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There is an odd shadow that falls over the posthumous reputation of anyone who once excelled at what posterity deems, spitefully, too many different things. This fate can afflict the living, as well: think of Hollywood stars who take up novel-writing. It is difficult to fully suppress one’s feeling that such people should be satisfied with the fame they already have. An air of greed hangs over their output. Carl Van Vechten, the protean subject of Edward White’s wonderful new biography, would surely be chagrined if he could see how thoroughly his novels, best-sellers in the 1920s, have been forgotten since his death exactly half a century ago. White’s biography proves conclusively and entertainingly his contention that “the man is simply too contradictory to slot snugly into the established narrative of the American Century.” He was a critic, a reporter, an essayist, a novelist, a photographer and above all, a cultural impresario. His diminished fame is a victim of his own multifaceted career that spanned the first half of the twentieth century. This engaging, well-researched biography should change all that.
Carl Van Vechten was born in 1880 to a prosperous Cedar Rapids family. His parents, Charles and Ada, early champions of civil rights, insisted that their children address their gardener as Mr. Oliphant and their laundry maid as Mrs. Sercey. “Beneath his carefully managed image of the sophisticated iconoclast Van Vechten’s moral exemplars were his parents, whose bold stand on race relations kick-started his interest in African-American culture.” In 1906 Van Vechten moved to New York City, where he would live the rest of his life. He became the music critic for The New York Times, and was the first American critic of modern dance, promoting the careers of Isadora Duncan, Loie Fuller and Anna Pavlova. In fact, he had an unparalleled talent for finding and publicizing all types of artists, both those emerging and those unjustly forgotten. He helped revive Herman Melville’s reputation as well as launching the careers of Gertrude Stein, Ronald Firbank, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker and George Gershwin, among many others. During the 1920s he published seven popular novels with Alfred A. Knopf, beginning with Peter Whiffle: His Life and Works, and including The Blind Bow-Boy, “a masterpiece of camp,” Parties, and Nigger Heaven. He befriended and promoted most of the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance, introducing white America and Europe to a vibrant indigenous art that captivated audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. The book’s epigraph, a quote from its subject, perfectly encapsulates his correct belief that “Americans are inclined to look everywhere but under their noses for art.” At the beginning of the twentieth century, art and culture belonged to Europe. Three decades later Van Vechten’s indefatigable promotion of American art–in particular, black music and dance–had earned America a permanent place in the cultural firmament.
In 1930 he published Parties, his last and best novel, before setting fiction aside. The following year the Cuban illustrator Miguel Covarrubias returned from Europe with a Leica camera. When he showed it to his friend, Van Vechten quickly became obsessed with a new hobby. He set up a darkroom and portrait studio in his apartment and began photographing an endless procession of the century’s most brilliant people, including Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, Joan Miro, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Baldwin, Josephine Baker, W. Somerset Maugham, Gertrude Stein, Billie Holiday, Salvador Dali and Diego Rivera, to name but a few. He had a gift for putting his subjects at ease and his skill as a portrait photographer earned him the admiration of such acknowledged masters as Alfred Stieglitz and Man Ray. Today most of his photographs are housed at Yale University and the New York Public Library.
His personal life was no less complicated than his professional one. His second marriage, in 1914 to actress Fania Marinoff, lasted fifty years, mainly because Marinoff was willing to share her husband with a succession of younger men. White stops short of claiming Van Vechten was exclusively homosexual: “He was able to feel physically attracted to certain women, but his sincere need for female companionship was much more emotional than physical.” Nor does the author gloss over Van Vechten’s less appealing attributes, among which were a jaw-dropping degree of self-absorption, childishness and possessiveness toward the artists whose careers he helped launch. At the same time, White demonstrates that very often it was precisely Van Vechten’s character flaws that fueled his remarkable achievements. His outsized appetite for reflected glory led him to discover and publicize many of the last century’s most talented people. After meeting twenty-three-year-old Langston Hughes at an awards ceremony, he sent to Alfred Knopf the manuscript of his first poetry collection. He suggested an order for the poems and the title The Weary Blues, and within two weeks Hughes had his first book contract. Although Van Vechten could all too often be obnoxiously insistent on linking his name to the artists he discovered, his crucial role in gaining recognition for America’s autochthonous modernism more than makes up for that. The Tastemaker is essential reading for anyone interested in how America emerged from the cultural shadow of Europe in the last century.
The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America
By Edward White
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Hardcover, 9780374201579, 352 pp.