Late in 2013, as it does every year, the Oxford English Dictionary announced its Word of the Year. It was “selfie,” which the OED defined this way on its website: “noun, informal (also selfy; plural selfies) a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.”
Carl Van Vechten passed away fifty years ago at the age of 84. If he were alive today, I think he would have enjoyed the idea of the selfie. In the last thirty years of his life, as the modern handheld camera came on the scene, Van Vechten, having observed the easy-to-produce images made possible with a Leica, reinvented himself as a portrait photographer, capturing cultural personalities as well as himself. He was keen on taking self-portraits, the selfies of his time.
In the first half of the twentieth century, Van Vechten connected myriad cultural dots, as Edward White points out in his thoroughly researched new biography, The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America. Like many legendary New Yorkers, Van Vechten hailed from elsewhere—in his case, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a progressive Midwestern farm town around the time he was born in 1880. His parents were freethinkers of Dutch descent who settled on the prairie after the Civil War, but their roots in America go back to the early days of the colonies. “His one burning desire,” White writes of Van Vechten, “was to ditch the life of a bourgeois Midwesterner for the glamour and grime of the big cities.”
He did just that: first escaping to Chicago, where he discovered the burgeoning classical music and opera scenes, as well as the African-American communities of the South Side, which thrived from the early Aughts to the 1940s, owing to migration (mostly from the Jim Crow South) and industrialization. In 1906, a few years after graduating from the University of Chicago, Van Vechten left the city for New York, where he would live until his death. There he was, at various stages: a journalist, provocateur novelist, nightlife denizen, music and theater critic, confidant to Gertrude Stein, patron of the Harlem Renaissance, literary dandy, urban impresario, portrait photographer, archivist of modernism and altogether man-about-town.
“Through his life of indulgence and excess, and in promoting his bespoke pantheon of celebrities,” writes White in his prologue, “Van Vechten was one of the leading figures of a brash, iconoclastic generation of writers, artists, and thinkers that helped Americans see that art and beauty existed amid the hum and buzz of their own cities and not just in the galleries and theaters of ancient European capitals. His life and legacy have been overlooked simply because of the extraordinary range of his interests.”
Van Vechten’s embrace and zealous promotion of the African-American community—especially in Prohibition-era Harlem—is what he is most remembered for today, a point White expounds on throughout the second half of this biography, pulling from Van Vechten’s daybook entries, as well as scores of letters he left behind. Not only did Van Vechten champion black artists to the white upper crust of Manhattan, he singlehandedly helped the writers Nella Larsen, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston (and later, Chester Himes and James Baldwin) find publishers for their work.
Van Vechten himself published seven novels, all during the Prohibition years; most were semi-autobiographical satires of the cosmopolitan society he loved to skewer. His fascination with black Harlem, however, led him to write a realist novel Nigger Heaven—a derogatory slang term used by African Americans at the time to describe the nosebleed seats in the balcony of Harlem nightclubs—which caused a stir when it was first published and divided some in the African-American community.
The black establishment, led by W. E. B. DuBois, was critical of Van Vechten, even though many in their ranks appreciated the spotlight he shined on Harlem’s bustling creative community. Most of the book’s critics hadn’t read the book; they were merely outraged that Van Vechten had used such a title. Others took a different view. In her book-length study Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance, the African-American literature scholar Emily Bernard puts the controversy into context: “Charles S. Johnson [the famed sociologist] believed the greatest tribute he could offer the book was his regret that a Negro had not written it. Van Vechten’s close friend, novelist Nella Larson, shared the sentiment. ‘Why, oh why, could we not have done something as big for ourselves?’ she lamented to Van Vechten.”
“Irony is not anything that most Negroes understand, especially the ones who write for the papers,” Van Vechten complained in 1960. Thirty-four years later, he was still disturbed by the negative reaction to the book. “To him,” Bernard writes, “the fault lay exclusively with black readers and critics who simply didn’t get it.” This response underscores Van Vechten’s abject narcissism and (at best) inability to have empathy for the African Americans he was writing about.
But why did Van Vechten use the n-word in a book title to begin with? It’s not entirely clear. Bernard and White edge closer to finding out, but there’s no eureka moment; it seems as if Van Vechten picked the title because he knew it would, if nothing else, cause a lot controversy, and therefore help promote his book. He was right about that.
“Though the world outside was changing as quickly now as when he first arrived in New York,” White writes in the closing pages of his book, “inside the sanctity of his own apartment, Carl Van Vechten was still the only show in town”:
Far more lasting than his output of essays, books, and photography was the example of the life he lived; no other man or woman before him embodied the vision of modern American culture as emphatically … His twentieth-century urban odyssey made a virtue of racial and sexual diversity and collapsed the nineteenth-century distinctions between edifying art and facile entertainment, constantly probing the boundaries of what was considered good and bad taste.
I agree with much of White’s summation. Having read several of the novels, and a selection of his work as a critic, I don’t get the sense that you’d want to revisit these works again the way you would, say, those of F. Scott Fitzgerald or even of H. L. Mencken, who were both friendly with Van Vechten. His pre-Nigger Heaven fiction is interesting as the precursor to a now more common genre (let’s call it “autobiographical hyperbole”), but the writing itself feels dated. (Though I would highly recommend Van Vechten’s The Tiger in the House: A Cultural History of the Cat, which was brought back into print by the NYRB Classics series in 2007).
More interesting was Van Vechten’s status as the dandy hipster of his day, the prototype of the middle-class white kid who goes searching in Harlem for late-night kicks and spiritual nirvana. Norman Mailer would mythologize this character decades later, in his now-infamous 1957 essay “The White Negro.”
In his later years Van Vechten found himself a new art form where he could indulge his propensity to archive the present, not to mention his talent for taste-making: photography. And it’s his photography—ironically taken up non-professionally, as little more than a hobby—that remains his most striking artistic achievement today.
Having discovered the portable Leica camera in the early 1930s, Van Vechten took up photography—portraiture, in particular—as a serious art. Over the next thirty years, a coterie of Who’s Who would stop by his apartment studio to have their portraits taken, all the while being charmed by the charismatic Carlo. White paints the scene:
At apartment 7D his shooting space was small and quickly became hot under the studio lights. In coming years he moved to larger premises, but in all his studios there was a closeness, an atmosphere of emotional intimacy. All around lay the clutter of Van Vechten’s props and backdrops— crumbled sheets of colored cellophane, posters, rugs, African sculptures, floral wallpaper. To the sitters who arrived this was clearly neither an artist’s workroom nor the studio of a commercial artist but the den of an obsessive hobbyist.
Fifty years later, Van Vechten’s photography may constitute his most lasting cultural contribution. Although produced in a photo studio, his photographs were never intended for publication (like most professional portraiture of the time), which ended up contributing to their distinct look. Van Vechten’s hypnotic charm and the fact that he was able to lower his subject’s guard helped him produce some of the most memorable portraits of the artists, writers, actors, singers and performers in his day. Anyone with an internet connection can now go on the Library of Congress website and see thousands of examples for himself. (They’re all now deemed public domain, courtesy of Carlo’s last will and testament.)
His portrait of Gertrude Stein, for instance, draped in the American flag, ready to board an ocean liner back to France in the mid-1930s, is the first image I remember seeing of Stein as a high-school student. I had no idea it had been taken by Van Vechten when I first spotted it in a book. But when I examined Van Vechten’s portrait of Stein more recently, alongside similarly posed pictures of writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, entertainer Anna May Wong, playwright Eugene O’Neill, actress Lois Moran, artist Georgia O’Keefe, painter Henri Matisse, composer George Gershwin, poet Langston Hughes, singer Bessie Smith and publishers Blanche and Alfred Knopf, some themes and patterns began to appear.
Van Vechten was a modernism junkie. But perhaps because he was a writer himself, most of his portraits resemble what has come to be recognized as the quintessential jacket-copy photo for a book: the framed artist brooding into the camera (or looking away, for effect) in a tightly shot style that would be perfect to crop and shrink down for a dust-jacket sleeve layout.
More often than not, the backdrop of the portraits help set the tone for the person being photographed, as if Van Vechten were constructing mini-movie sets for each of his subjects, in stark contrast to the customary white backdrop employed by most of his contemporaries. There is almost a screen-test quality to many of his portraits, and this is both contrived (because of the backdrops and props) and spontaneous (because Van Vechten’s cool demeanor and conversationalist personality helped his subjects relax, embrace joviality and give him their best).
One cannot help thinking, while reading through White’s biography, that it’s too bad Van Vechten didn’t start taking pictures sooner. His letters and other correspondence seem ripe with intrigue and a wealth of knowledge for scholars of the Harlem Renaissance, but also for those interested in the period of cultural history between the Jazz Age and the beatnik Fifties. And in photography, Van Vechten found the ideal medium to express himself. One might say that with his photography obsession, he’d found a way to productively channel the insufferable beast within him, the one that craved attention and notoriety, like a child, for everything he did.
Not that Van Vechten’s particular brand of narcissism would be considered anything out of the ordinary in today’s social-network-obsessed age. And indeed, if you asked people under thirty today who Carl Van Vechten is, most wouldn’t have a clue. Although he was a pioneering promoter of the Jazz Age, Van Vechten would be lost in today’s postmodern world, trumped by click-bait about an alleged butt implant procedure gone awry. Though, think about this for a second: Van Vechten on the “Allure of Internet Cat Videos” and what it all means. I would buy that for a dollar.