Category Archives: American history

Inspectin like Van Vechten – part one

“So like Van Vechten/Start inspectin’/Go Harlem Go” – Andy Razaf, Go Harlem, 1930

Everyplace I looked when I was researching my book, up popped Carl Van Vechten. (His photographs of some of the famous people he knew in his lifetime are scattered throughout this posting.) I could not shake this troublesome bon vivant who seemed to know nearly all of the important American artists in my time period (which runs from about 1905 through 1932). And he lived for quite some time after this, too. Carl-Van-Vechten Although he’s now known mostly for his role in the Harlem Renaissance, and the authoring of a notorious book, his creative reach actually went far beyond that. I think of him as being a kind of early, less talented version of Truman Capote. (He even looks a little like Capote.) He knew all of the most interesting writers — and musicians, theater and film people, artists, journalists….He made it his business to have his nose in all kinds of business, and the more parties (and alcohol) that involved, the better. He went to all the best soirees; he had the best salon; he snuggled up to rich people (and everyone else); he was gay. (Critics used to hedge here and say “bi” or even “maybe bi” — he was married for years to actress Fania Marinoff —

Fania Marinoff in her apartment

Fania Marinoff in her apartment

but in the period, gossip had it that he was gay, and he left behind a stash of nude male photography and jokes about homosexuality kept in files to be only opened ten years after his death. His sexual identity, of course, had an impact on who he knew, where he went, his willingness to dress flamboyantly (which was ridiculed in print), and how people perceived him (again, he was often ridiculed). It’s also helping to create a resurgence of interest in his work and life.

Carl Van Vechten was a cultural critic, first in Chicago, then in New York. He published essays and reviews about the arts in major New York newspapers and magazines, giving him a great deal of power over the artists who courted his favor. His collections of criticism provide wide ranging information about the arts of the period, and he was willing to shift easily between what was then considered to be high art (Stravinsky) and low art (Bessie Smith).

Mabel Dodge & Tony Luhan, 1934.

Mabel Dodge & Tony Luhan, 1934.

His novels are mostly about Carl Van Vechten, even when he attempts to adopt a black narrative persona. They are, for the most part, romans à clef. My favorite of his books is actually his first, Peter Whiffle, a satire on the salon run by the rich white New York flibbertigibbet Mabel Dodge. He, like Truman Capote, mostly revealed dirt about his friends, most of whom were not only tolerant, but flattered. His specialty was light, rather silly, witty, observational books about social circles. Even Nigger Heaven, the book that cost him his career, was centered around social observation. Van Vechten really was always inspectin’.
Bill "Bojangles" Robinson

Bill “Bojangles” Robinson

Lena Horne, 1941

Lena Horne, 1941

Van Vechten is a complex figure, one that I’m still trying to understand. It is less that he himself is difficult — it’s the legacy of his role that creates the problem. Van Vechten shot a hole in his reputation by writing a book from the point of view of a black man, setting it in black nightclubs, basing characters on real people in the black community, and — the real sin — calling that book Nigger Heaven. At the time the book was written, Van Vechten had many friends, among them many close black friends — important black friends. These included Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, James Weldon Johnson, and Countee Cullen. Hughes and Johnson helped Van Vechten with the book, in fact, while Countee Cullen broke ties with him for fifteen years.
James Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson

n heavenBefore and after the book’s publication, Van Vechten actually did, in practical terms, a lot of good work in promoting black writers, musicians, and actors by giving them positive reviews in white magazines and newspapers. And he began doing this even before the time period of the Harlem Renaissance. While his novel is offensive in some ways, it’s actually more progressive than the work of most whites of the period. I’ve read memoirs, essays, novels, and other accounts by his peers, and the offhand racism expressed in them is truly shocking. Honestly, they would nearly all avoid taking any kind of black art seriously at all, and would not find black people worth writing about. (It’s this dismissiveness that is really creepy.)

Langston Hughes, sharp.  1934.

Langston Hughes, sharp. 1934.

This doesn’t excuse Van Vechten; it only makes the point that he basically meant well. And his information about nightclubs and people from the period is useful from a historical standpoint. He spent much of his spare time hanging out in black clubs, and his descriptions are apparently accurate.
The interior of Connie's Inn, one of Van Vechten's haunts.

The interior of Connie’s Inn, one of Van Vechten’s haunts.

Van Vechten’s favorite club in the 20’s, and a club featured in Nigger Heaven, was Small’s Paradise, which considered kicking him out after he published the novel. The book made him seem no longer a friend, but someone slumming and taking notes. This is a film clip that features quite a few of the Small’s entertainers from 1933, including Roy Eldridge on trumpet, Dickie Wells on trombone, Mabel Scott singing “Stop the Sun, Stop the Moon,” the dancing of Henry “Rubberlegs” Williams, a jazz singer as well as a dancer, and Elmer Snowden on banjo. If I had been around then, I would have tried to hang out here, too.YouTube Preview Image

More to come!

a little more about Ethel

ethel-waters-01-smroots-ewIn 1921 Ethel Waters was picked up by Black Swan Records, a publisher of what were then known as “race records.” Initially, race records were for black audiences (right?), but it wasn’t long before white people started looking for them, too. Black Swan was a label out of Harlem, and Ethel was one of their first artists. Her first record sold 500,000 copies in six months. This is phenomenal by the standards of the day, and especially so considering that she was among the earliest black artists to be recorded. Ethel’s account of her first recording goes like this:

…. I found Fletcher Henderson sitting behind a desk and looking very prissy and important. … There was much discussion of whether I should sing popular or ‘cultural’ numbers. They finally decided on popular, and I asked one hundred dollars for making the record. I was still getting only thirty-five dollars a week, so one hundred dollars seemed quite a lump sum to me. Mr. Pace paid me the one hundred dollars, and that first Black Swan record I made had Down Home Blues on one side, Oh Daddy on the other. It proved a great success … got Black Swan out of the red.
.black swan ethelblack swan 2

Here’s an audio clip of Down Home Blues, 1921, on Black Swan.
The biography Heat Wave by Donald Bogan is an interesting account of the personal and professional life of this complex woman. Her rise from poverty to becoming an actual recording smash and occasional film star really is quite amazing. She had a genuine ability to connect with her audience in a way that feels warm and sincere. Her directness, which was sometimes simply mean-spirited and angry in her personal life, comes across in her work as a kind of intimate honesty. We feel connected to a real woman. To me, there’s an element of pathos in some of her work that strikes me as a genuine — not a pose — though it can appear in the silliest of scripted situations. I found myself moved by her sweet singing in this scene from the 1943 film Cabin in the Sky. She’s performing here with Eddie “Rochester” Anderson (on guitar) and Bill Bailey (the tap dancer).YouTube Preview Image

I found another film clip, this from 1933 and a film called Rufus Jones for President. Try to look past the racist mugging if you can and just listen to Ethel — except, well, you might take note of a seven-year-old Sammy Davis, Jr. serving as the judge. It’s a shame that the films we have of black performers in this era are often full of racist touches — but they’re all we’ve got. The lyrics to Underneath a Harlem Moon are really pretty weird; the song is written by Mack Gordon, a Polish Jew. Sometimes it’s racist, yet in the period it was written was widely performed by black jazz artists. Yuval Taylor on his blog Faking It points out that in the movie, Ethel changes the last half of the song and claims it for her own. (At least we think it’s Ethel who changed it? It’s hard to be sure about that, I think.) These are the lyrics:
Once we wore bandannas, now we wear Parisian hats,
Once we were barefoot now we wear shoes and spats,
Once we were Republican but now we’re Democrats
Underneath our Harlem moon.

We don’t pick no cotton, pickin’ cotton is taboo.
All we pick is numbers, and that includes you white folks too,
’Cause if we hit, we pay our rent on any avenue
Underneath our Harlem moon.

We just thrive on dancin’;
Why be blue and forlorn?
We just laugh, grin, let the landlord in–
That’s why house rent parties were born!

We also drink our gin, puff our reefers, when we’re feelin’ low,
Then we’re ready to step out and take care of any so-and-so.
Don’t stop for law or no traffic when we’re rarin’ to go,
Underneath our Harlem moon.

And here is the performance in question, from Rufus Jones for President:

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My reading about Ethel primarily goes through the 1930’s, so the following comments speak to who she was at that time. (I actually find her later appearances in so many “mammy”-type roles a little depressing.) There’s been a lot of discussion about Ethel being bisexual. It’s true. But as Donald Bogan points out, and as I’ve found in all kinds of reading from the era of the 1900-1930’s, this was not all that uncommon. A lot of women, especially younger ones, had sexual and romantic relationships with other women, and then went on to marry men. They seem to be a bit iffy on whether they considered themselves to be lesbians; generally, they didn’t. There’s considerable denial, professing it all to be a kind of experimental fluke. (Maybe it’s not all that different now.) Others remained in same sex relationships to some degree or another throughout their lives, as Ethel did, even when she had three husbands. These choices by female performers made sense; they were preyed upon by managers, stage door dandies, producers, and on and on, and they hung together out of protection. (You can even see this in a lot of pre-code movies – think Joan Blondell rolling her stockings behind the stage door. The movies don’t show the women sleeping together, but it’s often just a kiss away.) Performers had to sleep and dress in close quarters, and sometimes share beds, and, well, it seemed natural. Ethel as a young woman did have a relationship with a dancer, Ethel Williams, that lasted several years, until Ms. Williams got married. (Ethel Williams’ story is interesting, too — she was a whiz at the dance the turkey trot, and was in one of the most important early black musical plays, Darktown Follies.) Ethel Waters was apparently a bit of dog for a good deal of her life — she got around and didn’t mind who knew it. She was her own woman. waters

Ethel Waters, Sweet Mama Stringbean

a young Ethel Waters

When I was growing up, I watched way too much TV. I realize now that what I was seeing were the fading careers of once great actors/actresses, singers, dancers, comedy hams, and the like, many of whom first got their start in vaudeville. As a child, I was a bit confused about why these people seemed to be special or important — there was a sense of some kind of great past there, but what that past might be completely escaped me. Now that I’ve begun watching and listening to these performers in their prime, and learning something about the history of the period, I understand in a very different way what led them to be who they were on my television screen. For some of them, it was quite a fall — though they were probably happy enough for the money and the attention. (My favorite example of this is Barbara Stanwyck who is so wonderful — so daring, tough, dignified — in so many old movies, and who ends up as a stiff old bat on The Big Valley. Sigh.)

One of those people who made the rounds of talk shows, variety shows, the occasional dramatic shows, sit-coms, and even religious revivals was Ethel Waters. I had no clue until fairly recently who Ethel Waters really was. I thought she was just like a nice old grandma in a mammy scarf, because this was nearly always the way she was presented. (This was the 60’s & 70’s, by the way — I’m not THAT old.) Here’s a picture of that Ethel: images-1
Even at that, though, she seemed more interesting than Pearl Bailey, another TV staple. Ethel Waters was…blunt. Funny. A little bit strange. She was one of the ones I didn’t understand. (There were a slew of such people — performers who seemed to be hiding something, something darker and more complicated than I was allowed to know, like those double entendre jokes so popular in sanitized TV land.)

I know now that Ethel Waters was an artist. A real blues singer who evolved into a musical theater performer and later into a movie actress. Maybe her voice wasn’t as great as so many I could name (Ma Rainey, Billie, Bessie, others), but there is a certain quality to it that is arresting. She’s a storyteller who compels the listener to pay attention, as if she’s sitting there across from you telling you a truth. She’s also plain fun. If it’s on record, it’s easy to imagine the whole act — the costume, the dance, the wide eyes and the sly wink, the wide and beautiful smile. She had style. Her earliest work, which is what interests me most, is light, sprightly, lilting, and, well, almost sweet. Sweet from a woman who was by most accounts not exactly sugar and sun, and for good reason. Ethel Waters was a survivor, a fighter who grew up the red-light district in Chester, Pennsylvania and did whatever it took to escape.

It’s hard for me to see her playing maids, mammies, cotton pickers, and, again, maids. It had to have been far harder for her to do it. No wonder she was pissed off. Luckily, she still has a few special moments on film that transcend these roles and give me a sense of what Ethel must have been like when she wasn’t having to kowtow. (And even stuck in a horrible role, she still was lovely, transcendent.) One of my favorites is from 1929, Birmingham Bertha. More to come.

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Theda Bara, the vamp


Theda Bara, the original female vampire or “vamp,” manslayer extraordinaire — well, I finally watched the only movie of hers on Netflix, A Fool There Was, from 1915. (Only a few of her films still exist.) For a brief time in Hollywood there was a run of vamp movies, with the star of that moment being Theda Bara. I found this pretty bad movie to be fascinating in the way it depicts women and in what I found to be a hilarious performance by Theda. She is just the ultimate in evil woman camp. The video clip I’ve inserted (which I didn’t make) shows some great scenes from that film combined with some nice shots of Theda in various costumes.

As a quick critique, the movie is sheer post-Victorian melodrama, with women divided between the perfect, forgiving, somewhat frumpy wife with an adorable angelic blond headed child who always says her prayers (and believe me, in this movie they were so boring!) and the eternally watchable, fun, blackhaired woman playing poker and then lounging on a chaise Theda Bara. She and the script are absolutely over the top, even by early film standards. She causes one man to blow his brains out on the boat that she has taken in order to lure a diplomat away from his mission and into her clutches. Of course, she then leads said wealthy politician to drink and dissipation, and he eventually goes mad. And she laughs — hahaha! She traps them with a flower, then throws the flower on their graves. Theda throws in some interesting nuances, too, that make the character almost (well, not quite) believable — she owns it. The woman is cranky. She’s demanding. She’s bored. She has nothing to do but trap men and lure them to their doom. Even then, she looks annoyed about the whole thing. This makes her more than just a slink-around vampire.

This movie is a hoot. Yet I think at the time it was probably seen as a straight up cautionary tale. — It’s worth watching just to see Theda roll her eyes at the silliness of it all and wear some really cool costumes.

 

figuring out St. Louis, 1909

I’ve moved on to two other chapters (one new, one a revision) since my last post. And I always mean to pop up weekly updates, and then I get busy and don’t. Now, if I could learn some brevity, I’d be able to post efficiently. I fear the Twitter culture and I will never truly have a relationship.

Anyway, I’m now in a new chapter, a transition point between two already written chapters, that is set in St. Louis. Sara Teasdale grew up there, and I have some chapters where she and Zoe Akins and some of her other friends do their version of sedate rabblerousing. Even though St. Louis was the big city point for those who grew up in Central Illinois, I really only made it there a few times. I was struck then on how old the city felt (and how humid)–old and beautiful, old and deteriorating. I do know that the St. Louis of 1909 was quite different from the one that exists now, with most of the buildings having been destroyed long ago.

Although I have some books about St. Louis’ past, I’m surprised at the lack of information on it relative to Chicago or New York. St. Louis, after all, had once hoped to be the capital of the West. Much of the material has the feel of boosterism, an almost defensive sort held by a city that has been in decline for a long time now. I can find plenty of information about the World’s Fair, but far less about the ordinary interior and exteriors of homes then (aside from mansions) and the people who walked the streets.

In another vein, I’ve read some depressing critiques of the city by urban planners that rake the city for making poor planning decisions based on race and class. (The most important of these is the book Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City.) Basically, entire neighborhoods were wiped out or divided up into nonexistence, particularly when the highways and the arch were built. I’m still reading about this, even though it doesn’t directly affect by own book. Rhe tenor of future troubles does affect the history that I choose to include. To me, my story has to carry some ramifications for what is going on now–otherwise, it’s pointless.

I found a great web site about the ongoing demolition of St. Louis’ old elegant buildings. It’s called Dotage St. Louis; check it out if you have an interest in the debate surrounding St. Louis’ future and past. It has some great photos and commentary. Since similar destructions are happening in every city, I imagine anyone could share in the sense of loss and the need for urban strategy.

Sara Teasdale left St. Louis in her late twenties, as did many of her friends. Having gone to a girls’ prep school, Hosmer Hall, these women were imbued with a sense that there were greater things out there in the world — especially in New York. Her parents remained in St. Louis, living in the selective neighborhood of Kingsbury Place until their deaths. (The picture to the right is of the gates to the houses in Kingsbury Place.) Sara did go back to St. Louis after their deaths to make decisions about the property; though nearly broke by that point, she never seriously considered returning. I can only theorize, really, as to why, by putting together what random pieces of information exist. Some of it was being comfortable in her small apartment in New York; some of it was that her friends had all scattered; some of it was the terrible ambivalence she felt about her mother and about their huge, fancy house in the gated community of Kingsbury Place (they had moved there from the Central West End when she was an adult–she grew up a few blocks from T.S. Eliot); some of it was St. Louis’ awful pollution; and some of it, I think, was her sheer boredom with the Midwest. There is probably not a child in the Midwest who doesn’t sometimes wonder and fantasize what lies beyond. Sara kept looking for that mythical “beyond” even when it was clear that she would never truly find it.

Anyway, from my view, St. Louis is a beautiful French-influenced city that never failed to impress me. If what they say about its decline is true — that’s it’s one of the most dangerous cities in the country with a deteriorating core — then it’s a real tragedy.

World’s Fair photos, 1904 – people on display

As promised, here are more photos from the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.
The woman on the left is an unnamed dancer at the Fair.
The people on the right are a fortune teller and his client from an elaborate display of the City of Jerusalem. (The display included reproductions of David Street, the Mount of Olives, the Mosque of Omar, and plenty of vendors.)

Next are shots from Mysterious Asia and the Streets of Cairo — a contortionist and a snake charmer, an assortment of Egyptians, and a “Nubian Runner.” Orientalism was the vogue at the Fair, and people came away with the impression that Asians and Arabs were geishas, gurus, camel riders, elephant herders, sword swallowers, harem girls, etc….

The Fair celebrated colonialism and literally put conquered people (or to-be-conquered people) on display. These displays were considered to be “educational” and “anthropological,” with an argument running through it all that these people were so “primitive” that their lives were bound to be much improved when the Caucasian Americans, Brits, Dutch, and the like took their land. So there were displays of aboriginal peoples from every continent, set up in recreations of their “real” environments (even though the climate in St. Louis is either too hot or too cold or too muggy, etc., to fit anyone’s ideal climate). So there were “authentic” displays of cliff dwellings, teepees, Japanese tea houses, even the Taj Mahal.


Since this is before good film footage and documentaries, it was a way that white Americans could imagine that they, too, were travelers on the Grand Tour, no matter how broke they might be. As offensive as their may be to us now (and it really is), there was a lack of information available to most people that made even the smartest ones among them incredibly, well, ignorant. — more to come.

Pola Negri in The Wildcat

Veering briefly off my World’s Fair posts, I had to mention that I’m on a silent film kick.   I’d say that I’m watching them for research, but that’s really only how it began.  I genuinely like them.  And for many reasons, but to boil it down simply, it’s because they (obviously) rely on images and a few (usually) written cards to tell the story.  And most of the time, the story does not hold to any single plot line, but veers about.  There seemed to be fewer expectations then that a story follow a particular structure–and here we think we’re the ones who are so experimental.  They did it before and they often did it more inventively.

Most early “classic” films we’ve seen are scripted sound films.  By the time most of these hit the screen, the censors were already clamping down.  So most people think of early films (and their eras) as sentimental and sweet, comparatively unsexual, with little violence.  But really there was a time when far more was done–before movies became a huge commodity.  For a time, when nobody was cashing in, risks could be taken.

Anyway, I’m going to post here a clip from a 1920 German movie by Ernst Lubitsch (who later went on to direct some funny, sad sound  comedies in English).  This is The Wildcat, starring Pola Negri.  Pola, as seen in this clip, had some men-whipping abilities, and she later went on to play mysterious sighing characters.  In this movie, she’s funny.  She was apparently in real life the ultimate drama queen who slept with as many men as possible; the most well known stories revolve around Rudolph Valentino and Charlie Chaplin.   The humor is the movie is incredibly goofball, poking fun at the men who become completely dominated by the women.  It’s  a *snicker, snicker* kind of humor, and there’s something kind of perverse and, well, Germanic about it.  The “whipping the elf guys” scene is particularly off the wall, especially since the guys have skulls on their snow hats.   What? I suggest just skipping around in the clip if you get bored; the pacing of these movies is slower than we’re accustomed to.

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To me, the oddest thing about this film is how nearly every shot is surrounded by a decorative cutout.  I’ve seen other silent movies using this effect, but this one uses it to an unusual extent.  I actually got a little bored with the effect after awhile, but I think it’s cool that they were trying to do something different with the camera.  And not to get to analytical, but Pola’s character here is very similar to Mountain Girl in DW Griffith’s film Intolerance, completed  four years prior to this one.  And Mary Pickford sometimes played this type, though she had more of an obvious heart o’ gold.  I’m a sucker for these sexy wild woman characters from the mountains.

Pola’s career basically ended with the invention of sound film (such was also the fate of the great German actor Emil Jannings–we Americans just didn’t like those accents, especially in the World War eras) and because of her own melodramatic tendencies — she just wasn’t in style anymore.   I’ve read that even though Pola ran with royalty, she died of a brain tumor in San Antonio.  Pola slunk away into the desert.

1904 World’s Fair dancers

Today I finished (I hope) my revisions on my World’s Fair chapter, wherein Sara, her friend Zoe Akins (who eventually becomes a famous playwright–a real person), and others go off to see the 1904 World’s Fair.  While this is the World’s Fair that appears in Meet Me In St. Louis, the Fair is WAY weirder than anything shown in that sweet sentimental film.

(Sara Teasdale on left; Zoe Akins on right)


Before I started this book, I had this idea that in America the 1960’s hit and suddenly everyone got sexual.  Or maybe the Twenties had a little of the leg showing, but just from flappers — but before that, it all seems like this haze of Victorian repression.  I have learned not to underestimate the submerged spiciness that was really going on.

I have a few photos of dancers that I need to scan and post.  For now I’ll just post a fairly chaste film clip and then a photo.  (Film was new then, remember, so they’d pretty much stick a camera on a tripod and shoot.  And much film disintegrated and is lost).   Most existing film of the fair is just crowd shots, so after this dancer, I’ll go back to posting photos.YouTube Preview Image

This is Princess Rajah, so they say.  She is overly dressed, compared to some photos I’ve seen, so I think this must have been an official video shot for the Fair people and then distributed on a newsreel.  She does an interesting balancing act with a chair.

This next photo can be found from the Library of Congress.  It is of a dancer named Fritzi and is apparently taken a little later than the World’s Fair, 1910.  She’s dressed here as Salome, which was quite the obsession in this era, especially (surprisingly?) among young women.  References to Salome come up many times in letters between educated, artistic women of the day, particularly as several plays feature her as a character.  Anyway, the mysterious belly dancer Fritzi:

welcome to the strange past



Here it is, the start of my blog on turn of the century oddness.  This blog is actually an accompaniment to my book-in-progress, Into the Beautiful New, which tells the stories of poets Vachel Lindsay and Sara Teasdale, zeroing in on the years from 1900-1930.  The "About" section of this site will tell you more about the book, and I'll explain more in later postings, too.  Suffice to say now that this site will have snippets of some of the odd information I ran across while working on the book.

Rather than blither about my own intents and purposes, let me just jump in.  Right now, I'm editing a chapter I wrote about Sara Teasdale going to the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904. There's considerable strangeness to that Fair--it was considered to be an anthropological, "educational" Fair that used recently conquered humans as subjects for its displays. That is, these people were the displays, as I'll show you as we go along. Besides this, this Fair marked the end of a type of post-Victorian sensibility, as it glorified all kinds of "modern" inventions and celebrated then relatively new, but hardly common, conveniences--like electricity.

Since this is a book that uses Sara Teasdale's point of view and constructs the situation in scenes, I used much of the kind of basic info above as a way to put together the setting and feel of the piece. What I actually worked on today was a section on the dancers, sword throwers, acrobats, restaurants, and such located on the Fair's "Streets of Cairo" display.