Carl Van Vechten was a white man who played a crucial role in helping the Harlem Renaissance, a black movement in the 1920s and 30s, come to understand itself. In this fascinating article Emily Bernard, author of Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black and White, explores the relationships between Van Vechten and the many women who circled through his interracial and inter-artistic world. Counting among his friends Gertrude Stein, Zora Neale, Hurston, Nella Larsen, and Ethel Waters, Van Vechten left no small trace of influence on their lives and contributions.
Author article by Emily Bernard
The first time Carl Van Vechten saw the composer and singer Nora Holt she was dancing nude on a table at a party hosted by the artist Winold Reiss. It was 1925, the same year that Reiss contributed drawings to the Harlem number of Survey Graphic, which was the forerunner to The New Negro, the first anthology of Harlem Renaissance writing. “I went out last night with the Sheka of Harlem,” Van Vechten wrote of Nora that year to his friend H. L. Mencken. “Her trail is strewn with bones, many of them no longer hard.”
Carl and Nora were friends for forty years, until his death in 1964. Carl’s standards for friendship were high, and Nora met them. She was interesting enough, colorful enough, daring enough. He was devoted to her, and she to him. “My adorable Carlo,” she wrote to him in 1954. “I will never change for my heart has always possessed you, even though I know I share you with many people who love you almost as much as I.” He belonged to her, and she to him. He belonged to Zora Neale Hurston, as well. She wanted to capture him in a book, “the way he is,” she said. “The way nobody but me, knows.” He belonged to all of them, his women, his black women, a group that also included Dorothy Peterson, Nella Larsen, A’Lelia Walker and Ethel Waters. They all loved him fiercely, abundantly, and bawdily, which was the way that Carl Van Vechten liked to be loved.
Carl had white women, too. Take the tender, intimate triangle between him, Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein, known respectively to each other as Papa Woojums, Mama Woojums, and Baby Woojums. There was Mabel Dodge Luhan, Rita Romilly and, of course, Fania Marinoff, who was not really one of his women, but simply the “most satisfying person alive,” he said in 1960. In Carl’s diaries, there are numerous white women to count, tromping in and out of his apartment at all hours, confessing to love affairs, behaving in unseemly fashions, getting drunk, starting fights, sometimes with him.
Carl had men, too, black men. There was Jimmie Cole, a black prostitute, who kept him occupied for several months during 1929. He may or may not have loved Jimmie Cole, but he certainly loved Eric Walrond, Harold Jackman, Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. They were lovely men, talented and attractive, and he enjoyed their attention and affection. But no one’s attention and affection rivaled that expressed by his black women. Eric never wrote of Carl, “If Carl was a people instead of a person, I could then say, these are my people,” as did Zora Neale Hurston. Harold never referred to Carl as “my Nordic lover,” as did Ethel Waters. Countee never called his love for Carl a “love that has fluctuated from the erotic to the spirituelle and reached adulation akin to a saint conditioned by the culture of our own day,” as did Nora Holt. Langston never composed for Carl “an amusing piece of doggerel,” to use the words of Larsen biographer George Hutchinson, that went like this:
Here’s hoping you live as long as you want to
And want to as long as you live;
If I’m asleep and you want to, wake me.
If I’m awake and don’t want to, make me.
That was Nella Larsen.
They were hard to miss, his women. They were glamorous artists, writers and performers. They loved Carl and they loved style. He loved his women for their style, too. Dorothy Peterson was “Beautiful Miss Peterson of the Purple Hair!” When Nora wore clothes, they were dramatic and spectacular. In an unpublished eulogy for A’Lelia Walker, Van Vechten wrote: “She looked like a Queen and frequently acted like a tyrant. She was tall and black and extremely handsome in her African manner. She often dressed in black. When she assumed more regal habiliments, she was a magnificent spectacle.” In a biographical sketch of Zora Neale Hurston, Carl applauded her for having “once appeared at a party we were giving attired in a wide Seminole Indian skirt, contrived of a thousand patches; still another time in a Norwegian skiing outfit, with a cap over her ears.”
His most satisfying person alive had a style that was offbeat and eclectic. “She holds elegant dresses in great esteem,” he said of Fania Marinoff, “but never dresses in fashion, being more concerned with personal taste and a very good idea of what suits her.” This was a trait she shared with Nella Larsen, whose main character in her 1928 novel Quicksand “loved clothes, elaborate ones,” in arresting colors: “dark purples, royal blues, rich greens, deep reds”—these were Carl’s colors, too, right down to the ink he used on his stationery.
His women carried style on their bodies and in their bodies, too. To Carl, the styles of his women were affecting on a sensual level in every respect. Ethel Waters’ performance the 1939 Broadway show “Mamba’s Daughters,” was “a profound emotional experience for any playgoer.” It was “a magnificent example of great acting, simple, deeply felt, moving on a plane of complete reality,” as he described it in an ad he took out in the New York Times to praise her. It was less an ad than a petition, and it was signed by people, white people, including Tallulah Bankhead, Burgess Meredith, Oscar Hammerstein and, of course, Fania Marinoff.
His women carried their style on them, in them, and next to them. Loving and accessorizing with Carl was stylish at a time when it was stylish to go interracial. It was stylish and also satisfying to thumb one’s nose at conservative and presumably straight black men who considered interracial socializing—particularly black women with white men, and most particularly black women with Carl Van Vechten—abhorrent. “It is a most disgusting thing to see,” wrote Terrence Williams in his article, “Writer Scores Best Girls Who Entertain ‘Nordics.’” The “best girls” were girls of “poise and finesse” who, according to Williams, preferred to spend their time with “Nordics” rather than black men. “These indiscreet females of the species are out there in the cabarets, these big fashion balls, escorted by the Nordics.” The only Nordic Williams named was Carl Van Vechten.
If the best black girls preferred Van Vechten’s company to that of Terrence Williams, maybe it was because Carl saw them as fierce grande dames with magnificent hair, regal ways and singular styles—in other words, fascinating people, not members of a species. Maybe it was because he saw them as women, not girls.
They were brazen, shameless and interesting people, his women. Brazenly, I count myself among them.
Emily Bernard is an associate professor in the English Department and ALANA U.S. Ethnic Studies Program, University of Vermont. Her books include Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black and White and Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Follow Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance on Facebook to help us collect like Van Vechten, gathering the writing and images of the Harlem Renaissance online.
Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black and White is available now from Yale University Press