“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.”