The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America

The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America

Edward White

Language: English

Pages: 400

ISBN: 0374201579

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

A revealing biography of the influential and controversial cultural titan who embodied an era

The Tastemaker explores the many lives of Carl Van Vechten, the most influential cultural impresario of the early twentieth century: a patron and dealmaker of the Harlem Renaissance, a photographer who captured the era's icons, and a novelist who created some of the Jazz Age's most salacious stories. A close confidant of Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein, George Gershwin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the Knopfs, Van Vechten frolicked in the 1920s Manhattan demimonde, finding himself in Harlem's jazz clubs, Hell's Kitchen's speakeasies, and Greenwich Village's underground gay scene. New York City was a hotbed of vice as well as creativity, and Van Vechten was at the center of it all.
Edward White's biography―the first comprehensive biography of Carl Van Vechten in nearly half a century, and the first to fully explore Van Vechten's tangled relationship to race and sexuality―depicts a controversial figure who defined an age. Embodying many of the contradictions of modern America, Van Vechten was a devoted husband with a coterie of boys by his side, a supporter of difficult art who also loved lowbrow entertainment, and a promoter of the Harlem Renaissance whose bestselling novel―and especially its title―infuriated many of the same African-American artists he championed. Van Vechten's defense of what many Americans considered bad taste―modernist literature, African-American culture, and sexual self-expression―created a popular appetite for these quintessential elements of American art. The Tastemaker encompasses its subject's private fears and longings, as well as Manhattan's raucous, taboo-busting social scene of which he was such a central part. It is a remarkable portrait of a man whose brave journeys across boundaries of race, sexuality, and taste helped make America fully modern.



















Many were enchanting, but many others poorly lit, peculiarly composed, or spoiled by fussy backgrounds that seem more a reflection of the photographer’s taste than the sitter’s personality. It is the number and range of his sitters that are extraordinary. “My first subject was Anna May Wong,” he often claimed, “and my second was Eugene O’Neill.” Though that was not strictly so, it was a trademark Van Vechten embellishment in that it articulates a general truth, in this case the volume of

CVV scrapbook 27, Carl Van Vechten Papers, NYPL. “creative rather than critical”: CVV, Red: Papers on Musical Subjects (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1925), xvii, x. “That was some life … there”: The Reminiscences of Carl Van Vechten (March 3, 1960), 58, CCOHC. “I learned to dislike [it] heartily”: Ibid., 12. “there are lots of ways … eventually”: Ibid., 13. “I didn’t get over it … usually didn’t”: Ibid. “human or normal … call it”: The Reminiscences of Carl Van Vechten (April 23, 1960), 130,

Magazine Pentecostals Père Lachaise Cemetery (Paris) Peterson, Dorothy Peter Whiffle (CVV) Philadelphia Jimmie’s (Harlem) photographs; of African-Americans in Europe; of childhood and adolescent friends; cigarette card; codes for homosexuality in; of CVV; donations and bequests to institutions of; exhibition of; family; gifts of; homoerotic; newspaper; of opera stars; paparazzi; portrait (see also names of subjects); travel Picasso, Pablo Pickford, Mary Pierre (Melville) Piney Woods

of the physical and verbal violence he subjected her to. Reminiscing about their first year of marriage, when she and Van Vechten kept separate apartments, she told a reporter: “I was having an affair with my husband. Living in sin, you know. Oh, I quite miss that.” Since Van Vechten had become a celebrity, however, she had to share him with the whole of New York and its never-ending parties, which made her feel lonely and unloved. On returning to New York from her recent trip to Europe she had

backdrop. In the early weeks of 1928 the next book was finally complete. Spider Boy was the most uncomplicated and conventional of all of Van Vechten’s novels. Returning to his trusted theme of the innocent abroad, the story concerns Ambrose Deacon, a shy and taciturn playwright from the Midwest of meager talents who unintentionally, and against his wishes, becomes the toast of Hollywood. The novel was a lightweight response to the faddishness of the 1920s, with moments of slapstick humor as

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