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 be prewar, Mauve Decade, with some last great courtesan off in the Bois contemplating the betrayal of a cheri. When the war broke out in 1914 Van Vechten escaped on a lugger out of Naples and returned to New York to produce books of essays in rapid succession.
Dorothy Parker once said that Van Vechten wrote as if he had his tongue in someone else’s cheek. His collections of cultural journalism are scarcely worth reading today because, after spreading the glad tidings, his reports have little analysis or depth. Early on he wrote about Stravinsky, Schönberg, and dance. He was up on the wonders of ragtime, Nijinsky, and Isadora Duncan, as well as on the worthlessness of interior decorators. The Armory Show was “a bang-up whale of a success.” He casually dropped Freud, Lawrence, Joyce, and James M. Barrie into his list of “the ten dullest authors,” but he campaigned on behalf of Hugh Walpole, Matthew Phipps Shiel, Henry Blake Fuller, the wasp-waisted guardsmen of Ouida, and Melville. “Pierre! Such a book in 1861.” But he wanted a more exalted form of recording what he’d seen than publicity notices and reviews. “I have determined to be a writer and not a journalist or a scribbler,” Van Vechten announced to his brother, and then began to churn out a string of novels largely inspired by the paganism of the Nineties.
Peter Whiffle (1922), The Blind BowBoy (1923), The Tattooed Countess (1924), and Firecrackers (1925) are, for all the chatter in them about culture, limited, unworldly, and self-referring. They are narrowly autobiographical, extensions of Van Vechten’s enthusiasms for art, beauty, youth, rich eccentrics, great ladies, exquisite settings, clothes, and the “forbidden.” Edmund Wilson included Van Vechten in the “fashionable school of ironic romance,” but his “burlesque fiction” about the joys of sin are hard to read today. Their rococo interiors now seem far more alarming than the naughtiness of the characters, the ruthless young men who marry for money or become gigolos in order to travel, the vain women who scheme after priests and boys, the voyeurs who drink to disguise their boredom.
There is in them, too, a nostalgia for the flying moments of spiritual awakening, which expresses itself in Van Vechten’s approval of his handsome heroes who walk nonchalantly over the broken hearts of parents and unsuitable girlfriends to get to the high bohemia of their dreams, the great world of literary salons and dress balls with important people chatting under priceless canvases. Van Vechten stayed close to the pretty surfaces of life because culture was meant to be liberating, not hurtful. Consequently, his narcissistic characters have none of the tragic aura that one associates with, say, Fitzgerald, and his “amoralists” too heavily luxuriate in their thoughts. Even his satire of the well bred is spoiled by frivolity, by his tendency to lovingly list the green orchids, the rose-jade cysts, the dove-hued damask upholstery. His notion of high society, with its marriageable heiresses, is closer to Edith Wharton than to any fin de siècle model of aesthetic cosmopolitanism.
Van Vechten sought to hold up a fun-house mirror to society, but his studied elevation of the senses and celebration of the pleasures of the mind even in their own time no longer seemed shocking or sinister. Decadence had by then lost its demonic power. It was possible, as Wilson put it, for the ” ‘sinner’ to be amiable again.” Van Vechten, the propagandist of the precious, the true believer in the life-giving properties of bohemia, was a prodigal of the corn belt precisely in his elitism, in his devotion to the very salon ladies and sad, young men with finishing-school expectations of big cities whom he felt he was satirizing.
Van Vechten’s novels, even Nigger Heaven, are really examinations not of society, but of social ambition. They deal for the most part with people who have arrived and wonder where they are or why they aren’t satisfied. The Tattooed Countess, however, goes back to the source, to Maple Valley, Iowa, a small town where people dress badly, drink in secret, cheat on their wives, and talk about local improvements like the new high school or the new water works. The leading citizens of Maple Valley are far away from the Europe where one is open about love affairs and reserved about charity work. The Countess, a rich widow, has come home to forget a young actor. She does—in the arms of a calculating high school senior, who wants to get away to the theater and the opera and the art galleries.
The Countess is smug about flouting convention, about smoking and wearing makeup, and the respectable townspeople are smug about their lap suppers and euchre parties, and Van Vechten is smug about knowing that they are hypocrites. He is hard on spinsters and school-teachers who don’t have the money, looks, or taste to get what they want, but he is meanest toward those characters who don’t have the sense to want what he wanted from life. He understands small-town life only as an obstacle, a dead end. But he doesn’t really understand hustlers or adventuresses. He is too sincere and sentimental about his own escape from Iowa as a youth who wanted to meet glamorous people to have much insight beyond the warning that we must be careful when we get what we want: fat pigs aren’t lucky.
Given Van Vechten’s desire to shock and his gratification in getting in on the ground floor, his most celebrated novel, Nigger Heaven (1926), was, in retrospect, inevitable. Popular musicals and plays of black life by white writers, as well as novels like T.S. Stribling’s Birthright (1922) and Sherwood Anderson’s Dark Laughter (1925), had already established a climate for the exposé of Harlem. Harlem was, he said, a subject that had obsessed him for some time. He had been interested in Negroes long before he discovered the Negro Problem, and his unanswered questions went back, as do most white Americans’, to figures like the gentle Negro yardman of his childhood. When, early in the Twenties, in an underground tearoom in Harlem, he had the revelation, “I hate a Negro! I hate a Negro!” he felt reassured that he was not blindly sentimental about the race, and was free to jump from the crowd of mere nigger lovers to become a dinge queen of the highest order.
Van Vechten’s fascination with blacks also grew from his cultural snobbery: honk if you’re hip to Bessie. Race prejudice was a club with which to beat up on the boobs in the hinterland, and hanging out with blacks a daring way in which to go against the grain. But Van Vechten’s research was also firsthand: he took Charleston lessons from Countee Cullen, learned from Ethel Waters how to cook mustard greens, attended Opportunity prize dinners, showed up at hair-cream heiress A’Lelia Walker’s blow-outs, and escorted everyone, even Faulkner, around Harlem. “Go inspectin’ / Like Van Vechten,” a song went. One anecdote has a porter saying, “Good morning, Mrs. Astor.” “How did you know my name, young man?” “Why, ma’am, I met you last weekend at Carl Van Vechten’s.”
“Nigger Heaven” means Harlem, and also the “buzzard’s roost,” the balcony in the downtown theaters where blacks who weren’t light enough had to sit. Nigger Heaven is, like Van Vechten’s other novels, something of a roman à clef, with the characters’ histories borrowed from the grapevine. It has the same fussy attention to décor, and an atmosphere of disillusion attributable to the influence of an early idol, James Branch Cabell. Its social vision is indicated by the intriguing mix of people in a room, bored millionaires and widows, talented young black lawyers and professors, and a white novelist who speaks for the author. The heroine is a prim, black librarian who quotes from memory a long passage from “Melanctha.”
Mary Love, who hesitates to admit that white girls with less experience are promoted over her at the library, falls in love at first sight with Byron Kasson, who has come up from the University of Pennsylvania to be a handsome, black writer. Alas, he can’t hack the elevator-boy sort of jobs he must take in order to support himself, and declines, more out of petulance than pride, to use his connections within the black middle class. He also can’t stomach rejection from downtown magazines or criticism from editorial-prone Mary. “Don’t get excited Byron…. Unless such a story is written with an exquisite skill, it will read like a meretricious appeal to the emotions arising out of race prejudice.”
He escapes Mary and depression in poolrooms and cabarets, in gin and ginger ale, and rushes into the deadly talons of a legendary black adventuress. In leaving his high-minded world, he becomes just another common black criminal. “You’re just like all the others, you filthy Nigger kept boy.” Byron’s fate is harder than that of the heroes of Van Vechten’s other novels who give in to illicit desires, but those salon habitués do not, as Byron and the world he tries to hide in do, tote razors and guns.
Van Vechten’s reputation for knowing hot Harlem, along with the local color of the novel, made Nigger Heaven an immediate best seller. Ecstatic or sultry couples on the waxed floor, voices “raucous with passion,” “daddies” dressed to the nines on 137th Street, Fletcher Henderson’s band at fancy-dress balls—this news Van Vechten brought back to the reader from the other side of town. But Du Bois, and many other black critics, ridiculed Nigger Heaven. Du Bois compared its melodramatic picture of blacks unfavorably to the straight pathos of DuBose Heyward’s darkies of Porgy (1925), and recommended the sensationalism of the Police Gazette over Van Vechten’s “caricature” of Harlem night life. It was “an affront to the hospitality of black folk and to the intelligence of white.” Van Vechten later remarked that perhaps Du Bois was against a white writing about Harlem in the first place, but he was critical for similar reasons of the black writer Rudolph Fisher for his satire of Harlem’s class divisions in The Walls of Jericho (1928). Du Bois felt that writing about the underside of Harlem catered to white cravings for the “lewdness” of black life.
Nigger Heaven invited controversy also because of Van Vechten’s assent to the image of the black as sensual primitive. Mary wonders if “we” aren’t natural pagans, worries that she is a prig, admires “all Negro characteristics” and wants “earnestly to possess them.” (Here one misses the inspired meanness of Waugh.) But Van Vechten also has Mary’s bookcase filled with volumes by Cocteau and Gosse along with Jean Toomer’s Cane. A white novelist at his first black dinner party is impressed that intrepid Mary can recite “The Emperor of Ice Cream.” She isn’t one of the rootless, transplanted folk who have to make their way through men or menial work, as in Claude McKay.
In Van Vechten’s naive scheme a black who knew Paris was a exotic as a pusher, and provided the point for unspoken special pleading: Isn’t it awful that some of the people who love Brahms can’t drink at the Waldorf? He wanted it both ways: blacks were no different from whites, and yet they were, somehow, the more instinctive Other. “It is a little excessive to make such an arcanum of the Negro mind,” he wrote to Countee Cullen in 1925. “The distinction between white and colored psychology has been over-stressed.” But he didn’t see the contradiction in finding blacks “warmer.” In his romantic idea of Harlem, his doomed lovers are cut off from their supposed heritage of naturalness by their embrace of European culture. This unhappy, cultivated elite arouses his sense of racial injustice, but the bolito kings and prostitutes are like so many bright street lamps along the Seventh Avenue landscape, as if blacks were ruined by education, or only the educated few dwelled on segregation while the rest were contented.
The uprooted black was not Van Vechten’s subject. He was enamored of an urban class, the “dicty” black swells who imagined themselves to be terribly sophisticated, like himself. When he met Walter White in 1924 he noted that the NAACP secretary “speaks French and talks about Debussy and Proust in an offhand way. An entirely new kind of Negro for me.” His black friends were part of what Du Bois called the “Talented Tenth”: urbane writers like Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson, whom he asked to check his manuscript for authenticity. His down-home contacts were show-biz greats; they were “migrating peasants” of the New Negro movement only in the most spectacular sense. Van Vechten put into Nigger Heaven those blacks whom he had observed at close range. He was committed to his impressions of genteel and bohemian blacks and felt them like facts. His depiction of high Harlem getting down, of its frustrations, its resentment of other blacks as well as of whites, is more provocative than what he has to say about Harlem as a circus of sinners.
Nigger Heaven is like a collector’s showcase, with its black urban characters, a then unknown species, stuck on the lepidopterist’s paraffin. Where the novel fails as a portrait of Harlem, the community, it succeeds as a convincing picture of the Harlem Renaissance, the movement that innocently confused personal artistic expression with larger social gains. When Byron laments,
Try as he might, he could not get away from propaganda. The Negro problem seemed to hover over him and occasionally, like the great black bird that it was, claw at his heart,
Van Vechten was capturing an anxiety that contrasts sharply with much of the optimistic rhetoric of the Harlem Renaissance, which was proclaiming that the break with the stereotypes of the plantation tradition would usher in a new era of bold self-expression.
In Nigger Heaven, Byron Kasson is tormented by the “pretty-good-for-a-Negro” syndrome. His duty to the race, his being black, make it impossible for him to escape into society and save himself as an individual. Much of the dialogue about the gap that could not be closed by art is historically true. One of the young black professionals in Nigger Heaven shrewdly observes:
The policy of young colored intellectuals…is simply to adopt a mental attitude of equality and break the bars down gradually through the work of our artists…. They will be invited to white dinner parties, but I don’t see how that’s going to affect the rest of us.
But the Negro was in vogue and throughout the novel the point is made that Harlem is news. As if to justify himself, Van Vechten has Byron summoned to the office of Russett Durwood of the American Mars (H.L. Mencken and the American Mercury). Durwood turns down Byron’s short story with a lecture:
Why in hell don’t you write about something you know about?… [Harlem] is overrun with fresh, unused material…. But I find that Negroes don’t write about these matters; they continue to employ all the old clichés and formulas that have been worried to death by Nordic blonds who, after all, never did know anything about the subject from the inside. Well, if you young Negro intellectuals don’t get busy, a new crop of Nordics is going to spring up who will take the trouble to become better informed and will exploit this material before the Negro gets around to it.
Claude McKay in Home to Harlem was one of those who heeded Durwood’s warning. Many of the young black writers of the Negro awakening—Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Wallace Thurman—tried to find a way to write honestly about blacks as people, about their daily life, and not as a social problem, as a constituency that had to be spoken for. Wallace Thurman’s Infants of Spring (1932) reads like a bitter retort to Van Vechten’s insistence that Harlem was picturesque fresh, rich in idiom and vitality. Thurman’s roman à clef is far more savage about everything associated with the Harlem Renaissance: the optimism, the sense of mission of its young swells who, because they couldn’t be white, tried to be unusual blacks, its “Negrotarians” and hypocritical white do-gooders, the blacks who let themselves be patronized, and even the writing that came out of it all.
Though Thurman’s book is more cynical than Van Vechten’s eager laying out of information, they both treat similar issues. Infants of Spring and Nigger Heaven present characters who look down on spirituals, quote Langston Hughes, and then tremble with sarcasm about Harlem as the Mecca of blacks. The heroes of both novels brood about the difference between knowing that blacks are a good story and knowing how to write a good story about blacks. Such similarities and the underlying assumptions that there was something innately natural about blacks and something desperately transforming about high culture suggest that the limitations of Nigger Heaven stem not from Van Vechten’s being white but from the time itself. Van Vechten wrote at the height of the Harlem Renaissance in the hectic days of the New Negro’s newness, before the Depression and the revenge of the Old Negro, Bigger Thomas.
The reception of Nigger Heaven cast a shadow over the part Van Vechten played as a patron of black writers. He mounted publicity campaigns on behalf of black artists, and got many of them published, but his “ubiquitous” presence was taken by many as voyeurism, and he was blamed, in part, for the “exhibitionism” and “cultural paternalism” of the period. The debate over the extent and consequences of his influence continued for some time. Langston Hughes was moved to write in his autobiography that “to say that Van Vechten has harmed Negro creative activities is sheer poppycock.” But it seems that Van Vechten had a serious, though forgotten, rival in the white-father sweepstakes. Charles Scruggs argues persuasively in The Sage of Harlem: H.L. Mencken and the Black Writers of the 1920s1 that, for all his coon-baiting, Mencken, in opening up the pages of the Mercury, did more for black writers than Van Vechten. Mencken appealed to the black intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance because he knew what they knew, “that beneath the smug surface of American life was a core of rottenness.” The “boobus Americanus was a bird that they too might bring down.” Mencken did not have Van Vechten’s intuitive appreciation of black music, but about the need for satire among black writers and their place in the tradition of realism he could formulate a body of insightful comment that Van Vechten, as a gullible devotee of the modernist impulse, could not.
Van Vechten’s friendship with black writers continued long after the Harlem Renaissance shut down. But while he could joke with Langston Hughes that they had been through “so many new Negroes that we are a little tired of it all,” he took a dim view of Hughes’s revolutionary poems and his flirtation with communism. His dismissal of Richard Wright was unfortunate, though he admired Chester Himes, whose psychological realism derived from Wright. Thrilled by his ancient status as an honorary Negro, he may have taken more than his share of credit: “What we started has eventually progressed to James Baldwin.”
Perhaps Harlem seemed fresh to Van Vechten because he could move on, free of the web of accountability. He brought the same method of “intensive study” to Hollywood, but the besotted slapstick of his next novel, Spider Boy (1928), demonstrates that movie stars are more impenetrable than Negroes. Parties had always been primary research for Van Vechten. “It is the city of the Good Time—and the Good Time is there so sacred that you may be excused anything you do in searching for it,” Ford Madox Ford said in New York Is Not America (1927). Having a good time was the American adaptation of the importance of doing nothing. Van Vechten had seen every sort of party, from the swankest down to nice Rotarian ladies passed out in the gutters of Tijuana, but the absurdity he attempts in Parties (1930) is lost in the solemnity of the main characters, modeled on the Fitzgeralds, who are in deep mourning for the Good Time. “Have I stopped drinking so that I may capture some feeling of thought or shall I drink again to capture thought out of feeling? How exactly should I behave as a sober person?” In any event, Van Vechten inherited a fortune in the nick of time, stopped drinking, and stopped writing novels.
Still, gossip and opinions continued to pour out of him like suds from a drain-pipe. The letters, byproducts of his affectionate temperament and busy schedule, don’t compare to the letters of those other wayward beings and hard drinkers, Hart Crane and Fitzgerald, but then Van Vechten never really lost his way or had a bad morning. The letters are part of the record mostly because of the impressive number of famous people bathed in his stream of campy salutations. “Bright red strawberries to you, a robin, and a proud guitar.” Or: “151 mulatto gals with red hair and blue silk panties to you.”
Van Vechten could not stay away from the theater, the opera, concert halls, parties, and, for a while there, Harlem. His letters sometimes read like manic play-bills or short takes in the back pages, thanks to Bruce Kellner’s decision to present “the lover of the arts, the connoisseur,” the “informative” Van Vechten. “This selection makes no attempt to construct a personal biography,” Kellner says, which means that there are plenty of blank spaces and an acute, but not disagreeable, sense of the fleeting years passing by. One can travel in a night from “The Romanoffs, I gather, are lucky if they get spinach,” and Rhapsody in Blue, “the most effective concerto for piano” since Tchaikovsky’s B-flat major, to news that the Negroes in Four Saints in Three Acts “are divine, like El Grecos,” and on to what color of hostess is dancing with what color of soldier at the Stage Door Canteen, although by the time one disembarks at, say, Callas is a “badsinging slut,” one may be inclined to agree with Van Vechten: “Nothing would induce me to repeat even my own pleasant past.”
Spackled into the cracks are cuddly bulletins to the actress Fania Marinoff, Van Vechten’s patient wife of fifty years, although some ten thousand letters that he wrote every day to his friend Mark Lutz were destroyed by an obedient executor. Instead of extra love letters one wishes for the kind of thorough notes that Edward Burns made for the two-volume Stein–Van Vechten exchange.2 Van Vechten liked to say that he was the only friend whom Gertrude Stein did not fall out with—“I guess I did lead you into the Promised Land.” In his own case friends drop off, into the margins, some, like much-married Mabel Dodge, to be retrieved in later life—“I like being called an old fool”—others destined to remain been here and gone, as Zora Neale Hurston would say. Still, there was much to see, deaths to sadly note, wagons to fall off. Dissertationers became his doughboys. His own death brings down the curtain, but it is easy to imagine “Carlo” going on into another volume that might begin with him getting up after his one hundredth birthday bash to whip off a fan letter to Jessye Norman: “Dear Dark Continent….”
Van Vechten had been an avid collector since his boyhood of postage stamps, cigarette pictures of actresses, tobacco tags, and birds’ eggs. “Cataloging is an important part of my personality,” he said. He spent his last three decades as a photographer, lining up everyone from “Matisse to Isamo Noguchi.” The Museum of the City of New York has three hundred of his portraits of theatrical personalities, the MOMA has three hundred more of dancers. During the war he began to think about how best to preserve those things he cared for. The New York Public Library got his first editions of English writers; a collection of photographs found its way to the University of New Mexico and another made it to Howard University. The Sterling Memorial Library at Yale received his correspondence with the greats. He established a collection of cat literature and lore, a collection of books on fine arts, and another of black music at Fisk. In 1941 Van Vechten established at Yale the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of Negro Arts and Letters. He put enormous energy and labor into the project, down to tenderly packing up the material himself. This invaluable scholarly resource, not the novels, is his true memorial.
August 18, 1988