A guest post this week from the City Museum’s Curator of Architecture and Design, Donald Albrecht.
Earlier this year, Farrar, Straus and Giroux published Edward White’s book The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America. Little known today, Van Vechten was a prolific novelist, critic, photographer, and promoter of all things modern, most actively engaged in the city’s cultural life during the 1920s and ‘30s. The City Museum is rich in Van Vechten materials; its collections include about 2,200 photographs taken by him and 3,000 Christmas cards sent to him and his wife, film and theater actress Fania Marinoff. Taken together, they chronicle Van Vechten’s influential circles of friends and colleagues—a hybrid mash-up that defines the modern America at the heart of White’s new book. Images and correspondence in the City Museum’s collection range from Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes to writer Zelda Fitzgerald (wife of F. Scott), and playwright Eugene O’Neill.
Carl Van Vechten was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1880. After graduating from the University of Chicago in 1903, Van Vechten worked as a newspaper journalist, moving on to loftier cultural horizons—New York—in 1906. His journalism career in the city involved important stints at the city’s newspapers, including the New York Times. He served as a music and dance critic who promoted cutting-edge personalities and trends, as well as a correspondent in Paris, where he met Gertrude Stein. (In the 1930s Van Vechten would help realize the American premiere of the opera Four Saints in Three Acts, written by Stein with music by Virgil Thomson.) Through his job at the Times, Van Vechten also met Mabel Dodge, whose fashionable Greenwich Village gatherings of leading artists and writers Van Vechten soon joined. Inspired by Dodge, Van Vechten created his own salon of luminaries at his and Marinoff’s Upper West Side apartment. Though they competed for the title of “most avant-garde trailblazer” over the years, Dodge and Van Vechten remained friends, even after Dodge relocated from New York to Taos, New Mexico, after World War I.
Around 1920 Van Vechten gave up journalism for fiction and over the next decade wrote hotly debated novels about Jazz Age Manhattan. His 1923 book The Blind Bow-Boy, for example, is a classic of gay camp and a public expression of Van Vechten’s sexual orientation; while he and Marinoff were married from 1914 until Van Vechten’s death in 1964, he had numerous homosexual relationships. In 1926, Van Vechten wrote his most controversial novel, the provocatively titled Nigger Heaven, which grew out of his experiences as a promoter of many African-American artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Van Vechten’s role in the Harlem Renaissance remains a controversial topic. To some he’s a valuable bridge between white and black New Yorkers, to others he’s an outsider who patronized and exploited his African-American subjects. Parties, Van Vechten’s last novel, was published in 1930, a year after the Stock Market Crash. His literary swansong, it is a paean to his time, according to a New Yorker profile, at the epicenter of the city’s “unbuttoned bohemian life.”
Carl Van Vechten abandoned writing altogether in the early 1930s and embraced photography, a field he would pursue until his death. All told, it is estimated that Van Vechten took some 15,000 photographs. Because his inherited wealth offered him financial independence, Van Vechten took pictures for his own pleasure, usually inviting local and visiting celebrities to a studio he set up in his own apartment. While Van Vechten was aware of the stylistic artifice of such contemporary commercial photographers as Edward Steichen and Cecil Beaton, he stood apart from them. He used a small-format camera, and his aesthetic, which included deep and dramatic shadows that sometimes obscured his subjects’ faces, resulted in picture-making that was far more immediate and spontaneous than that of his contemporaries. Using this technique, Van Vechten photographed musicians Billie Holiday and George Gershwin, Hollywood actors Laurence Olivier and Anna May Wong, and writers Sinclair Lewis and Clifford Odets, to name only a few. The sum of Van Vechten’s work, according to photography historian Keith F. Davis, “constitutes the single most integrated vision of American arts and letters produced in his era.”
All images used with permission from the Van Vechten Trust.