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9/19/10

Ruby Walker: The Van Vechten party



This relates to a previous post wherein I include a segment from my Bessie Smith biography that describes a party that Bessie and Ruby attended at Car Van Vechten's midtown apartment. You can read that post here: Ruby and Bessie Meet Carlo,  so I won't repeat that, but here is that party described by Ruby in the series of interviews I did for the book, forty years ago. It is one of four recollections that I studied and from which I pieced together my own account of that festive, surprise-filled April evening in 1928. 
Before you listen to Ruby's account, read Van Vechten's own description of Bessie's appearance, which is taken from a 1947 issue of Jazz Record magazine and, understandably, leaves out a few details:
George Gershwin was there and Marguerite d’Alvarez and Constance Collier, possibly Adele Astaire. The drawing room was well filled with sophisticated listeners. Before she could sing, Bessie wanted a drink. She asked for a glass of straight gin, and with one gulp she downed a glass holding nearly a pint. Then, with a burning cigarette depending from one corner of her mouth, she got down to the blues, really down to ‘em, with Porter at the piano. I am quite certain that anybody who was present that night will never forget it. This was no actress, no imitator of a woman’s woes; there was no pretense. It was the real thing—a woman cutting her heart open with a knife until it was exposed for us all to see, so that we suffered as she suffered, exposed with a rhythmic ferocity, indeed, which could hardly be borne. In my own experience, this was Bessie Smith’s greatest performance.

Porter Grainger
You will hear Ruby mention Porter Grainger several times. He was Bessie's pianist and musical director at that time and he was anxious to get in with the Van Vechten crowd, so Bessie made her appearance as a favor to Porter, who she had regarded with more than professional interest. Mr. Grainger was flexible, but he did have his preferences. I should point out that Ruby had never met Carl Van Vechten, but when I mentioned his name, it triggered her memory of the party. In her mind, the event had taken place at one of the posh midtown hotels—"the Waldorf or the Astor"—because Ruby had never seen a private home so luxuriously appointed. This was also the first time she saw a white maid, it shocked her.
Here's how Ruby remembered the Van Vechten party.

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