Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black and White

Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black and White

by Emily Bernard


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300192520
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 05/31/2013
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 376
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.80(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Emily Bernard is an associate professor in the English Department and ALANA U.S. Ethnic Studies Program at University of Vermont. Her books include Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. She lives in Burlington, VT.

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Copyright © 2012 Emily Bernard
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-12199-5

Chapter One



By the time of his death in 1964, Carl Van Vechten had been a far-sighted journalist, a best-selling novelist, a consummate host, an exhaustive archivist, a prescient photographer, and a Negrophile bar none. But long before he was any of these things, he was an unusual boy growing up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in the late nineteenth century.

"I was born in a town in Iowa where at least half the population is of Slavic origin and I was brought up on Bohemian lullabies. When our cook was in good humor she sang lusty Czech airs." In the mid-1870s, great numbers of immigrants from eastern Europe, former citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire called Bohemians, transformed the demographics of Iowa. The Van Vechtens, however, were among the earliest American pioneers. Carl was a descendant of Teunis Dircksen, the first of the clan to emigrate from Holland, who took up residence in New York in 1638. Charles Duane Van Vechten, Carl's father, moved his family to Iowa in 1877, in the middle of that wave of immigration.

As young men, Charles and his brother Giles had worked in a lumber mill operated by their father in Mattawan, Michigan. When the senior Van Vechten died, Giles left Michigan to pursue larger ambitions, eventually becoming a successful banker in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. By the time Charles Van Vechten arrived, a year after his brother, Cedar Rapids had evolved from a small village of several hundred residents to a city with a population of between ten and eleven thousand, all within thirty years. The Van Vechtens' first residence was a simple clapboard house, close to a slaughterhouse and the railroad tracks. It was not long before Charles moved his family into an elegant Victorian home far away from the factory smoke and the train soot. The house was a gift from Carl's uncle Giles. Charles Van Vechten became an insurance agent and, like his brother, one of the most successful businessmen in Iowa.

The Van Vechten family that arrived in Cedar Rapids in 1877 consisted of Charles, his wife, Ada, and their two children: Ralph, born in 1862, and Emma, born in 1864. Carl was not born until 1880, when his mother was thirty-nine years old. "Late children are popularly supposed to be the best," he would say eighty years later, "they seem to resist more."

Resistance was in his blood. Charles and Ada Van Vechten were freethinkers who rejected the status quo when it came to accepted ideas about blacks and women. His parents set examples that Carl would follow for the rest of his life. Carl always remembered how his father instructed him to refer to the black yardman as "Mr. Oliphant" and the laundress as "Mrs. Sercey" at a time when it was uncommon for whites to refer to blacks with honorifics. Charles Van Vechten donated money to the Piney Woods School in Mississippi, an elementary school for black children, which was founded in 1909 by Laurence Clifton Jones and remains in operation to this day. In 1960, Carl described his father as sober and kindhearted, a man with "no prejudice whatever." Years later, Charles would implore his son not to call his fifth novel, the only novel devoted to African American life, Nigger Heaven. He diagnosed the title as a symptom of his son's stubbornness, and warned him that it would be seen as a sign of disrespect toward black people. Carl ignored his father's advice.

Ada Amanda Fitch Van Vechten was a suffragist who kept company with abolitionists. She had attended Kalamazoo College, where she had known Lucy Stone, who was not only a well-known abolitionist and advocate for women's rights but also the first American woman on record to keep her own name after marriage. Carl's mother was as much a student of culture as of politics. She circulated through women's clubs in Iowa, giving talks on such subjects as oriental rugs, single-handedly elevating aesthetics in the state, Carl recalled. She marshaled community interest for a public library in Cedar Rapids, solicited the necessary funds from Andrew Carnegie, and obtained the requisite governmental support to maintain it. She remains one of the great heroes of Cedar Rapids history. "Nevertheless, she was in no sense of the word a public character," Carl remembered in old age. "Her home was her one real interest. All my early life centered around her."

"He seems very bright in imitating: he will bleat like a lamb, bark like a dog, or mew like a kitten," wrote Ada Van Vechten in her diary about her year-old son. In adulthood, Carl would sometimes bark when he was enthusiastic and sign his letters with "Woof! Woof!"

As an author of letters, Carl would grow up to resemble his father, a prolific and faithful correspondent who kept every missive. "He wrote boxes and boxes of letters to my mother at one period—which were always preserved in the attic," Carl recalled. When he was a child, Ada brought the boxes down for her son to see. "Observing me, my father, sentimental but shy of showing it, demanded that the letters be burned and burned they were while my mother wept softly, for she could not bear the idea of their being destroyed."

From his mother, Carl learned the art of collecting. Ada had a remarkable tin trunk, the details of which he lovingly recalled in "The Tin Trunk," an essay included in Sacred and Profane Memories, a 1932 collection that consists mainly of revisions of previously published pieces (not essays, he said), whose unifying theme is "things remembered." In "The Tin Trunk," Carl remembered how Ada would take the trunk down from the top shelf of the closet on rainy days. The trunk was less a trunk than a box, but its role in Carl's childhood was mighty. It was a repository of the past: daguerreotypes, which occupied most of the space; letters; hair clippings from family heads; old jewelry; pieces of dresses; pictures; and a silver dollar from 1880, the year of his birth: "Each object had its own history and my mother used to relate these histories to me while I pored over the contents of the box, handling each object as gently and reverently as if it had been a religious relic and I a devout Catholic."

Carl often lingered over a ferrotype of his father, taken when Charles was around twenty. He saw in it a spiritual, even mystical quality. But the image he cherished the most was a daguerreotype of his mother set in a small, oval, plum-colored velvet case. The image captured his mother at eighteen, "an exquisite, roguish portrait which might have been that of a Parisian beauty of the Second Empire. The honest eyes, full of character, were black and round and full, with a suggestion of witchery playing over their surface. The black hair, parted in the middle over the forehead, was smooth and glossy. The nose was strong, but not too strong, and the lips seemed to quiver with interest and emotion."

Carl experimented with simple box cameras as a child, and in high school moved on to the Kodak, which was first available for sale in 1888. In the early 1930s, he would turn his full attention to photography and amass a collection of twenty thousand pictures, many of which are portraits of prominent American writers and entertainers, among them Sammy Davis Jr., Eugene O'Neill, Aaron Copland, Bessie Smith, Leonard Bernstein, Billie Holiday, Gertrude Stein, Joe Louis, and Marlon Brando. He called his passion for photography an addiction (the same word he used to describe the "violent" interest in Negroes that arrested him in the early 1920s). In his passions, Carl Van Vechten was meticulous and thorough. Early in his career as a photographer, Van Vechten determined to photograph every prominent African American he could persuade to sit for him. When necessary, he badgered. Most people surrendered.

So much younger than his siblings, Carl grew up essentially as an only child. Impressions of his brother, Ralph, as "a thin, serious-looking boy in his youth," and his sister, Emma, as "a roly-poly, curly-headed blonde," were gleaned from tintypes and anecdotes. Both of his siblings married when he was a toddler. With no other children to influence him, Carl flourished in the company of the adults around him. His Grandmother Fitch took up residence with her daughter's family once she became a widow. She was an unusual woman, a pipe smoker with a penchant for urinating on the front lawn. She predicted that her grandson would wind up in the gallows. Carl adored her.

Carl himself was unusual, given to attracting and enjoying attention. At thirteen, he was a looming six feet tall. He had the "blank stare of an animal, as steady as a cat's, as cold as a snake's," writes biographer Bruce Kellner. His unnerving expression was coupled with two big, protruding front teeth, which would become his trademark as an adult. Twelve years of attempts to straighten them proved unsuccessful. Carl did not try to hide his strange looks; instead he cultivated them. He grew one long fingernail, on the pinky of his right hand. He wore his pants tight, his collars high, and pointed patent-leather boots. Others considered him odd; he enjoyed the attention. He was spectacular, and it satisfied him. He had good friends; his best friend was Anna Snyder, who would become his first wife. They married in 1907 and divorced in 1912, and Van Vechten was ordered to pay twenty-five dollars a week in alimony, which he, then working as an arts critic for the New York Times, could not afford.

Snyder and Van Vechten had been compatible, just not completely, he said later. Anna Snyder was six feet tall, "serenely handsome and friendly," according to Bruce Kellner. Their shared desire to escape Cedar Rapids simply did not prove to be sufficient foundation for the marriage. Two months after they divorced, Van Vechten met Russian actress Fania Marinoff, whom he married in 1914. Van Vechten and Snyder had separated without acrimony, but when Van Vechten and Marinoff married, Snyder demanded the back alimony Carl owed her. She sued him, and Van Vechten spent four months in jail.

Van Vechten and Marinoff had a passionate marriage, though it was not always sexual. Over successive generations, homosexual, bisexual, gay, and queer are all terms that have been used by many contemporary scholars and writers to describe the sexual identity of Carl Van Vechten. He had sexual affairs with men, including Jimmie Cole, a black prostitute with whom he spent many evenings just after the heyday of the Negro Renaissance had passed. He began a long-term relationship in 1919 with Donald Angus, a nineteen-year-old lover of opera and music, who regularly accompanied Van Vechten to nightclubs and parties in Harlem. The intensity of their affair diminished after a year, but Angus remained close friends with Van Vechten for the rest of his life, maintaining a friendship with Marinoff, too, until she died in 1971. Van Vechten had a more sustained relationship with Mark Lutz, a journalist based in Virginia. The two men exchanged daily letters for thirty-three years, long after the end of their sexual relationship. Van Vechten had one more lasting relationship with a man, Saul Mauriber, a decorator and designer who would eventually become his lighting assistant. At the end of her life, Marinoff told Bruce Kellner that she had never fully understood her marriage. "It was a sexual marriage, yes," she said, "for a long time, but more important it was a spiritual marriage."

When Van Vechten had an opportunity to describe his life with Marinoff (as he usually referred to her), he began his narration from the year of their marriage, which was when, he said, his life really began:

Since then we have quarreled almost incessantly about important and unimportant matters. Seemingly, we agree about few subjects, but Fania is a maid of many moods, and a few minutes after a violent discussion she is all smiles and charm. She is enchanting in this aspect and the other aspect is soon forgotten.... Fania's native intelligence is great; her opinions frequently worthless, but her volatile temperament and her really considerable charm provide her in the end with a mellow background. She has great beauty and loves to surround herself with beautiful objects. She holds elegant dress in great esteem, but never dresses in fashion, being more concerned with personal taste and a very good idea of what suits her. We are a mutual admiration society: I am passionate in praise of her acting and she is consistent in her regard for my books. She is more frequently governed by her heart, I by my head. We have been married for forty-six years and no two people could stay married for forty-six years without feelings generally affectionate towards one another.

In 1932 Marinoff spoke to a reporter at the New York World-Telegram about her marriage. "'It is nice to have been married for so long to a man as difficult as my husband,' Fania Marinoff said, tapping her wooden dressing table with her knuckles, 'and I hope it will stay as it is. We have found that a sense of humor is better than separate apartments.'" Carl Van Vechten and Fania Marinoff had just celebrated fifty years of marriage when he died in 1964.

"Where was he going? What was he going to do? He did not know. He did not care," muses Gareth Johns, the main character in The Tattooed Countess, a 1924 bildungsroman by Carl Van Vechten that contains similarities to his own life story. Gareth has no direction, but he "harbored no doubts, no fears. His vivid imagination assured him that he would find his niche somewhere, once he was free from the bondage which this town and his family life entailed." Like Gareth, Carl would first choose Chicago. But while he longed for escape from Iowa as a boy, Carl would remember its charms as an adult. In a travel essay called "The Folksongs of Iowa," he wrote, "Indeed, to me the Iowa scene boasts a peculiar picturesqueness which I do not find elsewhere in the United States." He contrasted the state with Pennsylvania and Connecticut which, to him, bore the overwhelming mark of England, while Iowa "remains essentially American."

Carl enrolled in the University of Chicago at the age of nineteen, but formal education was not on his mind. He went to Chicago for the art. He had become fascinated with the opera as a teenager—even aspired to become a singer—and Chicago provided opportunities to attend the theater, art galleries, and concerts, activities not available in Cedar Rapids.

Carl began to prepare himself for a career in journalism while he was a student at the University of Chicago. Writing had always been a passion. "I cannot remember the time when I was not trying to write," he would recall, "often with no reasonable amount of skill." Although he would entertain other ambitions—to be an actor, a composer, and a concert musician ("careers which I was not encouraged to follow")—writing was a calling. Not long after graduation, he was hired at the Chicago American (which was bought by the Chicago Tribune in 1956), from which he would be discharged three years later for "lowering the tone of the Hearst newspapers," according to a note from the managing editor, after Carl wrote an article in which he mocked the wardrobes of women at an annual horse fair that was attended by the wife of the business manager. Bruce Kellner writes that this story was "apocryphal," but Carl enjoyed telling it all the same.

Undeterred, and feeling he had exhausted every opportunity available to him in the Midwest, he took a train to New York, where he eventually found a job at the New York Times. Carl would continue to write for various newspapers for ten years, establishing a reputation as a critic of theater, music, and drama. In 1914 he published a review of Granny Maumee, a "Negro drama" written by Ridgely Torrence, describing it as "the most important contribution which has yet been made to the American stage." At the time, the stage of his own life had been lit up with color.

Carl had first been exposed to black entertainment as a child in Cedar Rapids, when he had seen the soprano Sissieretta Jones, the first black performer to sing at Carnegie Hall. At the University of Chicago, he discovered the comedy of Bert Williams and George Walker, who comprised the popular comedy-dance team known as the Williams & Walker Company. "The two comedians headed a large troupe of blacks and offered musical entertainment in a sense sophisticated but which did not dilute the essential charm, the primitive appeal of the Negro," he wrote in a 1920 essay, "The Negro Theatre."

In a college writing course, Carl composed two stories about his personal experiences with the black people he knew at the time. "Biondina" is a portrait of the eponymous central character, a "very pretty child of six with big brown eyes and decidedly coquettish ways." Biondina is the daughter of the real-life cook and housekeeper at his fraternity, Aurelia Veta Clement. The girl is "spoiled"; she gets what she wants and bewitches every man with whom she comes into contact. She charms with her talent for conversation and precocious discretion. She is as serious as she is innocent. The short piece ends when Biondina runs to her mother and asks incredulously, "Mama, do mens kiss girls?"


Excerpted from CARL VAN VECHTEN AND THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE by EMILY BERNARD Copyright © 2012 by Emily Bernard. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

1 A Niche Somewhere 11

2 Nigger Heaven 107

3 Letters from Blacks 191

Author's Note 309

Notes 313

Index 343

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