The Van Vechten Files

Posted on 01. Apr, 2008 by in Criticals

“This is it.”

Cut out of newsprint like a ransom note, the words sprawl across the top of the page. Below lies a large black and white photograph of a young, pale-skinned man wearing nothing but a garland. His lips shine; his pelvis thrusts forward in bold display. There’s no getting around the focus of the picture: The penis, standing proud at center stage.

I furtively scan the Beinecke reading room: Has anyone looked up from his medieval manuscripts? The coast is clear. I look back down to read the last words pasted on the page.

“Come on in, Sucker.” Welcome to page one of the scrapbooks of Carl Van Vechten, luminary of the twentieth century New York arts scene and notorious provocateur. The foremost white patron of the Harlem Renaissance, he brought Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston to publishers and white tourists to Harlem in the 1920s and 30s. Equal parts patron and partier, “Carlo” knew everyone and everyone came to his parties. One of the best-connected people of his era, he has also been one of the most neglected in its recent historical memory. Van Vechten’s scrapbooks, however, are reviving his legacy in ways no one anticipated. The books arrived at Yale, packed in three mysterious cartons bearing strict instructions not to be opened until 25 years after his death, which occurred in 1964. Patricia Willis, the soft-spoken curator of American literature at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, remembers when the albums were still a mystery. “They were in the stacks with rope around them that said ‘restricted,’” she says.

As the 25-year mark drew near, scholars assumed they were about to unveil Van Vechten’s diaries. “They said, ‘Of course, this is going to be exciting, and let’s open those journals and have a party,’ and the curator said, ‘Well, I don’t think so…’ It was a good instinct.” The few people who did attend the 1989 opening, including Willis, were shocked by what they found: 18 scrapbooks of graphic homoeroticism, full of mischief and devoid of explanation.

The scrapbooks take Van Vechten’s legendarily wicked humor to an outrageous new level. He had a knack for the fiendish double entendre, turning otherwise innocent phrases into cheeky captions for his images of conspicuous erections: “Such fine Meats at Low Prices!” “Learn to sip, not guzzle.” He reveled in the seductive tone of twentieth century advertising. Pitches like “Come say ‘HELLO’ to a GOOD BUY!”, “You’ll like it!”, and “Just taste this new kind!” become the sly subtitles to pictures of naked men. He was especially fond of ads in the second person, wielding an aggressively intimate you that makes the viewer feel strangely complicit in his vice.

Van Vechten collected newspaper clippings chronicling Harlem drag balls, early sex-change operations (“GI Who Turned Woman is a Happy Beauty”), court cases for “morals charges,” and abuse incidents. He assembled more restrained, if still theatrical, black and white photographs of male nudes, both Caucasian and African American, which most scholars think are mostly or entirely the work of Van Vechten. Nothing escaped him: Photos of ambiguously homoerotic Greek vases, labeled in childishly rounded handwriting, nestle against newspaper cutouts of male wrestlers locked in combat.

But as we—librarians, art historians, gender studies scholars, and the casual Beinecke browser—try to understand the Van Vechten behind these irreverent collages, we must confront the darker side of the scrapbooks. First, a persistent strain of pedophilia. “Do you want a baby?” says a clipping next to a photograph of an adolescent boy wearing nothing but Greek lace-up sandals; on another page, two boys hold each other’s erections. There is also a troubling strain of racism. A young, tall blond leers down at a shorter black boy, who grins broadly as he grips the other’s shoulders proprietarily; one of its four captions reads, “In identifying meat, color is our best guide.” Another page shows a French soldier sodomizing an Arab boy. Such scenes, numerous and shockingly extreme, are impossible to dismiss. They threaten to crumble an already shaky understanding of a complex man.

Van Vechten, scholars speculate, compiled the scrapbooks between the 19 0s and the 1950s. Participating in a trend of scrapbook sharing, he probably passed them around and received clipping contributions from a small and covert circle of friends. Since going public, the scrapbooks have gathered enough of a cult following among academics that they’re beginning to fall apart; they flaked as I turned the pages. Still, their current audience, like the first, remains small and under the radar. The albums form a mere fraction of the legacy of a man who worked tirelessly to preserve the cultural artifacts of his era and to showcase its biracialism. A fervent believer in cultural cross-pollination, Van Vechten convinced his white artist friends to leave their collections to Fisk, a historically African American university in Nashville, and his black friends to donate their papers to Yale’s own Beinecke, thereby creating the treasured James Weldon Johnson collection.

Van Vechten had a keen sense of his own role in history. He purposefully made himself an indispensable commercial and cultural link between Harlem and white New York. Jennifer Wood, the effusive dean of Ezra Stiles College and Yale’s inhouse expert on the scrapbooks, argues that the Harlem Renaissance would not have occurred as it did without him. “He really brought the power of the white publishing houses to the Harlem Renaissance,” she explains. “And that shaped it, for better or worse.”

In the 1960s, when the Harlem Renaissance came back in vogue, historians tried to forget Van Vechten, and, with him, the uncomfortable role of whites in the movement. In the past decade, however, he has reappeared in academia. “He speaks to some issues that we’re working out now,” Wood explains, “in terms of white fasci- nation with black culture and the many ramifications that can have.”

The scrapbooks lie at the heart of the Van Vechten dilemma, forcing us to consider how prejudice, even if unconscious, persisted in this cross-racial pioneer. While he was exchanging long, frequent letters with Langston Hughes, he was also collecting typewritten poems —scattered among the newspaper clippings in his scrapbooks—full of sexual sing-song rhymes unprintably offensive toward blacks. Even as his private scrapbook snapshots betray his erotic and exoticized fascination with black bodies, his public photographs of black artists, musicians, and writers show a profound respect for and will to document African American artistic production. These scrapbooks may be the last frontier of Van Vechten’s persona, a dangerous landscape that tempts scholars to pack it in unopenable boxes and return to the “Carlo” they knew and loved.

Wood, who is writing her dissertation on Van Vechten, knows firsthand the difficulty of verbalizing the contents of the books. “Nothing can prepare you for sitting down with them,” she says. Most scholars don’t even try. Yale’s own lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender studies website describes the collections as “a light hearted, ironic comment on homosexual men, lesbians, and masculinity and femininity.” Jonathan Weinberg, who wrote one of the first pieces of scholarship about the scrapbooks, a 1994 article titled “Boy Crazy,” celebrates how Van Vechten “found homosexuality where homosexuality had been suppressed… and he found homosexuality where it was not supposed to be.” Yet Weinberg fails to mention race throughout the first half of the essay, and by the end of the 25-page article the issue seems almost forgotten. The images reproduced from the scrapbooks usually show only photographs of whites or the least offensive images of blacks. Confronted with elements incongruous to a well-respected historical figure, scholars have chosen to turn away.

Wood agrees that academia has downplayed the most disturbing aspects of the books, focusing instead on their straightforward, easily celebrated components. Scholars have seized on the albums as an obsessively meticulous record of gay history, a discipline in which many documents have been lost or destroyed. “The archive in its own right is stunning,” says Wood. “I mean it’s one of the best, if not the best… of this period.” Combined with the Fisk and James Weldon Johnson collections, the scrapbook archive cements Van Vechten’s place as an invaluable historian.

Art historians, meanwhile, have concentrated on the less pornographic, more aestheticized nude portraits, those that coincide with Van Vechten’s image as a praiseworthy photographer. Some scholars avoid the albums entirely. “There are twenty books about him from the last twenty years that do not mention the scrapbooks at all,” Wood says. “There are people who are really steering away from them.” One of the reasons scholars may shirk from interpreting the scrapbooks is that, in his life and work, Van Vechten remained stubbornly unreadable. “It’s hard to say what he actually felt about really anything,” Wood confesses. “He has his tongue firmly placed in his cheek at all times.”

In a few months, Willis plans to launch an exhibit of Van Vechten’s relatively unknown color photographs of African American artists. This show is intended to broaden perceptions of Van Vechten, but no images from the scrapbooks will be included. In 2006, scholar James Smalls opened the scrapbooks to an in-depth discussion of race. In a book titled The Homoerotic Photography of Carl Van Vechten, Smalls argues that Van Vechten “needed” the biracial element of the scrapbooks to justify both his erotic interest in African Americans and his faith in cultural interracialism. This explanation seems inadequate given the aggressive and unhesitating nature of Van Vechten’s racial eroticism. The argument also neglects the fact that the albums, though private during Van Vechten’s lifetime, were eventually meant to go public.

“There’s a little bit of social engineering, there’s a little bit of control in everything he does,” says Wood. Whatever his personal feelings, Van Vechten never forgot about his public image. Still, Smalls hits something at the heart of the scrapbooks. Just as Van Vechten may have “needed” the scrapbooks to see his own life in a certain way, every viewer sees in them what he or she needs to see. Some see a simple historical archive, others a celebrated point in the history of gay rights, and still others an aesthetic contribution to photography. Van Vechten, the consummate manipulator, has become the object of our own manipulations.

When I view the scrapbooks, I squirm at Van Vechten’s assumed license to cross and re-cross the racial line. He would have underestimated just how unacceptable such an attitude would seem in 2008. Wood characterizes Van Vechten as “understanding himself as being able to transgress racial boundaries…he felt he had some sort of special dispensation to speak for and about African Americans.” He is, Wood says, “a projectory of Elvis Presley and Eminem, what have you. People have this white character who’s going to talk about race as an insider in some way.”

I once researched Van Vechten’s notorious 1926 novel Nigger Heaven, a bawdy “insider’s” view of Harlem life. While the book projects an innocent disregard for its own problematic nature, there is something knowing in its ability to capture the reader’s reluctant fascination. While much of Harlem railed against it, as historian Michael S. Miller writes in “Activism in the Harlem Renaissance,” his 2008 essay, it was the number one novel on the reserve list at a Harlem branch of the New York Public Library. Everyone read it—in private. When I read Nigger Heaven four years ago, I was ashamed to be seen with it and a little disgusted by it. But I have remained fascinated by its author. Poring over my Beinecke loot, I think that perhaps Van Vechten was right to address his scrapbook viewers as “you.” My fascination makes me feel as complicit in the making of the albums as the people who sent their sexual poems to “Carlo.” Wood calls Van Vechten “visionary;” he certainly planned for the albums to cause a scandal. “Yale may not think so, but it’ll be just jolly,” he promises on one page. “Carl had a penchant for shocking people,” says Willis. He would have loved to see me fidget in my stiff Beinecke chair.

Photo by: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Van Vechten Collection

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