Carl Van Vechten (van VEHK-tuhn) moved deftly through three careers: He began as a music, dance, and drama critic, producing several volumes of wide-ranging, urbane essays; then he devoted himself to fiction, writing seven well-received novels in a decade that saw the first publications of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and John Dos Passos; finally, he became a noted photographer, specializing in portraits of writers and artists.
Van Vechten’s father was a banker turned insurance company executive; his mother was a college graduate, suffragist, and political and social activist. Born when his parents were in their forties, Van Vechten had two siblings much older than he and so spent his childhood surrounded by four adults. Predictably, this atmosphere nurtured a precocious child. By the time he was an adolescent, Van Vechten had thoroughly immersed himself in whatever cultural offerings could be found in Cedar Rapids–opera, theater, and concerts that stopped in the city on tour–and began to apply his own talents to amateur theatrical productions and family piano recitals. Physically he was an awkward youth–too tall too early, with large buck teeth–and his omnivorous appetite for culture made him feel socially awkward among his peers. Longing to escape from the complacent bourgeois existence of Cedar Rapids, he enrolled at the University of Chicago and, in 1899, took his first steps east, a direction that would eventually lead to New York and then to Paris.
At college, Van Vechten studied with Robert Morss Lovett and William Vaughn Moody. He also began writing passionately and composing music. After graduating in 1903, he took a job on the Chicago American; he was assigned to write short news pieces and collect photographs to illustrate news stories. He soon decided, however, that, for his purposes, Chicago was little better than Cedar Rapids. In 1906, he left for New York.
Van Vechten’s first writing assignment there was an opera review for Theodore Dreiser, then editor of Broadway Magazine. Soon Van Vechten joined the staff of The New York Times as assistant to the music critic. From 1908 to 1909, he served as Paris correspondent for the Times, a post which brought him into close contact with leading European dancers, sculptors, artists, and writers. When he returned to New York in the spring of 1909, he resumed his job as music critic, but he longed to return to Europe. He would return to Paris in 1914. Van Vechten was open about his homosexuality but married twice. In 1912 he divorced Anna Elizabeth Snyder, a childhood friend he had married five years before. Shortly after the divorce, he met the Russian-Jewish actress Fania Marinoff, whom he would soon marry. In 1913, he met Mabel Dodge, the irrepressible center of her own vibrant salon. In 1914, at the second performance of Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps in Paris, he met Gertrude Stein, at whose rue de Fleurus home he would soon encounter the leading figures of Parisian cultural life.
From 1915 to 1932 Van Vechten wrote an astonishing number of books–first several volumes of essays on music and the arts, then seven novels. He preferred the experimental and the daring, particularly the works of young artists being performed, written, and conducted in the United States and on the Continent. The enthusiasm with which he greeted such works helped earn their acceptance by his readers. He predicted the enduring greatness of Stravinsky at a time when some wondered if what they were hearing was, indeed, music. He approached his task as critic with “curiosity and energy,” he said, and his tastes, idiosyncratic as they were, reflected his certainty in empathizing with the aims of modern artists.
In 1928 his brother died, leaving Van Vechten a substantial bequest that allowed him financial independence. This event coincided with, and perhaps made possible, his new career, that of photographer. He had his first show in 1934 and became a portrait photographer of such writers and artists as Stein, Truman Capote, George Gershwin, Leontyne Price, and William Faulkner.
Van Vechten was the founder of several libraries and archives, including the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection (black art and literature) at Yale, the George Gershwin Memorial Collection (music) at Fisk University, the Rose McClendon Memorial Collection (photographs of famous blacks) at Howard University, and the Florine Stettheimer Memorial Collection (fine arts) at Fisk.
The spirit of the jazz age, the roaring twenties, and the “lost generation” is well depicted in the saucy and irreverent novels of Van Vechten. In all his diverse endeavors, Van Vechten was witty, cosmopolitan, and above all, unconventional. He publicized the work of such writers as Faulkner, Ronald Firbank, and especially Stein, who remained his close friend until her death and who assigned him as her literary executor. He was among the first critics to recognize the exciting cultural renaissance flourishing in Harlem and devoted much effort to helping establish the careers of Countée Cullen, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, and other African American artists. He saw himself as a popularizer and supporter of avant-garde artists, and, with a clear eye and self-assurance, he brought to the attention of the American public exotic figures ranging from Vaslav Nijinsky and Erik Satie to Mary Garden and Stravinsky.
Van Vechten, more than many of his contemporaries, lived the literary life with seemingly boundless enthusiasm. His verve animates all of his writing, including the essays he frequently contributed to such trend-setting journals as Trend, The Smart Set, and Vanity Fair, and this effervescent spirit informs his novels as well. His wide interests, diverse friendships, and tireless pursuit of the new, the brilliant, and the innovative make Van Vechten a fascinating guide to cultural life in the United States in the first decades of the twentieth century.