Carl Van Vechten was a polymath whose various careers included music and dance critic, novelist, essayist and portrait photographer.
An inveterate enthusiast who was tirelessly social, a great host and raconteur, he knew everyone who was anyone in the arts of his time and promoted the careers of Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Ethel Waters, Paul Robeson and other writers and performers of the Harlem Renaissance. He also helped cement Gertrude Stein’s status as a major cultural figure and eventually became her literary executor. His substantial contribution as a cultural impresario would seem to have guaranteed him a measure of immortality but, unlike, say, H. L. Mencken (who was born in 1880, as he was) and Edmund Wilson (who was 15 years younger), he is almost unknown now. Why?
Edward White, author of the new biography “The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), has some ideas. “To me, probably the best reason is that he doesn’t really fit into what’s become the established narrative of the Twenties,” White says. “He was such a contradictory figure. He’s this kind of semi-out gay man, but married [he was married twice, and his second marriage, to actress Fania Marinoff, lasted 50 years]. His novels are sort of this strange concoction of up-to-date themes, but his prose style is obviously indebted to people like Oscar Wilde, and he loves the decadent movement of Europe of the 1890s. If you compare his writing to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s — he was part of the same social world — it just seems odd, just really weird. There’s no way to fit him into the established canon; he roves around too much.”
Van Vechten, who grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, came from a family of successful businessmen, and he never lacked self-confidence. He was also a lifelong dandy. When he decided to become a journalist, after graduating from the University of Chicago, his career quickly took off. He began working at the Chicago American, a Hearst newspaper, but before long, he had moved to New York and joined the staff of The New York Times. There, he became an assistant music critic, then Paris correspondent and later a dance critic. He went on to publish nine collections of essays, beginning with “Music After the Great War” in 1915 and “Music and Bad Manners” in 1916, and seven novels, starting with “Peter Wiffle: His Life and Works” in 1922 and “The Blind Bow-Boy” in 1923, and the latter became a bestseller.
“His music essays are the best kind of creative work he did,” White says. “They are astonishingly farsighted and brilliant. There are essays about Stravinsky, Nijinsky and Strauss, essays about Bessie Smith, blues and jazz. They are urgent and alive and streets ahead of what other music critics were writing at the time.”
Van Vechten became obsessed with the cultural contributions of African-Americans during the Twenties, and he did everything he could to promote the work of black artists. It was he, for instance, who introduced Hughes to Alfred and Blanche Knopf, who published his first book, a collection of poetry called “The Weary Blues.” White writes, “Van Vechten’s work as a publicist and dealmaker was one of the furnaces that fueled the Harlem Renaissance. When the theater producer Caroline Dudley wanted to export to Paris the sort of black stage entertainment that was all the rage in New York, it was to Van Vechten she turned for advice.” The result: the Paris revue that launched the career of Josephine Baker; he was a consultant on the production.
After he was 50, when he inherited a substantial estate from his brother, a successful banker, and became financially independent, Van Vechten took most of the portrait photographs of famous writers and performers for which he is best known today.
Throughout his life, Van Vechten had sexual and romantic relationships with men. “He’s living at a time when it’s nigh-on impossible to state boldly his opinion on that kind of thing,” White says. “There’s lot of coding in the novels, and in the essays about it. He writes very playfully about it. I get the sense that he was strikingly untroubled about his attraction to men in a way that I think many of his close friends were not.”
White admits to feeling some ambivalence about his subject. “I would love to go for a drink with Carl Van Vechten, but he can be difficult to like, extraordinarily selfish and self-centered,” he says. “He wasn’t particularly kind to his wife. He was capable of the most stunning generosity, at the same time as he often goes out of his way to insult people. His motto in life is that one should only do ‘what one is forced by nature to do.’ That line appears in one of his novels. He doesn’t really care what other people want from him. In that sense, he is a difficult man.”
Until the end of his life, White points out, Van Vechten, who died at 84 in 1964, maintained his interest in cultural currents. “He never stopped being excited about new things,” his biographer says. “He liked Philip Roth; thought he was terrific. He loved being in the thick of whatever the new thing was. For example, he suddenly gets an obsession with airplanes, and any chance he gets, he gets on an airplane. And when he got excited about things, he’d make these strange barking noises.”