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Van Vechten, Carl
(June 17, 1880–December 21, 1964)

–writer and photographer—was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to wealthy, educated parents (his father, Charles Van Vechten, was a prominent banker). He was culturally advan taged–his mother, Ada Amanda (Fitch) Van Vechten, almost single-handedly established the Cedar Rapids Public Library–and musically talented, and he could not wait to leave what he called "that unloved town" for better things.

    At age 19, Van Vechten left to study at the University of Chicago, graduating in 1903. His first writing was "The Chaperone," a florid newspaper column for the Chicago American blending semiautobiographical gossip and criticism. After being fired for "lowering the tone of the Hearst papers," he moved to New York, where he wrote music criticism for the New York Times and was drama critic for the New York Press.

    In 1907 he married a high school friend from Cedar Rapids, Anna Elizabeth Snyder, and divorced her in 1912. Under the direction of his social mentor, Mabel Dodge Luhan, he immersed himself in avant-garde art, attending ground-breaking premieres in New York and Paris, where he met Gertrude Stein.

    In 1914 Van Vechten married Fania Marinoff, the love of his life. She was a Russian immigrant who had progressed from a pathetic childhood selling matches on the street to a celebrated career as an actress on Broadway. Carl and Fania quarreled nonstop, often over Carl's numerous homosexual affairs, but despite their differences, their stormy relationship lasted 50 years.

    Collections of Van Vechten's early articles and reviews were published in seven volumes, and he wrote an essential book about cats (The Tiger in the House) that has never gone out of print. At age 40, Van Vechten created a work that was instantly recognized as new and important and established him as a novelist. In his book Peter Wiffle, autobiographical facts were artfully arranged into a fictional form that was a precursor to the style of Truman Capote. His new career lasted exactly 10 years, and produced seven novels. One of them, The Tat- tooed Countess, was a thinly disguised manipulation of his memories of adolescence in Cedar Rapids. The book was made into an unsuccessful movie starring Pola Negri.

    At the height of his popularity during the Roaring Twenties, Van Vechten's new status allowed him to champion African American artists, including Langston Hughes and Zora Neal Hurston. He was a central figure in the promotion of the Harlem Renaissance. His novel Nigger Heaven was an unapologetic story of dissolute behavior in a cultured Negro class, and it shocked hypocritical values in black and white readers alike. His final novel, Parties, chronicled episodes from the decadent, drunken, Prohibition era, when his personal excesses rivaled those of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

    At age 50, at the height of the Great Depression, an uncle died in Cedar Rapids, leaving Van Vechten a fortune worth a couple of million dollars. Freed from the obligation to write for a living, he gave himself over to photography, a craft he practiced for the next 35 years. He was Gertrude Stein's literary agent, and he used his considerable resources to support writers and libraries of African American literature. His parties were legendary: George Gershwin would play the piano, Paul Robeson would sing, and afterward Van Vechten would have all-night photography sessions with luminaries such as Billy Holiday. He photographed every important black artist from Bill "Bojangles" Robinson to James Earl Jones. Like Andy Warhol after him, Van Vechten photographed celebrities and chorus boys in a photo booth portrait style. Most of his subjects were shot standing in front of art deco fabric swatches. He shot hundreds of exposures but usually made only one print from each negative. He experimented with color photography and reportedly died after a day in the darkroom at the age of 84.
Sources Collections of Carl Van Vechten's primary materials are held at the New York Public Library; Yale University's Beinecke Library, New Haven, Connecticut; and Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee. Many of his photographs are at the Museum of the City of New York, the Museum of Modern Art (New York City), and the University of New Mexico's Jonson Gallery in Albuquerque. Van Vechten wrote an autobiography, Sacred and Profane Memories (1932). For a bibliography of his writings and a full listing of his photographic portraits, see Bruce Kellner, A Bibliography of the Work of Carl Van Vechten (1980). Kellner also wrote a biography, Carl Van Vechten and the Irreverent Decades (1968). Other book-length studies include Hisao Kishimoto, Carl Van Vechten: The Man and His Role in the Harlem Renaissance (1983); and Edward Lueders, Carl Van Vechten (1965).
Contributor: Mel Andringa