Category Archives: Harlem

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:

YouTube Preview Image
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