IN AN ESSAY about Robert Mapplethorpe, Edmund White notes that his subject, a white photographer famous for introducing certain explicit images of black men into the erotic canon, has in this endeavor “sometimes been compared to the white ethnographic photographer of the last century, the very symbol of exploitation.” Yet photography, White reminds us, “by its very nature objectifies,” that “the French word for ‘lens’ is objectif.” Whoever takes a photograph is in some way responsible for the image, but there is also the likelihood of an image at some point becoming document: outliving its initial context, far past the photographer’s own death, and the season of his intent.
Among the many things that Carl Van Vechten is halfway famous for — along with fiction writing, criticism, fan-girling, and erotic scrapbooking — are a series of portraits he took in the 1930s, images somehow both glossy and remarkably straightforward. The lush, angular lighting of Sternberg frames faces that Sternberg himself would never have attempted to capture on film. They are often black faces: Bessie Smith, Zora Neale Hurston, Bill Robinson, Maidie Norman. They are beautiful images that become complicated by a deeper knowledge of their author, a man whose commitment to black culture was both progressive, as he saw it, and stunted, as we see now, both ahead of its time and strangely dated. His work in photography was something Ralph Ellison would sum up, ungenerously, as “the photo-castration of a few so-called poets.”
This year sees one of the first formal attempts to tell Van Vechten’s curious story in summary, with Edward White’s The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America, which puts forward the case for Van Vechten as a progressive, though backward, almost accidentally political product of his time, a man whose legacy remains stubbornly two-faced. Historically, he has been a problematic figure, about and around whom it is difficult to develop a balanced, accurate vocabulary. The contradictions that define the case are simply too distracting. How to even talk about him? Did the man who routinely used a slur as a provocative spark word to sell books — his own, in Nigger Heaven, and Ronald Firbank’s, which he retitled Prancing Nigger — help more to point fingers at a racist culture, or affirm it? How could someone whose passion for integration and black culture in a time of systematic segregation be guided by a belief in, even a desire for, a concept of intrinsic racial difference? How do we understand someone who was such a distinct part of the problem to which he fancied himself a sort of solution? Van Vechten’s former biographer Emily Bernard puts it as succinctly as anyone can in saying that he “symbolizes a problem, yet he was also a person.”
Personhood is a good thing to keep in mind. He was from the first a professional dilettante, with “a gift for recognizing and expressing the ineffable brilliance of an artist and a moment of performance and, in so doing, binding himself to their greatness,” White writes: he helped bring a number of important figures to great prominence in America, including Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein, Nella Larsen, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ronald Firbank. His own artistic style was patchwork, chatty, largely borrowed. It was in his opinions about art that he was able to be distinct, hence Dorothy Parker’s jibe about him speaking as if he had “his tongue in someone else’s cheek.” He had nothing to declare, it seems, but other people’s genius.
More importantly, even in his boldest moments he gives the sense of having been more a contrary presence in his world than a particularly challenging or daring one. He was both a critic and an optimist, critical mainly of what he (and everyone else) saw as a boorish American resistance to artistic culture, yet excited about the future of the country he was in, faithful to it, and disappointed in the slow and hesitant tendencies of an American society struggling against an almost crippling self-consciousness. He was a man who needed to get out of Paris in order to be a true modernist.
The tug of war between American roots and European influences is an important theme in the story of his life, even preceding his birth. As Dutch immigrants in the 1600s, the Van Vechtens were “pulled toward America rather than pushed from Europe,” having settled, by 1880, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. There, Carl was born into a culture that saw the arts as “feminine concerns, while healthy American boys were expected to have the backwoodsman at their core.” Van Vechten’s obsessions were rarely passive, and he seemed to be driven early on toward action by his passion for art, specifically dance, which created “a socially acceptable means of publicly admiring the male body.” His interest in this confluence of art and “sin” led him to the “American Eden” of Chicago to study, and later, under the aegis of the Hearst empire, to become a journalist. By 1906, he’d relocated to New York to work as a staff reporter for The New York Times, where he distinguished himself, albeit in a series of uncredited reviews, as an assistant music critic. One of his first overtly political acts was to write a defensive essay of Strauss’s opera of Salome that played at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1907. Wilde’s play still courted controversy at that time, with the opera’s star Olive Fremstad going so far as to try and distance Wilde himself from the story, calling Salome “the worst sort of degenerate,” whom “Strauss makes something more of her at the last” while “Wilde” in the original text, “tells me nothing.” Van Vechten of course stood up for Wilde, emphasizing the importance of the ways in which Salome “emphatically challenged a long-standing assumption that the purpose of art should be to venerate goodness.”
When the Times promoted him to the post of Paris correspondent later on in 1907, he lasted just long enough to get insulted by the amazingly lowbrow popular novelist Elinor Glyn, who, on being introduced to Van Vechten, and later learning that he was American, told him that “It isn’t your fault that you haven’t centuries of breeding behind you.” After being pulled back by the Times, he returned to New York in 1909, just in time to catch Alfred Stieglitz’s showing of Matisse at 291, as well as one of Isadora Duncan’s early performances, which he would not have been allowed to review had the primary music critic not considered dance performances beneath him to review.
He didn’t return to Paris until four years later, this time with letters of introduction from his friend Mabel Dodge, who despite having led an influential salon in the States for the past few years, maintained ties in Europe with expatriates like Gertrude Stein, and considered America to be a place incapable of producing anything resembling great art, all “machinery and money-making and factories — it is ugly, ugly, ugly!” He admired what he saw as her “trick” of “bringing together incongruous groups of people” to create a salon-like environment of discussion and ribaldry — a talent Van Vechten would come to possess in his later years as a New York host whose parties were famously, and unlike most salons of the day, integrated. It was Dodge who had introduced Van Vechten to Stein, then still unknown in the States, with whom he developed a long, doting acquaintanceship, publishing a laudatory review of her work in the financial section of the Times before having physically met her. In 1913 he met her in the flesh, and they went together to the second performance of The Rite of Spring, after which he wrote a review claiming that they had attended the first, “using the mythology of Le Sacre Du Printemps to furnish his own” in a wild review that was more fiction than fact.
Creative nonfiction gave way to fiction as Van Vechten took the opportunity of the First World War to become a serious writer. Having left Europe at the onset of the conflict (in what Dodge felt to be an “inexcusable act of cowardice”), he published his first book on home turf, a collection of essays called Music After the Great War, the leading essay of which, titled “War Is Not Hell,” made the controversial case for war as a sort of purifying cultural exercise, something with the power to “destroy dilettantism and the spirit of imitation” as well as “religions,” “the domination of Things,” “system,” and “formulae.” If there is a self-consciousness about the controversy of such opinions as expressed in “War Is Not Hell,” it is a self-consciousness shared by the American culture of the time, still struggling to develop a cultural person, and still very much taunted by a feeling of inferiority to the European culture of which its best works were still considered an imitation. It was a complex that Van Vechten’s written works, always just on the cusp of true stylistic innovation, seemed to thrive on.
After the book of essays his literary output became something steadier, taking a while to hit its stride in 1922 with Peter Whiffle, a fictional biography a la Max Beerbohm’s Seven Men, a sort of fictional comment on the artistic life. Says Whiffle to Van Vechten (as a character in his own novel) “I have tried to do too much and that is why, perhaps, I have done nothing. I wanted to write a new Comédie Humaine. Instead, I have lived it.” 1923 saw the publication of the very campy The Blind-Bow Boy, whose publication led Sinclair Lewis to remark that Van Vechten had proved New York to be “as sophisticated as any foreign capital.”
Yet “European,” in his mind, as in the minds of most Americans of this period, was still synonymous with “culture,” infusing his intense interest in American blackness with a strange brand of contradiction. He became excited, after meeting the novelist Walter White, to find a black man who “speaks French and talks about Debussy and Marcel Proust.” Emily Bernard suggests that the confluence of Van Vechten’s early interest in black culture had more to do with exoticization and sexuality, “with what he perceived as black primitivism,” his interest was “matched by his conviction that blackness was a central feature of Americanness, hardly a popular perspective during his lifetime.”
The Harlem Renaissance, and his internal-yet-peripheral involvement in it, still had “the curious effect of both dismantling and reinforcing his stereotypes of black people.” It was never more clearly evidenced than his controversially titled (then as now) Nigger Heaven in 1925, a novel which alienated and confused many friends and led some to see “in Van Vechten’s mania for blackness a ghostly shadow of the blackface tradition.” His desire, openly stated, was to expose white readers to a sense of black life, and all the while his sexuality — his own brand of otherness — remained a very open secret. He married his second wife, the actress Fania Marinoff, following the divorce from his first in 1912, in what was initially a passionate union full of love letters in which Van Vechten would refer to his penis as “Tom-Tom.” By 1918, White notes, all references to “Tom-Tom” had disappeared from their correspondence.
By the time he took up photography in 1932, he seemed to have refined his own way of seeing, for better or worse. The medium was, to him, “a quintessential modern art, combining technology, spectacle, and glamour,” and was the only artistic endeavor he undertook that had a style that was something more than imitation.
White sees his late relationship to photography as, partly, an exercise in control. At the moment life began to be unstable, with friends dying and the cultural landscape changing, photography allowed him “complete power; moments in time could be frozen forever.” But one never gets the sense of an absence of power in learning about this person who was so able to flow with the tide and even fancied himself ahead of it. Or even a desire for it.
In the end, we have a feel for how controlling Van Vechten was and wanted to be — over his work and other people’s, over the broader culture, over his own legacy — though we don’t get a feeling that power was ever something he consciously sought. Control was simply something he had in contrast to the people he surrounded himself with, people over whom he felt a need to exercise a sort of messiah complex. A famous illustration from the ’30s by his friend, entitled “A Prediction,” depicts Van Vechten’s metamorphosis into a black man. He was proud of the drawing and interested in the concept — which says a bit about the problematic nature of his relationship to race and ideas of blackness. He didn’t quite grasp that what differences exist between varying cultures within the same country come out of lived experience rather than anything innate. He was a man in search of fundamental differences, excited by the concept of difference, yet somehow unaware of the varying shapes and forms of it. “Is positing the notion of racial difference in itself fundamentally racist,” White asks, “or is it a greater act of intolerance to reduce the uniqueness of racial groups by suggesting they all are essentially the same?”
If Van Vechten’s own homosexuality was something he embraced, it was still not, it seems something that made him feel closer to the concept of a true American identity. His own otherness was not exciting enough to him as another sort of canvas on which to project his fantasies about how true otherness — even modernity — should look, and what it should mean. Queerness is a version of identity that is, in its way, intrinsic, hard-wired, yet internal and easily disguised. What excited him about things that were considered taboo and daring was how they manifested themselves visually — how they read. He wanted the idea of racial difference to be true — as a concept he seemed to find it artistic in the context of American identity. His desire was to designate meaning to things that proved too stubbornly out of his control Powerful, then, falls into the broad category of things Van Vechten was not, along with tragic, vindictive, or even fully aware of his motives, at least where his interest in equality was concerned. White refers to Van Vechten’s work establishing cultural archives for Yale and Fisk Universities as having been, possibly, “the first and last overtly political act of his life.”
There seems to be a space between selfishness, awareness, and political motivation that he finally occupied, and when we are left at the end with an image of Van Vechten clinging to a bunch of scrapbooks he’d made throughout his life, a handpicked collection of gay erotica and minutiae which he told a friend that he wanted to hold onto until his death, it’s a moving, small, and sad image: an old man clinging to something whose level of importance, in the face of all his other accomplishments, is understated and unclear, like a sort of Rosebud. What were the scrapbooks if not a, for once, personal version of what he felt himself able to do with his life, the only thing the critic is really able to do, picking up on and arranging facts and images together on a page which may or may not have a deeper relationship to one another. In the final, magpie-like exercise of his life, what was he aware of doing? Was he documenting, or scrapbooking? Was it for posterity, or masturbation? Both could be equally valid in Van Vechten’s case, a case of even the most personal aspects and details of life gaining the status of artifact in the enduring struggle to decode someone who still, stubbornly and fascinatingly, refuses to allow himself to be explained away after so many years.
Henry Giardina is a freelance writer living in New York. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, New York Magazine and The Believer, among other publications.