Renaissance Men, by the Letter

Renaissance Men, by the Letter


“I want to know everything, everything…and I’m going to. I want to visit the theatre and the opera and the art galleries. I want to meet people. I want to learn….” The words are expressed by the youthful hero of Carl Van Vechten’s 1924 novel The Tattooed Countess (reissued by the University of Iowa), but they reflect precisely the feelings of the author, who had become by that time an ebullient connoisseur of culture. His three consecutive careers–as a critic, novelist and photographer–left an exceptional imprint of and on American life and the celebrity icons who dominated it.

Van Vechten, who died in 1964 at the age of 84, also conducted another, unofficial career. He understood that letters bonded souls. An intimate form of communication, they permitted a relaxed freedom of phrase and individuality of style. The quality of paper, its cut and color, the pen and ink or the size of type, plus cross-outs, errors and quirky doodles, all represented Personality, which is the starting point for everything. Surely, he would protest today, there is nothing more clinical and intrusive than a perfect computerized missive that seems to smack of chain-mail from an Orwellian corporate sphere. The “imperfect” letter, he would argue, with its personal touch, capturing varying moods and spontaneous thoughts, is a social organism.

Starting as a journalistic gadabout before World War I, he reveled in the art of writing letters to just about anyone he knew, and this spirited original who cautioned others against mediocrity knew everyone (more or less) during the course of his life. His letters to Gertrude Stein, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Ronald Firbank, H.L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis and Virgil Thomson, to take a quick peek, number in the thousands. There were twice-a-day communiqués to his wife of fifty years, Fania Marinoff, when they were apart–an apartness that seems to have held them together–and 10,000 letters over three decades to a beau who later became a boon companion. A consummate sophisticate, Fania, an actress with the Theatre Guild, once advised an opera diva with an ambivalent spouse, “You don’t divorce your husband just because he’s sleeping with another woman–or man, that’s not civilized.” Meantime, he wrote seven novels, nine volumes of musical and literary criticism, two books about cats and hundreds of articles and reviews.

The Letters of Carl Van Vechten, selected by his astute executor and biographer, Bruce Kellner, were published some years ago by Yale University Press. Depending on the recipient, they present an epigrammatic attitude, a disdain for philistines (who are always with us), and they form a social mirror of American cultural life, with its heavenly oddities and devilish defects. Significantly, this batch of letters piercingly reveals a cultivated tolerance for others, particularly in relations between whites and blacks. “Race prejudice,” Van Vechten asserted, “is an acquired taste, like olives. It’s something you have to learn.”

At the time of his death, in a full-page tribute, Newsweek wrote, “More than anyone else, he promoted black culture, bringing unknown writers, artists and musicians to the attention of a wide audience.” He publicized the black singer and critic Nora Holt, who became the first black American to earn a Master of Music degree; he became personal friends with the singer Ethel Waters, who said, “He was the only person in the world who ever has understood the shyness deep in me.” He encouraged the artist Beauford Delaney, who eventually settled in Paris. And he discovered the gifted poet-novelist Langston Hughes when they met in 1924.

A mentor and lifelong friend to Hughes, for the next forty years Van Vechten exchanged nearly 1,500 letters with him. He had a special capability for friendship. A chunk of these letters have been insightfully edited, selected and annotated by Emily Bernard, who teaches African-American studies at Smith College. The book, Remember Me to Harlem, is a wondrous trip through American history, both socially and artistically. She gives us, with the letters, the hilarity and crises and emotional hurts that one or the other endured with a civilized smile, and offers us dramatic topical situations that open your imagination. Two fading men are recalled to life, with an extravagant cast that includes Mabel Dodge Luhan, Blanche Knopf, Countee Cullen, Paul Robeson, Bessie Smith and Chester Himes, with cameos by Tallulah Bankhead, Vachel Lindsay and George Jean Nathan, among others.

Van Vechten hailed from a privileged background; Hughes was striving to pull himself up out of poverty. During the hectic and zesty 1920s, poor Americans appreciated education and achievement. Even in the bread lines of the Depression, we feel, people longed to be smarter, not dumber. Hughes, like the hero of The Tattooed Countess and its author, wanted to know everything, everything. He wanted to learn, he wanted to meet people. When the two were introduced, Van Vechten, at 44, was a famous, occasionally flamboyant cultural visionary. As a music critic, he’d acclaimed Stravinsky and Satie, and drawn attention to the operas of Richard Strauss. Later he championed ragtime and jazz, and cheered George Gershwin, who played the piano at his parties. He jolted Americans into an awareness of Gertrude Stein and became her unofficial literary agent here. Then in 1922 he began his series of novels, mostly meringue comedies of American manners. Edmund Wilson, in his book The Twenties, mutters with astonishment at “The Vogue of Van Vechten.”

Langston Hughes, at 22, was a sensitive, intelligent youth with an independence of mind. He moved easily in any society. He’d acquired an armor of worldliness from odd-job sea ventures that took him to Africa and Holland. From there, it was on to Paris, almost penniless, where he was a dishwasher in a boîte where Bricktop would sing, and onward to the beaches of Italy. He had been writing poetry since the age of 13 but yearned for expanding experiences. When the two were introduced at a benefit party in Harlem, Hughes had just returned from ten months abroad. The literati of what would be called the Harlem Renaissance had already heard about his poetry. During the movement’s first stirring, Bernard reports, Hughes was considered one of its most promising talents. Soon he and Van Vechten would start the chronicle of letters and an eternal friendship.

Bernard further reminds us that as the Harlem Renaissance (or evolution in black American art) took shape, Van Vechten’s role was regarded with suspicion by some black intellectuals. They didn’t know that his father helped establish a school for black children or that as a student at the University of Chicago, Van Vechten visited black churches and nightspots. His interest in black culture became intense, she adds, as the renaissance was born. His biographer Kellner, author of the scholarly Carl Van Vechten and the Irreverent Decades, says he was impressed by black singers and dancers as well as black humor. Curious, passionate, obsessive, he seldom let go of anything once the addiction began. His book on cats, The Tiger in the House (Dorset), is a 300-page history on the manners and habits of the feline personality.

A year before his death, he told The New Yorker that he was “mad” for Simone Signoret. He had photographed her and hung a drawing of the actress in his foyer with a poster from a Signoret film. Back in the 1920s, his keen interest in LangstonHughes aroused obvious, possibly jealous, questions. Van Vechten never bothered to keep secret his sexual peccadilloes. Hughes was, as people are wont to say, a “very private person.” It’s not unlikely that the two may have rumbled into a Harlem club that would unbalance your Aunt Edna. But as Blake remonstrates, “Excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”

Bernard confesses that while working on the letters she was constantly asked whether “Carlo” (his signature to all) and Hughes were lovers. She argues that they were not, and Kellner agrees. It’s an ungenerous question, of course. Slyly, then, and deliberately, Bernard asks, “What was the secret that kept their friendship alive?” She replies simply: “Langston loved him.” This hits upon an ordinary truth that may peeve the salacious-minded.Hughes, who died three years after Carlo, must have wept with joy upon reading in Newsweek that Van Vechten was “an adventurer in the realms of gold when others cultivated cabbage.” For some of that gold symbolized Langston Hughes.

Hughes entered Van Vechten’s life after the publication of his first novels, like Peter Whiffle, a whimsical biography of imaginary persons. Within a short time, Van Vechten was sending Hughes his novels and Hughes was sending Van Vechten poetry. Admiring some of Carlo’s characters, Hughes wrote: “In a really perfect world, though, people who are beautiful or amusing would be kept alive solely because they are beautiful or amusing, don’t you think?” A Van Vechten dinner party, Hughes realized, was similar to a fictional affair by Van Vechten. Among the beautiful or amusing he’d sup with might be Gershwin, Dalí, Bankhead, Ethel Waters or Man Ray. These salons were among the first in New York to integrate blacks and whites. “Carl’s parties were so Negro,” Hughes later recounted, “they were reported as a matter of course in the society columns. He never talks grandiloquently about democracy or Americanism. Nor makes a fetish of those qualities. But he lives them with sincerity–and humor.” Van Vechten’s last and best work, Parties (Sun & Moon Press), is arguably the wittiest and darkest swan song to the twenties.

Van Vechten believed that the secret of life was to know what you want, always, and to go after it while it was there. His fondness for Hughes deepened when he learned that the young poet shared this belief and was tirelessly, while working in Washington, DC, finding “sweet relief,” as Hughes put it, turning out dozens of poems, happy and sad, relating to the racial rhythms he felt and heard.

Bernard cites no less a cultural figure than W.E.B. Du Bois for being convinced that art “should be approached with gravity, even reverence.” Hughes had other ideas, though. He was bored, she asserts, by the smug black middle class but totally inspired by the blare of jazz bands and the rich contralto of Bessie Smith singing the blues. How would he express this distinctive vision? With a personal style. “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame,” proclaimed Hughes.

Excited by a collection of poems that Hughes titled The Weary Blues, Van Vechten wrote him in the spring of 1925: “Your work has a subtle sensitiveness…the poems are very beautiful…. Knopf is lunching with me today and I shall ask him to publish them.” The book came out in January 1926, with Vanity Fair printing some of the poems; publication was accompanied by a reading by Hughes in Baltimore and, of course, the inevitable party in New York hosted by Carlo. Langston Hughes was launched. But for most of his life he was pursued by financial anxiety. “Being broke is a bore,” he wrote Van Vechten. Sometimes he’d ask for a loan of $100. Months later Van Vechten would graciously acknowledge the repayment. Although Van Vechten was independently wealthy and, miraculously, untouched by the stock market crash, he apparently never, spur of the moment, dashed off a check to Hughes–even when he knew Hughes was working as a busboy at a hotel in Washington. The letters show mutual trust and respect, but never a hint of nostalgia over any past discreet liaison between the two.

Van Vechten felt that blacks should climb to fame “with material which is the heritage of their race,” and some members of the Harlem Renaissance accused him of wanting to glamorize the culture. Never mind that Hughes also believed in revisiting familiar images. A music buff, Van Vechten predicted that the blues, someday, would be as respectable as religious songs. “I know very little to tell you about the blues,” Hughes explained. “They always impressed me as being very sad, sadder even than the spirituals because their sadness is not softened with tears but hardened with laughter, the absurd.” Hughes added that he first heard them sung as a child by a blind orchestra that wandered about the slums, singing for nickels or pennies or a fish sandwich. Anyway, there was no music in the world sadder for him than the blues. “But I was a kid then,” he concluded.

Within time, Hughes, in a larky mood, was corresponding from California. “I find it amusing and not unprofitable working for Hollywood,” he admitted. He was assigned a costume (pre-Civil War) script for the child singing star Bobby Breen. It involved an orphaned lad on a plantation and his faithful slaves. Sharing studio nonsense with Carlo, he noted that the producer had commanded, “Make a man out of Bobby Breen. Nothing sissy because he’s already that.” Soon the script, he added, was torn apart by a dozen people, but his contract was extended and then he was needed for story conferences. “Their time is spent in story conferences. And since I’m not much of a talker, I’m afraid I didn’t help any. Eight people and three secretaries engaged a full hour in a story conference,” he ended incredulously. “And that is Hollywood!”

Fleeing the bogus reality of the studio, he hurried north for some ennobling culture, catching, in San Francisco, the legendary soprano Kirsten Flagstad in Tristan und Isolde. The promenading opera crowd presented another view of society. “Diamonds by the ton,” Hughes marveled, “and orchids like rose bushes”–droll throwaway lines that conjure up a dowager era of visual grandeur now extinct, except when re-created in period movies.

In 1940 Hughes publishedThe Big Sea, the first volume of his autobiography. Van Vechten urged him to write his personal story because “you have an amazing subject…. treat it romantically, be as formless as you please, disregard chronology if you desire.” Appreciating this daunting task, Van Vechten proposed that he get down 300 words a day. Some days, who knows, he might want to write 2,000 words. “Try to be as frank as possible, but when your material runs a little thin, don’t be afraid to imagine better material.” Always encouraging, he was a shrewd editor for Hughes.

Van Vechten’s adversaries fret about his influence on Hughes, or certainly did in the early years. Without noisily butting into his life, without being a dreary schoolmarm, Van Vechten–between gleeful bites of gossip (“Did I tell you that John Reed was a great friend of mine? I went abroad with him once”)–sought to give counsel, when needed, in the mildest way. In any case, Hughes did not ask him about everything. He made a decision or two, and even ignored Van Vechten’s advice, but that came back to haunt and hurt him years later.

The promotional tour for The Big Sea was fraught with troubling interruptions. Back in 1932 Hughes and a group of black actors and artists had gone to Russia, presumably to prepare a film on American race relations. He was still in shock from the Scottsboro case, in which nine young blacks were hauled off a train by an Alabama mob and falsely accused of raping two white women. It made international headlines and gave the Russian propaganda machine a chance to tweak America: Come on over, Mother Russia understands! The film was never made. However, watching a military parade “with a sea of workers bearing banners,” as he wrote to Van Vechten, he was grazed by the revolutionary spirit and inspired to write a collection of “proletarian poems.” Van Vechten bluntly told him the poems were merely revolutionary tracts and basically discouraged their publication. The tactful Blanche Knopf proposed that she and Hughes talk when he returned to America. Ultimately the poems were published in 1958 by a labor organization.

One of those poems, thoughtfully reprinted by Bernard, is titled “Goodbye Christ.” It teases the Lord, the crackpot evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson and The Saturday Evening Post–telling them to prepare for a new, leftist world. Sister Aimee picketed a Los Angeles appearance that Hughes had scheduled, and his talk there was canceled. The commotion soon vexed The Saturday Evening Post, which spitefully reprinted the poem for its vast readership. It would all be insanely funny if it weren’t so terribly sad.

Further perils lay ahead. In 1953 Hughes was hauled before McCarthy’s committee on “un-American activities.” Bernard reports that he neatly put his work into historical context (invoking the Scottsboro case as a motivating force) as a leftist flirt, and he smoothly survived, though it must have been a shattering experience. He did not write to Van Vechten about this session. Less than sympathetic, Carlo had earlier observed, “To mix metaphors, the wages of writing controversially about politics is that you have to face the music.” Van Vechten remained loyal, enthusiastic over Hughes’s continuing output (stories, poems), and was shortly writing to him, “I am delighted with you and your work…. I think you have completely grown up and represent the Negro at his BEST. Pardon the applause, please, but that is the way I feel.”

Their last decade: The two continued to write each other, but the letters are often shorter, devoid of detail and sometimes lifeless. Carlo was frail and going deaf. Other than photography, and rounding up memorable black and white “sitters,” he was focused on the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection that he’d gathered at Yale. Author, diplomat and executive director of the NAACP, Johnson, a close friend, had died in a car accident in 1938. Van Vechten, once again obsessively, amassed recordings, letters, photographs and manuscripts by blacks to forge a history of black America. Though Hughes would still confess financial fears–“Brokeness suddenly descended upon me…. I was shocked!”–he completed the second volume of his autobiography, I Wonder As I Wander, and had anthologies and selected poems published. He edited a treasury of essays and stories by black Africans, wrote Off-Broadway musicals and saw a revue based on his own life. He needed his own secretary. Van Vechten exclaimed, “I am beginning to believe you have finally arrived as a BIG Name.”

There is so much exuberant, jazzy lyricism in the poetry of Langston Hughes, but for me, his triumphant legacy is heard in the opera Street Scene (1947). Elmer Rice based the libretto on his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Kurt Weill composed the score, and Hughes wrote the sun-and-moonlight lyrics. Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times called the opera magnificent. George Jean Nathan said, “It makes a dent in intelligent emotion.” The letters don’t reveal anything about the collaboration, but Bernard says Hughes was thrilled to be working with Rice and Weill, and proud that they’d asked a black writer to participate in a project about whites caught on a baking summer day in a callous city–a compassionate tenement tragedy. “They wanted someone who understood the problems of the common people,” Hughes said. “I did not need to ask why they thought of me. I knew.” The run lasted about five months, but it wasn’t a “show”–it was, after all, an opera. Within a few days of its opening, along came two highly competitive classic musicals: Finian’s Rainbow and Brigadoon. That was Broadway in the forties.

While Hughes seemingly soared, I’m certain that Carlo obsessively pondered a decision that he’d made long, long ago–spurning advice–a decision that may have given him regrets in old age. For the past is always with us.

In 1926, Van Vechten, whose interest in blacks was already upsetting cabaret tables, published a fifth novel that he titled Nigger Heaven. It centered on an elevator boy who wants to be a writer and his girlfriend, a librarian. Black aristos, racketeers, bootleggers, fancy ladies–they’re all there. It was, said Nora Holt, a view of blacks they did not wish to admit. It was the title, however, not the plot that caused outrage among blacks. For many, it was unforgivable. Van Vechten’s father cautioned against the title, but Van Vechten knew it was provocative–and ironic. The hero calls out, “Nigger Heaven! That’s what Harlem is. We sit in our places in the gallery of this New York theatre and watch the white world sitting down below…. occasionally, they turn their faces up…hard, cruel faces to laugh or sneer, but they never beckon.”

Gertrude Stein wrote Van Vechten that he’d never done anything better. The Saturday Review hailed the novel as a frontier work. The critic Louis Kronenberger said that to get beneath the skin of another people was a conspicuous achievement. The black press seethed, but Van Vechten had black defenders like James Weldon Johnson, who called it “the most revealing, significant and powerful novel based exclusively on Negro life yet written.” Later, in a letter to Van Vechten, Johnson asked, “Has anyone ever written it down that you have been one of the most vital factors in bringing about the artistic emergence of the Negro in America?”

Bernard salutes both Hughes and Van Vechten for helping to make the Harlem Renaissance, adding that this gives their story significance. But she stresses that the more important chronicle is of the warmth and devotion between two disparate men. Still, the literary controversy here is disquieting. Bernard comments on the boldness with which Van Vechten asserted his rights to “exotic material” and believes it was a combination of naïveté and arrogance that made him think he was unique and could get away with the Nigger Heaven title. According to her, both Johnson and Hughes encouraged him to mull alternatives.

In today’s “just chill out” culture, maybe it’s time to reflect anew on the lensthrough which Van Vechten saw his world. I am reminded of what Mary McCarthy once wrote about Oscar Wilde. Giving himself extreme freedom, she averred, he presumed on the acquaintanceship of his audience. “Oscar’s real sin,” she concluded, “(and the one for which society punished him, homosexuality being merely the blotter charge), was making himself too much at home.”

And there you have it. I’d say the same thing about Carl Van Vechten.

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