Carl Van Vechten Final Draft
Carl Van Vechten
Date of Birth: June 17, 1880
Place of Birth: Cedar Rapids, Iowa, U.S.
Date of Death: December 21, 1964 (aged 84)
Place of Death: New York City, New York, U.S.
Country of origin, citizenship: United States
Kind of Artist/Cultural worker: Author, Publisher, Patron, Photographer, Art critic at the New York Times, Literary executor of Gertrude Stein, Literary agent of Wallace Stevens, Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein, Mina Loy, and others.
Dates & Places of Overlap with Loy: Florence (1906~1916), New York City (after 1916)
Avant-garde movements the figure was associated with: Harlem renaissance, Modern dance, New York Avant-Garde
Carl Van Vechten was a writer, photographer, and patron of some of the most influential figures of the New York avant-garde. He served as editor and literary agent for artists such as Mina Loy, Langston Hughes, and Gertrude Stein (MacLeod 361). An admirer of African-American art, Van Vechten was among the first to introduce the works of Harlem Renaissance artists to white audiences.
Van Vechten was born on June 17, 1880 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He began his journalistic career writing for the college paper at the University of Chicago, then wrote for the Chicago American after graduating in 1903. He moved to New York City in 1906, where he worked as a music critic for the New York Times. He took a leave of absence in 1907 to travel Europe and study opera (“Van Vechten Collection”). Van Vechten’s travels in Europe introduced him to many individuals associated with the avant-garde. He made a lifelong friend in Mabel Dodge, who introduced him to Gertrude Stein, the Italian Futurists, and Mina Loy (Kellner 731).
Van Vechten and Loy would remain friends, collaborators, and correspondents long after their first meeting at Dodge’s Florence villa. Loy wrote her “Dearest Carlo” often, sending him poems to publish in New York magazines (Hascombe and Smyers 112-128). “I enclose my fine character study called Giovanni Franchi,” Loy wrote to Van Vechten in July of 1915, “I consider it fine in conception, very personal – I hope it will be some use to you” (Loy 1). Loy’s letters to Van Vechten portray her dry, biting honesty as well as candid vulnerability, their personal tone indicating the mutual trust and admiration between the two figures.
Upon returning to New York in 1909, Van Vechten took an interest in innovators of modern dance like Isadora Duncan and became one of the first modern dance critics (MacLeod 365). In 1913, he left the Times to write for the New York Press. Eventually, he left his job altogether and began an independent writing career.
After his first wife divorced him in 1912, Van Vechten began a lifelong relationship with Russian actress Fania Marinoff, who he married two years later (Kellner 731). He also had romantic relationships with several men, including Saul Mauriber, who became an artistic partner as well, serving as a lighting assistant and archivist for Van Vechten’s photography career (Bernard 223-224).
During the early 1920s, Van Vechten became acquainted with many African-American artists and responded to their innovations in his novels and essays, beginning a collection of African-American art. He used his influence in the New York publishing industry to arrange for the publication of Langston Hughes’s first book of poetry and for Countee Cullen’s work to appear in Vanity Fair (Kellner 744).
As Van Vechten was immersing himself in African-American culture in New York, “Harlemania” was reaching its peak. “Going uptown” was a popular form of entertainment for wealthy white families eager to taste Harlem’s cultural offerings. Van Vechten was in demand as a tour guide for such families, who relied on him to direct them to the district’s finest establishments (“Van Vechten, Carl” 281). Van Vechten’s patronage of Harlem society and nightlife has earned him celebration as well as criticism. His detractors argue that the white enthusiasts of Harlem culture benefitted more than the African-American artists they promoted (“Van Vechten, Carl” 279).
At age 52, Van Vechten turned to photography as his primary mode of artistic expression, beginning an extensive collection of photographs of influential artists. In 1937, he took a series of photographs of Mina Loy and her daughter Fabienne (Van Vechten, “Fabyan [i.e. Fabienne] Lloyd”).
He died in New York City at age 84 on December 21, 1964. Saul Mauriber became the photographic executor for his estate, and entrusted the Library of Congress with over 1,400 photographs in 1966 (“Van Vechten Collection”). He remains an important peripheral figure of the Harlem Renaissance and a central agent of the New York avant-garde.
Bernard, Emily. “Van Vechten, Carl.” Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered History in America, edited by Marc Stein, vol. 3, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004, pp. 223-224. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
Hanscombe, Gillan E. and Virginia L. Smyers. Writing for their Lives: The Modernist Women 1910-1940. Northeastern University Press, 1988. http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/loy/bio.htm
Kellner, Bruce. “Vechten, Carl Van 1880-1964.” American Writers, no. 2, 1981, pp. 725–751. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
Loy, Mina. “[Letter : Mina Loy to Carl Van Vechten]” Beinecke Library, Yale University Rare Book Room & Manuscript Library. July 1915. brbl-dl.library.yale.edu/vufind/Record/3868258
MacLeod, Kirsten. “The ‘Librarian’s Dream-Prince’: Carl Van Vechten and America’s Modernist Cultural Archives Industry.” Libraries & the Cultural Record, vol. 46, no. 4, 2011, pp. 360–387, www.jstor.org/stable/23053604.
Van Vechten, Carl. “Fabyan [i.e. Fabienne] Lloyd.” Beinecke Library, Yale University Rare Book Room & Manuscript Library. 19 December 1937. brbl-dl.library.yale.edu/vufind/Record/3558071
“Van Vechten, Carl.” Harlem Renaissance, edited by Christine Slovey and Kelly King Howes, vol. 1, 2001, pp. 279-285. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
“Van Vechten Collection – Carl Van Vechten Biography and Chronology.” Carl Van Vechten Biography and Chronology, Library of Congress, 1 Jan. 1970, www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/van/biography.html.