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Van Vechten - Part 2 (Ruby and Bessie meet Carlo)

This is a continuation of an earlier post. If you wish to go to Part I, click here.

Carl Van Vechten was such a great fan of Bessie Smith that he purchased several copies of each record, keeping in mind that 78 rpm discs had a tendency to become worn. He left his collection to the James Weldon Johnson Collection at Yale, stipulating that no record was to be played more than once in a year. This rule served us well when engineer Larry Hiller and I worked on Columbia's reissue project and visited the collection with transfer equipment.

It had long been Van Vechten's wish to have Bessie attend one of his parties, but, of course, he expected her to sing for his celebrity gathering. When he finally got his wish, it was with the help of Bessie's musical director, pianist Porter Grainger. A gay man, he had long wanted to become a part of Carlo's inner circle, so Bessie was his ticket. Van Vechten would later describe the evening, but his story was far from complete.

Character actor Leigh Whipper (20th Century Fox Films 1943)
Here, from my book, Bessie, is an account pieced together from the published recollections of Langston Hughes and Van Vechten, as well as my interviews with Bessie's niece, Ruby Walker, and that wonderful character actor, Leigh Whipper (seen here in a scene from "The Ox-Bow Incident"). I should point out that the dialogue is as told to me by Ruby and Mr. Whipper, whose accounts were almost identical, and while it may not be verbatim, I have good reason to believe that it is very close to it. You should also know that Bessie was wearing an ermine coat and that she had loaned her mink to Ruby for the occasion. They made the visit in April, 1928, between shows at the Lafayette Theater. It is lengthy, but I hope you find it interesting:

The maid offered to take her coat, but Bessie’s brushed her aside and breezed past the welcoming party into the room beyond. Barely visible in the oversized mink, Ruby trailed behind her. "It was so big, you couldn’t even see me! I could wrap it around me several times," she recalled. Bringing up the rear was Porter Grainger, elegantly dressed and somewhat nervous. As he moved slowly behind Bessie, Ruby recalls that Porter was  graciously and almost apologetically returning the smiles Bessie had ignored.

Taking no notice of a chorus of salutatory "Oh, Miss Smiths," Bessie, cold sober at this point, did not come to a halt until someone mentioned a drink. It was her host, Van Vechten, radiating the sort of glee a celebrity hunter might exhibit upon having at last captured his prey. "How about a lovely, lovely dry martini?," he suggested, clasping his hands together.
"Whaaat a dry martini?," bellowed Bessie. Ain’t you got some whiskey, man? That’ll be the only way I’ll touch it. I don’t know about no dry martinis, nor wet ones either."

"Of course," Van Vechten replied. "I think we can conjure up something you like," he purred  and disappeared to fulfill Bessie’s request.

Turning to Ruby, Bessie noticed her tripping over the enormous mink. "Take that damn thing off," she ordered, handing her the ermine to hold. Thoroughly embarrassed by Bessie’s brazenness, Porter pretended to be oblivious to it and began to distance himself from Bessie and Ruby. He sought to blend, as best he could, into the genteel atmosphere of the drawing room as Ruby, hidden behind the huge fur coats she carried, stumbled to the side of the foyer. Because they were only to stay there a short time, no one bothered to relieve Ruby of the coats. "I didn’t even get a drink, she complained, but I had a ringside seat."

As guests gathered around her, contralto Marguerite d’Alvarez stood at the piano and conferred with her accompanist. As he returned with Bessie’s drink, Van Vechten paused at the opera singers’s side and announced that "Madam d’Alvarez will sing an aria." Then he graciously made his way over to Bessie and handed her the drink. She promptly downed it  and handed the empty glass back. "I think I’ll have another one of those."

Ruby recalled hearing Ms. d'Alvarez sing, but she could not see very far into the living room and thus did not notice, as Langston Hughes did, that Bessie was riveted by the operatic performance and that she walked over to Ms. d’Alvarez when it was over, slapped her on the back, and advised, "Honey, don’t let nobody tell you you can’t sing." Then she walked back to her host, mumbling something about her throat being dry. 

Marguerite d'Alvarez (Van Vechten photo)
Porter stood off to the side, horrified and embarrassed, but Van Vechten motioned for him to come over—it was time for Bessie’s performance. He led them over to the piano and disappeared briefly to return with another drink for Bessie. As before, she gulped it down and handed the emptied glass to Van Vechten for another refill. Someone asked her what she was going to sing. "Don’t you worry about it," she said. "My piano player knows."

Porter Grainger smiled shyly and went into the opening bars of Work House Blues. Then, with subtle, sensual movements and a heaving bosom, Bessie mesmerized her audience. The guests listened attentively as she delivered her tale of hard times. Perhaps not everyone understood the words, but they got the message and, as it cut through the scented air and novelty became art, they surely understood why Carlo had offered this treat.

Ruby recalled that Bessie sang six or seven numbers, but Leigh Whipper remembered hearing only two or three, each followed by enthusiastic applause. There were apparently also further requests for refills, which made Porter increasingly uneasy. Only he and Ruby knew what effect the alcohol was having on Bessie, so they felt relief when she finished a number and announced, "This is it!"

"Bessie was good and drunk when she finished her last song," said Ruby. "So Porter came over to me and said, 'Let’s get her out of here quick, before she shows her ass.’ We got her coat on her and got her to the front door when all of a sudden this woman comes out of nowhere. 'Miss Smith, you’re not leaving without kissing me goodbye,’ she said." Standing directly in front of Bessie, the diminutive lady raised herself up on her toes and threw her arms around Bessie’s neck. Porter’s fears were coming true, Bessie was about to fly off the handle.

Almost hanging onto her neck, the lady started to pull Bessie down to her level, but she did not get far before Bessie exploded. "It was a mess," said Ruby. "Bessie screamed, 'Get the fuck away from me!’" With that, she thrust her arms out, throwing the poor woman to the floor. "Then," Ruby continued, "she said, 'I ain’t never heard of such shit!’and poor Porter, he would have done anything to be with that crowd, but now Bessie had done shown her ass to all them people. I felt so sorry for him."

Even forty-three years later, Ruby had no idea who the effusive woman was, but Leigh Whipper, whose account of the incident was practically identical to Ruby’s, identified the lady on the floor as the evening’s hostess: Fania Marinoff Van Vechten.

Following a painful silence, Van Vechten and one of his guests helped his wife to her feet.  Surrounded by stunned celebrities, Bessie stood in the middle of the foyer, ready to take on the whole crowd. Porter knew that she had only begun—it was time to get her out of there. Grabbing Bessie gently by one arm, he told Ruby to take the other; as guests—some horrified, others bemused—followed them with their stares, Ruby and Porter escorted the Empress out of the apartment and proceeded slowly down the hall towards the elevator. Van Vechten trailed closely behind, seemingly giving his review of the night’s performance.

"It’s all right, Miss Smith," he said softly, "you were magnificent tonight."

They had reached the elevator before it dawned on Bessie that she was actually being led away. Shouting, "What the fuck are y’all pullin’ me all over the damn place for?", she threw her arms in the air and this time almost knocked Ruby and Porter to the floor.

When the elevator door opened, she quieted down, raised her head high, marched in past the startled operator, and sank to the floor in the corner of the car.

"I don’t care if she dies," sighed Porter, straightening the tam on his head.

Books have been written about Carl Van Vechten, but we have yet to see an honest one—I wonder if we ever will. Apropos books, Van Vechten wrote several, but none more controversial than his novel, "Nigger Heaven". The story was unusual in that it's characters were middle-class blacks, but many condemned it without reading it. Still, even that title did not lose Carlo his black friends. That in and of itself might be an interesting subject. Perhaps I will return to Van Vechten at another time, but, for now, we leave Carlo with another of his letters to Jimmy Daniels. Perhaps the most interesting one. I think we have to use our imagination as far as the busboy photos are concerned. I asked Jimmy if he had one to show me. He only laughed.

 Excerpt from "Bessie" - Yale University Press ©2003 by Chris Albertson

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