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Van Vechten - Part 1 (An amazing trunk)

Forty years ago, when I was working on my biography of Bessie Smith, I was under pressure to get it written in less time than any reasonable person would allocate to research alone. I had spent considerable time preparing Bessie Smith's entire recorded output for release by Columbia and the enormity of that project had generated media interest, some of it spurred by Grammys I received for truly inferior liner notes. Even so, I was not surprised when a publisher, Stein & Day, called to find out if I would be interested in writing a book. The thought of doing that had not occurred to me, but, having bemoaned the fact that no half-way decent biography of my favorite blues queen existed, I rather liked the idea. They would get back to me, said Sol Stein.

In the meantime, actually that same week, I received a call from a young lady in Philadelphia who was about to start work on a Bessie biography and sought my help. When I told her that I might be writing such a book myself and that I was just waiting to hear a publisher's decision, she all but begged me to say no. I told her that I might not have to say that, but if the publisher called me back, I would not turn him down. 

For some reason, the young lady asked if she could come to New York and see me, anyway. When she arrived at my apartment, a week later, I had been given the nod and my research had begun. I decided to discourage her, if I could, so I asked a couple of friends of mine to come over and give a performance. Placing them at a table in an adjoining room, I made sure that they could be seen from the living room couch, where my competitor would be seated—it worked, sort of. With stacks of file folders and newspaper clippings on the table, my friends appeared to be poring over some very interesting material, stopping now and then to share what seemed to be a particularly interesting item. The young lady was taking it all in and I think I heard her gulp.

She left my apartment without any deeper knowledge of Bessie Smith than she had brought with her. Mission accomplished—well, not quite, for she was determined to write her book, with or without my cooperation. More on that, later.

Because I was being rushed, I had to hire friends who could spend hours at libraries looking over microfilm, bringing back anything that might be useful. I told them what to look for and they were quick to catch on, all the time becoming increasingly engrossed in a subject that told them much about their own heritage. One of them, Hank, was also looking for an apartment during this time. They were not as impossible to find back then, and the rents were still reasonable, so Hank soon found a great little place right in the heart of Greenwich Village. An extraordinary thing happened when the landlord took him into the basement to show him where he could store some things. Hank spotted an old trunk of the kind that people used to hop ocean liners with for pre-war transatlantic treks, and when he remarked on its beauty, the landlord told him that it had been left there many years ago and that he was welcome to it.

Bessie Smith (Van Vechten Sep. 1936)
This turned out to be a providential find, for the first thing Hank saw when he dusted off and opened the lid was a photograph of Ethel Waters. It was a postcard to Jimmy Daniels from Carl Van Vechten, who had taken the picture, and it came from a stack of photos. Hank picked up a handful and didn't have to dig deep before he found one of Bessie Smith! How does one explain such a coincidence? One doesn't even try.

The trunk belonged to Jimmy Daniels, an entertainer with an illustrious background in show business. I met him through my friend, Alberta Hunter, who was about to make an extraordinary comeback after spending decades out of the spotlight, working as a nurse. In the Thirties, she and Jimmy had shared an apartment in Paris and often appeared on the same bill. I had spent many hours listening to them reminisce, hours that I ought to have been recording, but this was not work, this was relaxing among friends. Work should never interfere with personal friendship, and there have been many times when my priorities cost me a golden opportunity to capture history. Yes, one later wishes that one had that tape to savor, but no regrets.

When Alberta began performing at The Cookery, and it became clear that this two week engagement was open ended, Jimmy invited her to stay with him in his Chelsea apartment rather than go back to her Roosevelt Island place every night. They eventually took a bigger apartment together, so I saw a lot of Jimmy during that time. Of course, I told him about the trunk, but he said he did not seem interested in having it back, and when I told him that it was a young aspiring black actor who found it, he said, "let him keep it."

Besides being a writer, Carl Van Vechten was a prolific portrait photographer whose subjects truly formed a who's who of the intellectual and artistic world. He took those wonderful final pictures of Bessie, and he aimed his camera at the likes of Lukas Foss, Deems Taylor, Gertrude Stein, Billie Holiday, Eugene O'Neill, Martha Graham, Orson Welles....you get the picture, as it were. His backgrounds were often busy wall paper or drapes, and he had a passion for photographing people gazing at masks.
Van Vechten liked busy backgrounds and face props.

Bette Davis at a U.S.O. Stagedoor Canteen.
Jimmy and Carlo, as Van Vechten called himself, had been close friends since the Thirties, and several items in the trunk reflected that. During WWII, when Jimmy was stationed in Florida with the Army, Van Vechten spent much of his time doing celebrity duty at the U.S.O.'s Stagedoor Canteen, just off Broadway. There were such places in several cities during the war, the biggest being New York and Los Angeles, and here service men and women could relax, dance with movie idols to some of the greatest bands around, and have stars like Betty Grable, Jack Benny and Bette Davis serve them food and soft drinks. Van Vechten was among the many writers who volunteered in these canteens. Here is a letter from the trunk, dated November 21, 1942, in which he refers to a canteen and some disconsolate dancing boys.

Van Vechten dropped some celebrated names in this letter to Jimmy Daniels.

Carlo often aimed his admiration at Jimmy Daniels.
Van Vechten was a highly respected man whose interest in black people led him to play a rather good role in the Harlem Renaissance—well, he knew the artistic community quite well, Here (to save myself some time) is a pertinent fragment from my book on Bessie Smith:

Certainly Van Vechten’s writing, even in the Fifties, was characterized by a Great White Father tone that patronized as it commended, but this subtle—and, one might conclude, innocent—racism should not obscure his positive contributions. Regardless of what motivated it, Van Vechten’s attitude represented a new liberating voice for his time, and his support of black artists like Bessie must be seen within that context. At first, his efforts benefited only a select few, but he had sown the seeds for the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, a cultural movement that brought attention to the works of Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and others. This he was an important force in what came to be a landmark in the history of African-American culture.

In their spacious, lavishly decorated apartment on Manhattan’s West Fifty-fifth Street, Van Vechten and his wife, the former Russian ballerina Fania Marinoff, presided over a remarkable salon whose guest list traditionally comprised some of the New York cultural community’s foremost figures, inevitably including a sprinkling of uptown notables. Having black people on one’s guest list was a novelty in white upper circles, so Van Vechten’s parties might be regarded as precursors to Leonard Bernstein’s radical chic gatherings of the 1960s.

But Van Vechten’s interest in black people was not limited to their artistic offerings. Along with his deep fascination for the ghetto’s pulsating music, Carlo had a weakness for its strapping young men. To accommodate that interest, he maintained a small Harlem apartment whose decor sharply contrasted that of his midtown residence: painted entirely black, its ceilings were decorated with silver stars that glowed pink from strategically located red lights. This place was used solely for Van Vechten’s intimate nocturnal gatherings—asides that only a small inner circle of his downtown friends knew about. "It was a seductive place," recalled entertainer Jimmy Daniels, who only once visited the uptown pad, but was a frequent midtown guest. "There were no chairs or tables, just red velvet cushions, and some of them were more like beds—well, I guess they were beds. It was a decorator’s nightmare, and Carlo acted quite differently when he was there. I don’t think Fania even knew about the place."

On New Year's Day, 1943, Van Vechten wrote another letter to Jimmy, full off intriguing references and, of course, dropped names. I think Carlo missed his calling by not having a gossip column. In this letter, he also mentions Babe Wallace who, like so many other black performers was heading to Hollywood for the filming of "Stormy Weather."

This is becoming a longer post than I had anticipated, so I will continue it in a couple of days. I leave you with a link to the Wikipedia bio of Van Vechten. A truly interesting man.

1 comment:

  1. Chris, when I see you've posted something new, I always wonder what surprises you have in store -- this one's a classic short story, except it's true! I had stumbled across the online archive of Van Vechten's photographs of Black women artists and found them unsetting -- especially the nearly nude photographs of Billie Holiday. Here's that post in case any of your readers want to be taken to a trult uncomfortable archive: http://jazzlives.wordpress.com/2009/12/16/billie-holiday-seen/

    Admiringly, Michael Steinman