White Mischief - The passions of Carl Van Vechten
by Kelefa Sanneh
In the summer of 1925, Carl Van Vechten, a New York hipster and literary gadabout, sent a letter to Gertrude Stein, whose friendship he was cultivating. Stein had finally found a publisher for "The Making of Americans," but Van Vechten was preoccupied with a project of his own. He called it "my Negro novel," though he hadn't started it yet. "I have passed practically my whole winter in company with Negroes and have succeeded in getting into most of the important sets," he wrote. "This will not be a novel about Negroes in the South or white contacts or lynchings. It will be about NEGROES, as they live now in the new city of Harlem (which is part of New York)." A few weeks later, Stein replied, using a word that Van Vechten didn't. "I am looking forward enormously to the nigger book," she wrote.
When Van Vechten first arrived in New York, in 1906, there were few signs that he would ever attempt to appoint himself bard of Harlem. He was a self-consciously sophisticated exile from the Midwest, and he was quickly hired by the Times as a music and dance critic. Celebrating provocateurs like Igor Stravinsky and Isadora Duncan, he trusted that the chattiness of his prose would make up for the occasional severity of the art he loved. (In an early collection of his criticism, he sought to reassure unseasoned listeners: "Don't go to a concert and expect to hear what you might have heard fifty years ago; don't expect anything and don't hate yourself if you happen to like what you hear.") He also published a series of mischievous novels that were notable mainly, one critic observed, for their "annoying mannerisms," including a lack of quotation marks and a fondness for "obsolete or unfamiliar words." This verdict appeared on the front cover of one of those novels, which was a clue that the anonymous critic was Van Vechten himself. The more time Van Vechten spent in New York, though, the more interested he became in the sights and sounds of Harlem, where raucous and inventive night clubs were thriving under Prohibition. His ‘Negro novel’ was meant to be a celebration, but Van Vechten couldn't resist giving it an incendiary title: "Nigger Heaven," after a slang term for the segregated balcony of a theatre. His idea was that the term might serve as a suitably ambivalent analogy for Harlem. In a soliloquy halfway through the book, one character explains:
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 clown below in the good seats in the orchestra. Occasionally they turn their faces up towards us, their hard, cruel faces, to laugh or sneer, but they never beckon.
Various people urged Van Vechten to reconsider, including his father. "Whatever you may be compelled to say in the book," he wrote, "your present title will not be understood & I feel certain you should change it." Van Vechten felt equally certain that he should not: he didn't mind drawing some extra attention to his novel, and, besides, he had Negro friends who would defend him.
In the end, Van Vechten and his father were both right. A number of Negro critics were annoyed by the title, and offended by the novel's lurid depictions of cabaret life-even though its main protagonists were smart, college educated young Negroes who talked incessantly about art and literature. But many white critics were impressed, and the controversy helped make "Nigger Heaven" a best-seller. The book's marketing campaign was designed to exploit white readers' fascination with uptown night life. (An advertisement in The New Yorker asked, 'Why go to Harlem cabarets when you can read 'Nigger Heaven'?") And its success helped draw attention to a movement: the Negro Renaissance, which came to be known, and celebrated, as the Harlem Renaissance, a name that conjures up both novelists and night clubs. It is possible that "Nigger Heaven" did more for the Harlem Renaissance than it did for its author, whose reputation never quite recovered from the backlash he faced. Decades later, Ralph Ellison remembered him as a bad influence, an unsavory character who "introduced a note of decadence into Afro-American literary matters which was not needed." And, in 1981, the historian David Levering Lewis, the author of a classic study of the Harlem Renaissance, spoke for many when he called "Nigger Heaven" a "colossal fraud," an ostensibly uplifting book whose message was constantly upstaged by "the throb of the tom-tom." He viewed Van Vechten as a hustler, driven by "a mixture of commercialism and patronizing sympathy," and treated the novel as a quaint artifact of a less enlightened literary era: the scribblings of a former hipster who no longer seemed very hip.
This kind of criticism turned Van Vechten into a rather troubling figure, which is to say, a fine candidate for reexamination, and maybe rehabilitation. In 2001, Emily Bernard published "Remember Me to Harlem," a compendium of letters documenting the forty year friendship between Van Vechten and Langston Hughes, who publicly defended "Nigger Heaven," and privately enjoyed Van Vechten's roguish sense of humor. (In one letter, Van Vechten referred to himself as "this ole cullud man.") Two years ago, Bernard published "Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance" (Yale), a thoughtful reconsideration of Van Vechten's career as both a writer and an effective champion of Negro writers. She found much to admire in Van Vechten, though she described him as "ensnared" in the "riddle of race." She also acknowledged that for years she avoided teaching "Nigger Heaven" in her college classes, so as not to subject students to "the wound that is the title of the book."
The newest Van Vechten biographer is Edward White, a Brit and a less agonized enthusiast. In "The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), White celebrates all the things that might once have seemed shocking about Van Vechten: his conviction that Negro culture was the essence of America; his simultaneous fascination with the avant-garde and title broadly popular; and his string of sexual relationships with men, which were an open secret during his life. Van Vechten's tastes were varied: his bibliography includes an erudite cultural history of the house cat, and in his later decades he became an accomplished portrait photographer. White calls him, plausibly enough, the "prophet of a new cultural sensibility that promoted the primacy of the individual, sexual freedom, and racial tolerance and dared put the blues on a par with Beethoven." Even so, White can't help placing that polarizing novel, and its title, at the center of his tale. Nearly a century after he rose to fame, Van Vechten remains the white man who insisted on publishing a pro-Negro book called "Nigger Heaven." And he will be a tempting subject for biographers as long as there are readers who want to know what, exactly, he was thinking.
No writer who tackles Van Vechten can resist the urge to describe his once famous face, although none can match the standard set by Bruce Kellner, who knew him, and who published an affectionate biography in 1968, four years after Van Vechten's death. Kellner compares him to a "domesticated werewolf," placid but intense, with a resting expression that was an unnerving "blank stare," and "disfigured by two very big and ve1y ugly protruding front teeth, like squares of broken crockery." Van Vechten grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and, even as a boy, he amplified these involuntary quirks with a number of voluntary ones: ascots, slim trousers, one long fingernail. He escaped to the University of Chicago, spending evenings at the opera and the symphony, and late nights playing piano at the Everleigh Club, a legendary brothel or so he claimed. A good Van Vechten biographer must also be a tireless debunker, and White, alert to his subject's tendency toward embellishment, could find no evidence that Van Vechten had spent time at the Everleigh's famous gold-leaf piano. "One must only be accurate about such details in a work of fiction," Van Vechten wrote, years later, by way of excusing his fabricated account of the historic premiere of Stravinsky's "Le Sacre du Printemps." He hadn't been there, either, although he had attended the second performance, which was not quite so historic.
Van Vechten's determination always to be in the right place - even when he wasn't - carried him to New York, to Europe, and back to New York, a city that he found fewer and fewer reasons to leave. After a brief marriage to a childhood friend, he wed an actress named Fania Marinoff, who stayed with him for the rest of his life, more than half a century, despite being given plenty of reasons to leave. Van Vechten and Marinoff were known for their parties, which flouted the laws of Prohibition and the norms of segregation. Starting in 1924, as Van Vechten became, in his words, "violently interested in Negroes," the Van Vechten apartment, on West Fifty-fifth Street, was one of the few truly integrated social spaces in a city that wasn't as cosmopolitan as it thought it was.
Van Vechten's passion had begun as curiosity about a novel called "The Fire in the Flint," which depicts a Ku Klux Klan lynching in Georgia. Van Vechten arranged to meet its author, an enterprising young N.A.A.C.P. activist named Walter White, who helped introduce him to just about every prominent Negro singer and writer in town. In a series of articles for Vanity Fair, Van Vechten argued that the blues deserved "the same serious attention that has tardily been awarded to the Spirituals," and he introduced readers to W. C. Handy, the songwriter who popularized the blues, and to Hughes, whose poems drew inspiration from Negro vernacular culture. Some nights, he went uptown, prowling Harlem's cabarets. Other nights, the cabaret came to West Fifty-fifth Street, as when Bessie Smith treated party goers to a thunderous performance. Afterward, when Marinoff attempted to deliver a grand kiss good night, Smith threw her to the floor, yelling, "Get the fuck away from me!" Apparently, Van Vechten was unfazed - one attendee heard him praising Smith's performance, sotto voce, as she was escorted out.
By the time he got to work on his Negro novel, Van Vechten didn't feel merely like a supporter of the Harlem Renaissance; he felt like part of it. In one telling, this feeling explains why he thought that he could get away with his scandalous title. The novel contains only two footnotes: one points readers to a glossary of "unusual Negro words and phrases"; the other explains that the word "nigger" is "freely used by Negroes among themselves," but that "its employment by a white person is always fiercely resented." Bernard argues that by using the word "nigger" Van Vechten sought to "establish his privileged status" as a white man who was above the racial law. Edward White, too, views the footnote as proof that Van Vechten saw himself as an exceptional white man, with "special dispensation" to use language that would otherwise be taboo. It seems just as likely, though, that Van Vechten chose so definitive a formulation - "always fiercely resented" - not because he thought he could escape censure but because he knew he wouldn't. And he must have known: one of many people to whom he revealed his title in advance was Countee Cullen, the urbane Negro poet. In his journal, Van Vechten recorded Cullen's response: "He turns white with hurt & I talk to him." They argued about it, and the next day they augured some more; Cullen was never persuaded, which didn't stop Van Vechten from using a quatrain of his as the book's epigraph. It's not hard to imagine that Van Vechten was thinking of Cullen, and all the others who might never forgive him, when he wrote that self-indicting footnote.
"Nigger Heaven" is a short book, made shorter still by its standalone prologue, about a pimp known as the Scarlet Creeper, and by its split structure, which pairs two slim novellas, one for each protagonist. The first is given over to Mary Love, a perceptive but anxious young librarian; the second belongs to Byron Kasson, a stubborn and confused aspiring writer, whose brief love affair with Mary provides a hinge between the two halves. Both characters wrestle with Negro identity: Mary is too self-conscious to join the revelry she sees all around her in Harlem, while Byron is paralyzed and enraged by the humiliations of a segregated city. After a condescending white editor criticizes Byron's work, he leaves Mary and takes up with a debauched socialite named Lasca Sartoris; when Lasca leaves him, he descends into fury, and the novel ends with a complicated spasm of violence. (It was Mr. Scarlet, in the night club, with the revolver though it's Byron who faces punishment.) Van Vechten is fascinated by the diversity of Harlem, with its "rainbow" of skin colors and its complicated hierarchy of class and culture. When Mary rebuffs a powerful kingpin, Raymond Pettijohn, who has cornered the market on a numbers game called bolito, the result is a bilingual form of pulp fiction:
I'm sorry, Mr. Pettijohn, she said, but it's no use. You see, I don't love you.
Dat doan mek no difference, he whispered softly. Lemme mek you.
I'm afraid it's impossible, Mary asserted more firmly.
The Bolito King regarded her fixedly and with some wonder. You cain' mean no, he said. Ah's willin' to wait, an' to wait some time, but Ah gotta git you. You jes' what Ah desires.
It's impossible, Mary repeated sternly, as she turned away.
That "throb of the tom-tom" that David Levering Lewis detected is real enough: the sound is described in a scene near the end, when Byron and Lasca, high on cocaine, stumble into a demonic after-hours club. But, throughout the novel, the character most obsessed with primal and exotic Negro identity is Mary, whose hunger for racial authenticity becomes a cruel running joke. "She admired all Negro characteristics and desired earnestly to possess them," we learn, though she also suspects that this desire is self-defeating. "Unless I acted naturally like the others, it would be no use," she thinks, and the novel turns on the question of what it might mean for a college-educated Negro to act "naturally"; this ongoing debate makes the novel much more interesting than its characters or its plot.
During her brief romance with Byron, Mary suddenly finds herself speaking the kingpin's English. "Ah'm jes' nacherly lovin' you, mah honey," she says. To Byron, this "nacherl" speech sounds artificial; he asks her, "Where did you learn that delicious lingo?" And the white editor who so infuriates Byron does it by urging him to write about Negro life in Harlem. The editor says, "God, boy, let your characters live and breathe! Give 'em air. Let 'em react to life and talk and act naturally." This is more or less what Van Vechten had been telling young Negro writers in his own published essays, and yet the character who delivers these words to Byron is more buffoon than sage: a rude and presumptuous interloper, eager to share his dubious theories about the happy life of the average "Negro servant-girl." Tellingly, in the years after "Nigger Heaven" was published, Van Vechten largely stopped offering unsolicited advice to young Negro writers. The reaction to "Nigger Heaven" doubtless made him reticent, but so, perhaps, did the experience of writing it.
In a brutal and influential review published in The Crisis, the N.A.A.C.P. magazine, W. E. B. Du Bois derided "Nigger Heaven" as "an affront to the hospitality of black folk and to the intelligence of white"; he found nothing in its pages besides "cheap melodrama," enlivened by bursts of "noise and brawling." Bernard, similarly, finds the novel "banal," but celebrates it anyway, arguing that its real contribution to the Harlem Renaissance lay in the reviews it generated. Annoyed by Du Bois and others, a coterie of young Negro writers joined the fight, standing up not just for Van Vechten but for the right to fill their own pages with as much "noise and brawling" as they pleased. Claude McKay, a Jamaican immigrant, published "Home to Harlem," a rich and sordid tale of love and violence uptown. (After reading it, Hughes wrote a wry letter to Van Vechten: "If yours was 'Nigger Heaven,' this is 'Nigger Hell.'") And the witty and acerbic novelist Wallace Thurman delivered a mixed verdict on the novel itself, even as he lambasted its critics:
In writing "Nigger Heaven" the author wavered between sentimentality and sophistication. That the sentimentality won out is his funeral. That the sophistication stung certain Negroes to the quick is their funeral.
It was true that Van Vechten was one of the patrons of Fire!!, the celebrated single-issue magazine in which Thurman's essay appeared. But Bernard is right to observe that, for many writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance, the defense of "Nigger Heaven" had become an emancipatory project. "It enabled members of the younger generation to distinguish themselves from their predecessors," she writes. "It had become their cackling chuckle of contempt."
No Negro writer was more caught up in the controversy than Hughes, who was widely perceived as Van Vechten's protege. Van Vechten had prevailed upon his friend Alfred A. Knopf to publish Hughes's first collection, "The Weary Blues," and wrote a preface to it. Some critics thought they detected Van Vechten's vulgarizing influence in Hughes's earthy poems. But Van Vechten insisted, with some justification, that "the influence, if one exists, flows from the other side." The effort to debunk these rumors only strengthened their friendship, which endured not only the "Nigger Heaven" controversy but also Van Vechten's withering assessment of Hughes's pro-Soviet poems, and Van Vechten's reputational decline. (In the nineteen-fifties, Hughes asked Van Vechten to write an introduction to a new volume of poems, then tactfully rescinded the request after his publisher told him that it wouldn't be a good idea.) The letters they exchanged are affectionate and conspiratorial-in one, Van Vechten teased Hughes by telling him that people were referring to his debut as "The Weary Blacks." Even as the debates of the nineteen-twenties faded, Van Vechten and Hughes liked to think of themselves as mischievous upstarts, doing battle against the forces of Negro propriety. When Van Vechten told Hughes that he had arranged for his papers to be archived at Yale University, Hughes feigned concern:
I was just about to tell you about a wonderful fight that took place in Togo's Pool Room in Monterey the other day in which various were cut from here to yonder and the lady who used to be the second wife of Noel's valet who came to New York with him that time succeeded in slicing several herself - but you know the Race would come out here and cut me if they knew I was relaying such news to posterity via the Yale Library. So now how can I tell you?
If Van Vechten's attraction to men was an open secret, Hughes's romantic life was a secret secret; his biographer Arnold Rampersad is one of many historians who have looked for evidence and come away with nothing conclusive. White, considering the close relationship between Hughes and Van Vechten, concludes that they were not lovers; as proof, he offers their correspondence, which he contrasts to the "flirtatious" letters, rife with "homosexual coding and innuendo," that Van Vechten sent to his male lovers. "His letters to Hughes feature none of that," White argues, "and disclose nothing but warm, jovial friendship and honest exchanges of opinions." It might be said, though, that Van Vechten's version of "jovial friendship" wasn't entirely free of sexual suggestion. One of Van Vechten's missives, from 1943, includes an out-of context postscript: "I have just photographed an extremely beautiful merchant seaman (cullud) age 21 who used to be an undertaker and is devoted to the arts." The next year, he told Hughes about a "Best Built Man" competition he had attended in Harlem. 'The Adonises (white and cullud) are obliged to POSE to display their muscles and some of the attitudes were honeys," Van Vechten wrote.
Despite his reputation for lurid prose, Van Vechten could be surprisingly discreet, and, even with the benefit of thousands of letters and journal entries, there are parts of his life that are hard to reconstruct. Early notes make reference to a turbulent marriage. (From 1925: "I get drunk & get rough with Marinoff.") Later, there are passing, references to estrangements and vacations and reconciliations, and also to men who turn out to have been Van Vechten's lovers. Sometimes, in his letters to his wife, he writes as if he were travelling or dining solo, when he wasn't; other times, the men are mentioned casually, as mutual friends.
White, lacking details, has few stories to tell, but he confidently diagnoses Marinoff's plight. "In New York, where Van Vechten's coterie of young men was always buzzing around him, she often felt as if she had to wait in line for an audience with her husband," he writes. Occasionally, he allows himself to express some frustration that his subject wasn't more forthright; when it came to the "sexual freedom" that White wants to celebrate, Van Vechten declined to preach what he practiced. One of Van Vechten's closest friends and lovers was Mark Lutz, a journalist from Virginia, who died in 1967. Van Vechten sent him thousands of letters in the course of more than three decades, but after Lutz's death those letters were destroyed, in accordance with his wishes.
Above all, Van Vechten seems to have been careful to keep his two lives separate. The Harlem Renaissance was, in Henry Louis Gates's formulation, "surely as gay as it was black," and Bernard counts Van Vechten among the many "gay downtown whites who went uptown in search of sexual recreation." But although "Nigger Heaven" includes an entry in its glossary for 'jig-chaser' ("a white person who seeks the company of Negroes") and its counterpart, "pinkchaser," the book's acknowledgment of same-sex encounters consists of a single reference to a bar known for its "bull-dikers." Perhaps Van Vechten felt that his Negro literary project would be immeasurably more difficult if he were widely perceived to have ulterior motives. Richard Bruce Nugent, the first black writer to produce frank descriptions of same-sex desire, remembered an odd exchange with Van Vechten, later in his life. At a party, he touched Nugent's shoulder and said, "If you had just patted me on the head and said, 'Carl, you're a nice boy,' you could have had anything you wanted." But, to Nugent, this seemed less like a proposition and more like an older man's plea for acknowledgment.
The most startling thing about White's book is its breadth: "Nigger Heaven" was merely one episode in a very long and very episodic life. Van Vechten remained a devoted friend and champion of Stein, and after her death, in 1946, he became her literary executor. (A collection of their letters was published last summer; it's nine hundred and one pages long.) He was celebrated, in retrospect, as one of America's first major dance critics, and one of the first music critics to embrace the sounds of the twentieth century. When he took up photography, he badgered and flattered a wide range of luminaries into sitting for him, from Joe Louis to William Faulkner; he captured some of the best-known images we have of Stein, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. He never quite broke into Hollywood, but he tried. Despite these other interests, he played an outsized role in the development of Negro music and literature, which is partly a tribute to how isolated and powerless black artists were in those days. One well-connected white man could alter the course of a movement, just by writing some articles and making some introductions. This, of course, was precisely what Du Bois found so dismaying.
Back in the nineteen-twenties, Van Vechten sometimes portrayed himself as a dilettante, whose interest in Negro culture was just a phase. In a letter to H. L. Mencken, in 1925, he wrote, "Jazz, the blues, Negro spirituals, all stimulate me enormously for the moment. Doubtless, I shall discard them too in time." Of course, he never did-in this and other ways, he was far more loyal and earnest than he sometimes pretended to be. Much as he loved photography, his true life's work was the Yale Library archive, and he pestered his old friend Hughes with endless requests for material to add to the historical record. In 1963, a year before Van Vechten's death, a reporter from The New Yorker went to visit him at his apartment; he had moved from West Fifty-fifth Street to Central Park West, but his interests hadn't changed. He showed off some recent photographs, held forth on his favorite foods, shared his enthusiasm for foreign films, and bragged about the friends he still had in Harlem. "I still get about twenty-five letters a day from Negroes," he said. He never had children, although White raises the possibility of one or more secret births and quiet adoptions. His life was his obsessions, which is why he held them so tight - he was, in the end, the opposite of a dilettante. He said, "I don't think I've ever lost interest in anything."
New Yorker magazine, Feb 17 & 24, 2014