IN 1900, as a member of the fraternity Psi Upsilon at the University of Chicago, 19-year-old Carl Van Vechten became unusually enamored of the fraternity’s housekeeper, a 40ish black woman with the unforgettable name of Desdemona Sublett. Fresh off the train from Cedar Rapids, Van Vechten would listen to Desdemona Sublett pray as she dusted and scrubbed. Her prayers were not mumbled or cryptic incantations but, as Edward White describes them in The Tastemaker, his new biography of Van Vechten, “the loud, uninhibited tones of her evangelical faith.” Van Vechten, a culturally ravenous lad eager to make Iowa a memory, had been taught racial parity by his mother and father, both of whom were progressives committed to civil rights. Van Vechten’s rather Iowan idea of Christianity was demure, humble, shackled to restraint. Desdemona Sublett, on the other hand — she struck the wide-eyed frat boy as an inebriated dervish. As White tells it: “It was her performance that excited him: the passion she summoned to enliven the mundane events of her everyday life. No white person he knew ever did this.”
Those two sentences contain the quiddity of Carl Van Vechten: life was a performance, the very act of living aspired to art, excitement and passion counted above all else, the dull and mundane were not to be endured. A votary of Oscar Wilde, Van Vechten believed, in true Wildean fashion, that dullness was the only unpardonable sin, and he couldn’t help but see that most dullards were white. He began escorting Sublett to social events in the Black Belt, a constellation of African-American neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side. If you have any skepticism about how original, how downright peculiar, Van Vechten was, do a quick survey of all the bourgeois, Midwestern white boys who gladly skip college parties to escort middle-aged black women to church functions at which they’re the only moon-faced ones in attendance. In Chicago’s African-American community, in the many theaters and nightclubs of the Black Belt, Van Vechten witnessed a sodality and hot-bloodedness he’d not seen before — the people matched perfectly his sense of cultural subversion, his rebel’s want of a social storm to jar the masses from their antiquated and yawnful notions of human behavior.
Ambitious for literature and theater, for art and dance and music, Van Vechten would soon abandon Chicago for New York — this was his destiny, he knew — where he’d become the patron, the facilitator, of black artists, writers, and musicians including Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, and Zora Neale Hurston, who once said of Van Vechten, “If Carl was a people instead of a person, I could then say, these are my people.” The Harlem Renaissance as we know it could not have happened without him. But the question we are inevitably confronted with when considering Van Vechten’s relationship to blackness is the question Emily Bernard asks at the start of her valuable 2012 study Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: Was he “a racial voyeur and sexual predator, an acolyte of primitivism” no better than those “white pleasure seekers” who infiltrated the “mecca of exotica” that was Harlem? Was he a slummer?
Put another way: was he guilty of fetishizing blacks, of aligning romance and exotica with the most squalid of impulses? Because fetishizing human beings is no different from objectifying them, and the apprehension of people as objects festers at the core of every bigot. Edward White is clearly titillated by Van Vechten — it’s impossible not to be — but he rightly has no patience for that sordid quadrant of his character that saw black Americans as noble savages enslaved to their every sexed-up urge. White describes him variously as “perverse,” “patronizing,” “callous,” “idiotic,” “egocentric,” “childlike,” and “childish.” Van Vechten’s faultless taste was partially contaminated by his tasteless faults, and if there’s such a thing as racial love indistinguishable from bigotry, Van Vechten embodied it.
Emily Bernard maintains that “white interest in Harlem created the central paradox of the Harlem Renaissance,” and it’s true that Van Vechten thrived on paradox, on antinomy and inversion, anything that might zap the rabble from their exhausted opinions. He had zero interest in the political importance of what he undertook, but rather was impelled solely by his ego’s passion for the aesthetic, by the possibility of excitement. You might be tempted to blame such egocentrism and absence of political concern on his era, except that others of his era understood, for example, that the tremendous calamity of the first World War made art and high-society bacchanals look somewhat beside the point. Reading Van Vechten’s essays and journals, you can get the rather queasy feeling that he considered the war a theatrical event devised for his viewing and for the advancement of artistic assertion, just as it’s simple to suspect that he considered black people a canvas on which he could paint his own passions. He seems everywhere to have believed that charm was the only trait worth having.
(This might be the spot to mention Van Vechten’s grotesque teeth, jagged and enormous, described by his friend Mable Dodge as the teeth of a “wild boar.” His first biographer, Bruce Kellner, said Van Vechten resembled “a genial walrus.” You won't see a photo of Van Vechten in which his lips aren't clamped over his fangs, as if he's trying to hold water in his mouth. If you aren’t burdened by a physical deformity — in your face, no less — you could underestimate how that deformity influences everything from your handkerchief and handshake to your character and charisma. In his 1922 novel Peter Whiffle, Van Vechten declares: “Charm always kills ugliness.” That “always” might be a stretch; not everyone was coerced by his charm. Kellner tells the story of how the incomparable Dorothy Parker, no shabby study of character, once ducked into the men’s room at a hotel in order to avoid seeing Van Vechten.)
It’s indeed difficult to define Carl Van Vechten without resorting to excess and paradox: an invigorating amalgam of Oscar Wilde and Truman Capote, of George Plimpton and Jay Gatsby; bestselling novelist, mendacious tabloid reporter, superb critic of music, dance, and literature, esteemed portrait photographer; editor, agent, manager, promoter, dandy, hanger-on; a Dionysian with Apollonian ambitions; a blitzkrieg upon the stolid virtues of the 19th century; sexually reliant on men, emotionally reliant on women; a privileged white man who considered himself an integral member of the black community; a bruising, anarchic husband but devout friend who nevertheless had a hard time grieving when anyone died. He was a pathological playboy, an eccentric in silk shirts who painted his apartments red. Obsessed with his own celebrity, he kept a scrapbook of every newspaper clipping that contained his name. If he were alive today he’d be the king mosquito with a keyboard, incessant and malarial across the swamps of social media.
His narcissism was legion, his solipsism unashamed, his hedonism uninhibited. At the top of his stationary in the early 1920s he emblazoned the mantra: “A little too much is just enough for me.” He was a legendary party-thrower at whose Manhattan flat you could see George Gershwin on piano, Paul Robeson in song, and Theodore Dreiser passed out on the couch. His avenues crossed with those of Sinclair Lewis, Bessie Smith, Eugene O’Neill, Ethel Waters, Charlie Chaplin, Somerset Maugham, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, and H. L. Mencken, among other luminaries too numerous to name. His published diaries are titled The Splendid Drunken Twenties, and they’re perfectly unreadable, list after list of people he saw and places he went. You’d want to say that he was the life of the party if it weren’t true that the party was his life.
Van Vechten was an omnivore of art, a devotee of both high and low, of Tin Pan Alley and the Metropolitan Opera, of ragtime and musical comedy and jazz, of Chester Himes and Gertrude Stein. In addition to helping launch the career of Wallace Stevens, Van Vechten was almost single-handedly responsible for making Stein known and respected in the States, and her gratitude to him never waned. He predicted the imminent importance of the Russian composers, was the first to resurrect Herman Melville from the boneyard of irrelevance, and in 1909 recognized Isadora Duncan as the incandescent talent she was. “[N]o other critic in the United States,” says White, “came close to producing the same enthusiasm and depth of insight about such a breadth of music and dance, from the blues to Schoenberg.”
White doesn’t mention Mencken’s autobiography, My Life as Author and Editor, but it contains some of the truest, chattiest sentences ever written about Van Vechten. The two met when Mencken gave a favorable review in The Smart Set to Van Vechten’s 1915 debut book of criticism, Music After the Great War. He was, Mencken wrote, “one of the recognized eccentrics of New York [...] forever immersing himself in fads [...] the chief local fugleman of the more extravagant varieties of exotic music [...] the proponent of the wildest sort of Greenwich Village heliogabalisme.” (Leave it to Mencken to mobilize the train-wrecked term heliogabalisme: it refers to the Roman boy-emperor Elagabalus, bisexual and possibly transgendered, infamous for carnal exorbitance.)
Van Vechten, says Mencken, “went to the length of issuing dark hints that he had taken to homosexuality.” Untypically naive, Mencken doubted these dark hints because Van Vechten “had married an extremely lively and even peppery Russian Jewess, Fania Marinoff.” Those peppery Russian Jewesses — always a certain antidote against homosexuality. Mencken believed that Marinoff, a well known actress with her own phalanx of eccentricities, could not possibly have left her husband any vigor for “extra-mural activities,” not realizing that Van Vechten lived for extramural activities and contained vigor enough to light a city block. White reveals a union between Van Vechten and Marinoff that steadfastly defies the OED’s opinion of “marriage,” a union that would baffle many a commoner today but that was not necessarily an outlier among gay bohemians with money and unquenchable appetites. Marinoff provided him emotional ballast and Van Vechten provided her glamor. They were married for 50 years.
“In 1925 or thereabout,” Mencken wrote, Van Vechten “announced suddenly that he was an earnest partisan of the suffering Negroes” and “for four or five years his apartment [...] swarmed with the more raffish intellectuals of the race.” A year later, Mencken reviewed Van Vechten’s novel Nigger Heaven (1926), the title as cringe-worthy then as it is now — for years already a Harlem movement had been underway to quash the slur. But Van Vechten was convinced he knew what he was doing with that title; he even dismissed his father’s sensible pleas to change it. Van Vechten’s publisher and friend, Alfred Knopf, perhaps smelling the capital that sometimes ensues from scandal, seems not to have objected to a title that flammable. Mencken dubbed Nigger Heaven “the salient work of Van Vechten’s time of enchantment with the darker races,” even though many among those darker races were outraged by the novel in general and the title in particular, never mind that “a notorious Negrophile” had written them. W. E. B. Du Bois, among distinguished others, berated the novel for its exploitative ribaldry, for — unintentionally, it must be said — making Harlemers look little better than shaved apes.
Here is an excremental D. H. Lawrence reviewing Nigger Heaven, unselfconscious enough to be unashamed too:
Mr. Van Vechten’s book is a nigger book, and not much of one. It opens and closes with nigger cabaret scenes in feeble imitation of Cocteau or Morand, second-hand attempts to be wildly lurid, with background effects of black and vermillion velvet. [...] It is a false book by an author who lingers in nigger cabarets hoping to heaven to pick up something to write about and make a sensation — and, of course, money.
Lawrence’s manner might be characteristically foul but his assessment is characteristically correct, or rather begins to be correct: the real scandal of the book should not have been its title, or its quaking along the fault lines of sexuality and race, but rather its linguistic ineptitude of the first order, which is exactly what Lawrence means by “false” — every novel is true or false in its language alone.
Nigger Heaven is such an apocalypse of schlock that its bestsellerdom debunks the myth that says Americans were once upon a time a more sophisticated people. In only the first 14 pages Van Vechten is capable of these frontal assaults upon English, assaults that wouldn’t be half as damaging if you suspected that Van Vechten was half-kidding: “two rows of pearly teeth gleamed from his seal-brown countenance”; “his frankfurters were excellent; his buns were fresh; his mustard beyond reproach”; “suddenly he found that for which he had been searching”; “again she sought his eyes, his great brown eyes, like a doe’s”; “their knees clicked amorously [...] the banjos planked deliriously [...] the Creeper sipped his gin meditatively.” One could go on. He wrote Nigger Heaven — “ejaculated” is more like it — in only four months, which does much to help explain its epic awfulness. No successful novel can be written in four months. The Joyce Carol Oates of the Jazz Age, Van Vechten published seven novels in eight years.
Following Bernard, White devotes a thorough chapter to Nigger Heaven, its cultural importance at the time, and the headlining row that erupted after its publication, a row that surprised and fatigued the normally imperturbable or unshockable Van Vechten. His motives with the novel were not as degraded or mercenary as Lawrence assumes; White reminds us of the “crucial point about Van Vechten’s intention for Nigger Heaven and its legacy: though the novel had been about black Americans, it was most definitely not written for them.” In other words, his mission was to introduce white America to the black realities he loved, and never mind his thunderous naivety about the venom of racism, as if the entire nation could be transformed into a heterogeneous Harlem just by enticing it with cocktail parties. In his autobiography, Mencken reaches the crux of the issue with two terse sentences: Van Vechten “hailed from the upper Middle West and really knew very little about colored folk. All his contact with them had been with a small class of sophisticates, most of them hoping to get something out of him.”
As the scholar Edward Lueders has suggested, Mencken admired Van Vechten because Mencken admired Mencken — the two iconoclasts viewed the world through similar vistas. But one could go further and point out here that Van Vechten had a pronounced strain of Menckenese coursing through his criticism. This is Van Vechten in his 1916 collection of essays Music and Bad Manners, fulminating against those tweedy denizens of academia, practically a full-time job for Mencken:
The ironclad dreadnoughts of the academic world, the reactionary artists, the dry-as-dust lecturers are constantly ignoring the most vital, the most real, the most important artists while they sing polyphonic, antiphonal, palestrinian motets in praise of men who have learned to imitate comfortably and efficiently the work of their predecessors.
Mencken would eventually conclude, however, that Ven Vechten was a “rather slender” talent because “his ideas in all departments were so extravagant that he seldom left a lasting impression.” Van Vechten might have been the first American dance critic, but few pretend that his work, his fiction especially, is anything more than curiosa from a tumultuous and intoxicating era of the American past, an era F. Scott Fitzgerald famously called “the greatest, gaudiest spree in history.”
Lueders suggested this as early as 1964, the year of Van Vechten’s death, when he wrote of the “certain lasting qualities of attitude and perspective” to be found in Van Vechten’s work. Mere attitude and perspective are not, to be sure, necessary qualities of artistic merit, never mind artistic immortality. Of Van Vechten’s novels, Lueders contends that “however minor they may be finally judged as works of art, they are curious, significant contributions to America’s literature from the important literary era of the 1920s.” Don’t be fooled by that comma between “curious” and “significant” — one requires a pole to vault across the gap.
In his seminal study of American prose literature, On Native Grounds, Alfred Kazin begins a chapter called “The Exquisites” with a paragraph from Van Vechten’s novel The Blind Bow-Boy, the first sentence of which is, “You have such romantic ideas about America.” Romance wasn’t just Van Vechten’s middle name — it was his whole name. His inclinations, his ideology, his idealism — White’s biography is subtitled “The Birth of Modern America” because Van Vechten epitomized almost everything about modernity as it would soon manifest in America. He was one of the pilots of a new world, and the pilots of novelty are by definition romantic — in their quasi-religious questing, in their vision of futurity. In White’s apt wording, Van Vechten was “a prophet of the United States’ emancipation into a new age of speed and sensuality,” and “a one-man publicity machine for American modernism.” About Van Vechten’s role in the literary milieu of the 1920s, Kazin writes: “For beginning as its playboy, Van Vechten ended as its historian.”
It’s hard to imagine Van Vechten’s throbbing vanity being satisfied with the tag “historian” — historians have too little sex appeal. He wanted to be the subject of history, not the chronicler of it, but chronicler was his fate, witness was his fate, and he seems to have welcomed that fate near the end, when he bequeathed an untold number of personal artifacts and papers to the Yale Library — an astonishing record of astonishing decades, called the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of Negro Arts and Letters. Johnson, a writer and activist, leader of the NAACP, had been close friends with Van Vechten for many years, and had offered crucial support during the melee over Nigger Heaven. When Johnson died in a car wreck in 1938, Van Vechten was pummeled by grief, and the Yale Library donation was his way of guaranteeing that Johnson’s memory continued to thrive. It was one of the few selfless acts of his life — although, let’s be fair, not wholly selfless, since Van Vechten inserted himself everywhere in the documents and artifacts, binding his life to those mavericks of the Harlem Renaissance, making sure the world knew about his trailblazing cultivation of such talent.
White speaks of “the festival of self-indulgence that he wanted life to be,” but as everyone knows, the party always ends. As Van Vechten aged — as first the Depression descended and then World War II blighted the globe, as Stein and Robeson and Gershwin and Hughes eclipsed his own celebrity — he felt increasingly irrelevant, his breed of promotion and decadence outmoded. His immiseration of Marinoff mostly abated when he became too tired to sustain his colossal appetites for young men and cocktail parties. He then embraced photography with the same fervor he’d embraced Harlem, and those who gladly sat for his camera is a list of immortals, from Brando to Capote to Mailer to Billie Holiday and Lena Horne.
Malcolm Cowley, in his 1951 preface to Exile’s Return, said of the 1920s: “[E]verybody was trying to change the world and create the future; it was the special pride and presumption of the period. We hadn’t learned then [...] that human society is necessarily imperfect.” Necessarily imperfect: that’s a marriage of words Van Vechten was predetermined not to understand, while he understood perfectly well that he had both hands involved in changing the world. “Far more lasting than his output of essays, books, and photographs,” says White, “was the example of the life he lived; no other man or woman before him embodied the vision of modern American culture as emphatically as Carl Van Vechten.” The value of White’s biography is in its portrayal of an entire American culture about to morph into a monster unrecognizable from any incarnation that had come before, and of a vital but largely unknown personality who labored to forge that culture.
But it’s impossible, of course, ever to have a Van Vechten revival for the simple fact that he never wrote anything revivable. What Van Vechten did for Melville cannot be done for Van Vechten himself. His two best-known books are about his love for cats, and if there’s anything that tires immediately upon arrival, it’s someone’s love for cats. His few volumes of criticism have much worth — his articles on black art for Vanity Fair in 1925 and 1926 are, White says, “a landmark in American critical writing,” and that’s true enough — but the novels are well-nigh worthless beyond amusement and diversion, the portrait photographs valuable less for the talent behind the camera than for the talent in front of it.
One of the most stunning talents ever to sit for Van Vechten’s camera was a young James Baldwin, born and reared in the very Harlem Van Vechten only visited, only pretended to comprehend. To read through Baldwin’s volcanic nonfiction, to witness the unflagging political and moral engagement on display in his pages, is to conclude very quickly that someone such as Carl Van Vechten was both rather gossamer and extremely silly. See Baldwin’s essays “Fifth Avenue, Uptown” and “East River, Downtown,” both from Nobody Knows My Name, and you’ll get a truer glimpse of Harlem and of the African-American bind than in the bulk of Van Vechten’s sensationalist entertainments.
And so it must be asked: in all of Van Vechten’s globetrotting, especially after air travel became common, why did this man with such a passion for blackness never visit Africa? Where was he during the 1935 Harlem race riot? Why not the slightest effort to improve living conditions among the poorest in Harlem? Why the invertebrate excuses for staying clear of the Civil Rights Movement, a battle that began in earnest at least as early as 1955, nine years before his death? Van Vechten’s true sin was none of the crimes for which propriety would condemn him — from boozing to buggery, all that bombastic worship of Bacchus — but rather his blindness to the fact that beauty presupposes morality, that aestheticism is empty without ethics.
Which is not to say that Van Vechten should have been John Brown, or that he was immoral or unethical in his life and work, but there’s something distinctly off-putting about his frivolity in the face of anguish among those he professed to love, about his levity before the colossal issues of his time. Art alone rescues nothing. Passion alone is impotent. One can’t sing and dance one’s way through the revolution. Without the action born of intellection, nothing gets done. Mencken said that Van Vechten’s “ideas” were too “extravagant” to last, but the truth is harsher than that: Van Vechten had no ideas. What he had were impulses.
Here’s a passage spoken by the title character of his novel Peter Whiffle, about a stymied writer: “You must search the heart; the mind is negligible in literature as in all other forms of art. Try to write just as you feel and you will discover that your feeling is greater than your knowledge of it.” Now, it’s normally an egregious fallacy to ascribe the words or notions of a fictional character to its author, but bear in mind that Van Vechten quite deliberately modeled Peter Whiffle on himself, and that those lines can function as a credo for every aspect of Van Vechten’s own life. Search the heart? The mind is negligible in literature? Write just as you feel? It’s no wonder then that most of Van Vechten’s work has been blotted out by that ultimate and exacting judge, Time. To jettison the mind in literature, to give precedence to the preciousness of feelings, is to endorse every saccharine cliché about the therapeutic or cathartic value of writing. Intellectual, artistic assertion given way to mere emotional expression. R. P. Blackmur, cutting down D. H. Lawrence, once memorably dispatched this nonsense as “the fallacy of expressive form,” the faulty logic of which is: if only I feel something intensely enough it will achieve successful literary form. That sentiment is precisely what pollutes the shelves in every library and bookstore across this land.
Van Vechten was, in White’s words, “a man who lived under the shelter of his own towering fantasies,” but it’s hard to believe he was so deluded as not to know, or at least suspect, that his work would never stand beside the work of those he championed with such gusto. Carl Van Vechten was and is alluring for how he lived, not for what he wrote, for the violent vicissitudes of the epochs he witnessed, the epochs to which he helped give purpose and form.
William Giraldi is the author of the novel Busy Monsters and is a senior editor for AGNI at Boston University.