Can a white person ever truly know what black life and black culture are all about? Is it possible to bridge the complexities that both divide and unite black and white Americans? In a year when the Republicans are waging a thinly veiled racist campaign against America’s first black president — and the institutional gay movement seems to so ignore the needs and preoccupations of queers of color — these are questions of burning immediacy and ones gay Americans urgently need to confront.
The life and work of Carl Van Vechten stand as a beacon of light to those truly committed to grappling with these issues. An important and engrossing new book, “Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black and White,” published by Yale University Press, explains and defends his crucial role as a white man who spent most of his life exploring and promoting black culture as a patron and co-conspirator of many of America’s most significant and important African-American intellectuals and artists.
This superb book comes from the pen of a distinguished African-American scholar, Emily Bernard, a University of Vermont professor of English and of Ethnic Studies who has devoted herself to studying the Harlem Renaissance and, in particular, Van Vechten’s catalytic role in its flowering. One of her previous books, “The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten,” was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.
Although he is remembered today by most people as a brilliant portrait photographer, Van Vechten, who died in 1964 at the age of 84, was also an influential intellectual who happened to be queer. Although he was twice married to women — once briefly and the second time to the Russian-born actress Fania Marinoff, for 50 years until his death — his sexual orientation was overwhelmingly toward men, something of which he made little secret. Marinoff, who knew and accepted many of Van Vechten’s male lovers, once explained the longevity of their marriage by saying that they’d found “a sense of humor better than separate apartments.”
Van Vechten was a journalist, a critic of music, theater, dance, and literature, and a novelist and essayist as well as a lifelong passionate photographer.
A product of the American heartland, Van Vechten was the son of a well-to-do family in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. His father, who endowed a school for poor black children, inculcated the principles of racial equality in him as a young boy, instructing him to always address the family’s black employees as “Mr.” and “Mrs.” in an era in which few white people did so.
After graduating from the University of Chicago, Van Vechten moved to New York, becoming the assistant music critic at the Times, and later becoming its first modern dance critic during the heyday of Isadora Duncan. He took a yearlong sabbatical in 1907 to study opera — another of his lifelong passions — in Europe. On another European trip, in 1913, he met Gertrude Stein, who became a lifelong friend. Van Vechten helped get her works published, and at her death she named him as her literary executor.
By the time he published his first novel, “Peter Whiffle,” in 1922 — which became a bestseller and insured his celebrity — he had already published eight books of essays on music, theater, dance, and literature, and was a well-known and respected critic.
Witty, irreverent, and satiric in his first novels, he was quite daring for his time in the way he evoked homosexuality, portraying the gay bohemian world in which he moved and lived. His second novel, “The Blind Bow-Boy,” published in 1923, tells the story of a lad who, rebelling against his censorious father, leaves his wife of two weeks to move to Europe with “the Duke of Middlebottom,” whose stationery is embossed with the slogan, “A thing of beauty is a boy forever.”
By 1920, Van Vechten had become an advocate for black artists, and in widely discussed articles for Vanity Fair he described the virtues of spirituals, ragtime, blues, and jazz, calling them “the only authentic” American music.
Harlem’s swinging nightlife in the 1920s was a magnet for white people and especially for homosexuals, where they found a live-and-let-live acceptance unavailable elsewhere. (See, for example, gay historian Eric Garber’s article, “Spectacle in Color: The Lesbian and Gay Subculture in Jazz Age Harlem,” available online at tinyurl.co
In 1919, Van Vechten began a long-term relationship with Donald Angus, a 19-year-old lover of opera, who regularly accompanied the writer to nightclubs and parties in Harlem. Even after the intensity of their sexual relationship had cooled, Angus remained a close friend, not only of Van Vechten but also of his wife, until her death.
Van Vechten also had a sustained relationship with Mark Lutz, a journalist based in Virginia, with whom he exchanged daily letters for 33 years. He had one other long-lasting affair, with Saul Mauriber, a decorator and designer who eventually became the lighting assistant for Van Vechten’s photography work.
In the ‘20s, Van Vechten championed the writers of what was at times called the “The New Negro” movement, so named from the title of the first anthology of Harlem Renaissance writers edited by Alain Locke. Many of these writers were queer, including not just Locke but also Hughes (perhaps the most closeted), the novelist Claude McKay, the poet Countee Cullen, the novelist Wallace Thurman, short story writer Bruce Nugent, the journalist, playwright, and poet Angela Weld Grimke, and the journalist and poet Alice Dunbar Nelson, all of whom fell somewhere on the LGBT spectrum.
Van Vechten excelled in the art of friendship and became “addicted” (his word) to black people. The range and number of his black friendships is quite extraordinary, as is the number of black writers for whom he secured publishers. He was close friends with Alfred A. Knopf, the proprietor of New York’s preeminent literary publishing house, and served as an unofficial scout for black literature he then persuaded Knopf to publish. Van Vechten also frequently served as a literary counselor to the New Negro writers, who sought him out for his always-frank appraisals of their manuscripts and often followed his suggestions for improvement.
“Without this white man, Hughes may not have emerged as the celebrated black poet he came to be,” Bernard writes; his first book of poems, “The Weary Blues,” was published by Knopf thanks to Van Vechten.
His closest friends also included the hugely important James Weldon Johnson, a writer, poet, diplomat, and civil rights leader. A pallbearer at Johnson’s funeral, he created the James Weldon Johnson Collection of black memorabilia and literature at Yale University, which began with Van Vechten’s own considerable collection of materials relating to black culture. Van Vechten also created a committee to have a statue in memory of Johnson erected at the north end of Central Park where Harlem begins. The plan involved an extraordinarily moving work by the talented black sculptor Richmond Barthé — a photo of which appears in Bernard’s book — but the plan was delayed, then killed, by Parks Commissioner Robert Moses because it represented a nude black man.
Walter White, the brilliant NAACP leader in the 1930s and 1940s, was another close lifelong friend. Van Vechten’s parties and other gatherings brought together so many black and white people to forward the Negro cause that White called Van Vechten’s spacious apartment on West 55th Street “the mid-town office of the NAACP.” Bernard writes, “Van Vechten was a genius, using his parties for a brand of ‘social work’ that not only helped secure support for black artists but also helped break down racial barriers in essential, impersonal ways, an achievement which legal changes simply cannot accomplish.”
Another Van Vechten intimate was the novelist, short story writer, and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, who said, “He has bawled me out more than anyone else I know; he has not been one of those white ‘friends of the Negro’ who seeks to earn it cheaply by being eternally complimentary… If Carl was a people instead of a person, I could then say, ‘these are my people.’”
Bernard writes that Van Vechten “single-handedly jump-started what would become the magnificent career of the singer and actor Paul Robeson,” whom Van Vechten met and heard sing at a party at Walter White’s. It was Van Vechten who arranged for Robeson’s first public concert, which took place at the Greenwich Village Theater. Van Vechten and Robeson’s wife, Essie, “conspired together to build Robeson’s career, and she became particularly close to Van Vechten,” writes Bernard. Robeson wrote to Van Vechten, “It was you who made me sing,” and thanked him for his “unselfish interest” in his career.
A lifelong close friend was the singer and actress Ethel Waters, who used to sign her letters to Van Vechten “your native mama.” In 1939, when Waters was appearing on Broadway in the play “Mamba’s Daughters,” Van Vechten paid for an ad in the New York Times extolling her “superb” performance as “a magnificent example of great acting.” The tribute was co-signed by a raft of celebrities harvested by Van Vechten, including Tallulah Bankhead, Dorothy Gish, Judith Anderson, Burgess Meredith, Oscar Hammerstein, Cass Canfield, and more.
It was at Van Vechten’s parties that Waters and other black talents met such luminaries as Eugene O’Neill, Cole Porter, Somerset Maughm, and the journalist Heywood Broun. Waters once said Van Vechten “was credited at the time with knowing more about Harlem than any other white man except the captain of the Harlem police station.”
As a Harlem “insider,” Van Vechten put what he had learned into what he called his “only serious novel,” the 1928 “Nigger Heaven.” The book was Van Vechten’s celebration of Harlem, warts and all, but its title, which the author used ironically, raised hackles — even though he quoted “Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro” by the folklorist Newbell Niles Puckett to make the point that “Nigger Heaven is slang for the topmost gallery of a theater,” to which black audience members were often relegated.
W.E.B. DuBois led the charge against Van Vechten for his use of the N-word, calling him an author of “depravity” for portraying the often queer realities of Harlem nightlife. Like many writers in the Communist Party orbit, DuBois, somewhat prudish, was also homophobic, viewing same-sex love as a product of capitalist decadence. The fact that his protégé Augustus Granville Dill, the distinguished business manager of the Crisis, the NAACP’s magazine of which DuBois was then editor-in-chief, had recently seen his career destroyed after an arrest for soliciting sex in a public men’s room may have deepened DuBois’s poisonous attitude toward Van Vechten.
Some blacks protested against the book even though, as Bernard relates, they’d never read it. She quotes Mos Def on why and how blacks today use the N-word — “to take the sting out of it” — just as Van Vechten and his black friends did, much the way many gays today use the word queer.
But the novel’s realistic portrayal of Harlem life had many black defenders, too. James Weldon Johnson, in his review, found the book “a piece of pro-Negro propaganda,” writing that “if the book has a thesis, it is Negroes are people: they have the same emotions, the same passions, the same shortcomings, the same aspirations, the same graduations of social status of other people.”
And, in the middle of the controversy over the novel, Thurman, then the managing editor of the Messenger, a radical black newspaper founded by the great socialist labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph, predicted that one day black people would “erect a statue in Van Vechten’s honor at the corner of 135th Street and Seventh Avenue, the heart of Harlem, once they got over the sting of the title.”
“Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance” does not pretend to be a full-scale biography of the man, although Bernard is such a skilled writer she vividly brings him to life in her meticulously researched pages.
The only full-scale biography of Van Vechten, written by Bruce Kellner in 1968, is unsatisfactory, particularly regarding his queerness. Kellner did not have access to what Van Vechten called his “scrapbooks,” 20 boxes of which were given to Yale on condition they remain sealed until 25 years after his death. Parts of the scrapbooks are frankly pornographic, and they also contain newspaper clippings pasted in with Van Vechten’s accompanying sassy comments written on them. Judging by the pages Bernard reproduces in her book, the scrapbooks can be compared to the work of Boyd McDonald in their feisty, unapologetic queerness.
Bernard is, as far as I know, the first scholar to mine this treasure trove of sexual frankness, but only in passing — there is still much work on Van Vechten left for a dedicated and enterprising younger gay scholar now that these papers are available. Bernard treats only fleetingly the relationship between Van Vechten’s same-sex orientation and his art, work, and life choices, and the ways in which his “outsider” status as a queer influenced his sympathy for another oppressed minority. Any takers out there?
Despite its limitations, Bernard’s book is a remarkable contribution to our understanding of the emergence of both modernism and black culture, and it rescues Van Vechten from an obscurity this courageous, iconoclastic rebel does not merit.
In the 1920s, Van Vechten began photographing “every notable Negro” he could corral into sitting for him, and the reproductions of some of his portrait work, which spanned many decades, in Bernard’s book enhance our understanding of the beauty this white man found, and captured, in portraying blackness. His photos of Bessie Smith are the most revealing and sensitive I’ve ever seen of this great lady.
At a dinner party a few years ago, I heard a well-known black writer known for a certain homophobia dismiss Van Vechten with a sneer as “nothing more than a Negrophiliac size queen.” But this was reductio ad absurdum. Bernard shows us he was so much more than that. Not only was Van Vechten a caring enabler of modern black art, he was, as well, a living testimony that it is possible to cross the great racial divide in America. Since this nation will soon be populated by a majority of non-whites, this is something imperative for us, too, to learn to do.
CARL VAN VECHTEN AND THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE: A PORTRAIT IN BLACK AND WHITE | Yale University Press | By Emily Bernard | $30 | 358 pages