Letters of Carl Van Vechten
selected and edited by Bruce Kellner
Yale University Press, 301 pp., $25.00
The Tattooed Countess: A Romantic Novel with a Happy Ending
by Carl Van Vechten
University of Iowa Press, 286 pp., $9.95 (paper)
by Carl Van Vechten
reprinted by Avon, $1.95 (paper)
Infants of the Spring
by Wallace Thurman
reprinted by AMS Press, $12.50
Carl Van Vechten enjoyed a career as a critic, novelist, and photographer, but he is mostly remembered as a personality of what he called the “splendid drunken twenties.” A flamboyant fan of artists and the arts, he had a passion for collecting, a gift for making friends, and a flair for being on the right spot. His idea of the cultural vanguard was a smart party, and he was, indeed, very much a helpful guest, cheering up the down-in-the-mouth, recommending manuscripts to publishers, bringing lions and lambs together. As a talent scout for modernism he worked both sides of the aisle. He was an early, tireless champion of Gertrude Stein, and his adamant association with the Harlem Renaissance has kept his name alive. The title of his best-known novel, Nigger Heaven, has a lasting market audacity.
Van Vechten was born in Quaker Oats country, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1880, into the solid class of the “Style McKinley.” He served an aesthete’s apprenticeship at the University of Chicago, carrying spears in Chicago’s nonsinging chorus to draw near the divas when they came to town. He claimed that he was fired from his first job as a gossip columnist in the City of Big Shoulders for lowering the moral tone of a Hearst newspaper. He got away to the chancery of dreams, New York, and lived long enough to bear the torch of mischief from the edge of the Yellow Book era to the close of the Age of Innocent Publicity, the year of the Beatles’ first American tour, 1964.
In 1906 he became assistant music critic at the Times and began the heady enterprise of seeking out the real thing. In that, Van Vechten’s taste was guided by an acquisitive nature and by an abiding crush on what was charming and thrillingly new. A young man of more sentiment than sensibility, Van Vechten was a fixture at Mabel Dodge’s Greenwich Village “evenings,” and she became fond of his buck teeth that “jutted out like a wild boar’s,” central incisors elsewhere likened to broken crockery. His laughter opened doors, and he was almost compelled by his high spirits to seek out the unconventional, the offbeat. Salome got him by “the ears and EYE” in 1907, and he carried on about “the most sensational opera of the age” in Dreiser’s Broadway Magazine, while the philistine heiresses in the boxes tried to ban further performances.
The Times sent him to Paris in 1908 as cultural correspondent and until World War I he managed to follow cultural events in two cities. He brought back the first wristwatch from Paris. He was at the not-so-rambunctious second performance of Sacre, in a soft evening shirt with the tiniest pleats all over the front of it that won the admiration of his “Mama Woojums” to be, Alice Toklas. His Paris was an arena of enchantment, brimming with sensation, maybe a little wicked, just as Harlem was later to be. It would always …