a subsequent stay in Hollywood, Van Vechten and Fania took off for Europe, visiting Gertrude Stein and others. Van Vechten’s years as a journalist were largely over. Instead, from the early 1930s until the time of his death, he perfected one of his earlier interests: photography. He had always taken photographs of the famous. An inheritance from his family meant that he no longer needed money, that he didn’t need to sell his photos, increasingly narcissistic and homoerotic. The liaisons with gay men continued until the time of his death, with Fania looking the other way.
Edward White begins his biography of Van Vechten with this paragraph: “Concealed within rural Connecticut’s verdant undergrowth, two young men—one white, the other black—stripped naked in the heat of a July afternoon in 1940. They had done this before; they knew the routine. Standing face-to-face, each reached out to place his hands on the other as the sunlight, breaking through the foliage above them, dappled their skin. Soon they settled into a pose and held it, frozen in place, until the click of a camera shutter pierced the quiet.”
Shades of Robert Mapplethorpe? Of course, but this was before AIDS became the curse of so many gay men. Van Vechten took thousands of quasi-pornographic photos that were never shown during his life. He left reams of photos, letters, and important documents to major archival collections: Yale, Fisk, and the New York City Library. By the time of his death in 1964 (at eighty-four), most of his peccadilloes were forgiven. Fisk University awarded him an honorary Ph.D. in 1955. Edward White does justice to Van Vechten’s lengthy career as cultural promoter and caretaker, critic and sometime novelist, though the biography largely skates on the surface with little psychological analysis of his subject’s initially repressed sexuality and eventual liberation.
Edward White: The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 352 pp., $30
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.