Life and career
Born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he was the youngest child of Charles and Ada Van Vechten.:14 He graduated from Washington High School in 1898, and later the University of Chicago in 1903. In 1906, he moved to New York City. He was hired as the assistant music critic at The New York Times. His interest in opera had him take a leave of absence from the paper in 1907, so as to travel to Europe to explore opera.
While in England he married his long-time friend from Cedar Rapids, Anna Snyder. He returned to his job at The New York Times in 1909, where he became the first American critic of modern dance. At that time, Isadora Duncan, Anna Pavlova, and Loie Fuller were performing in New York City. The marriage to Anna Snyder ended in divorce in 1912 and he wed actress Fania Marinoff in 1914. Their marriage lasted until the end of his life, even while his relationships with men were an open secret. Van Vechten was known to have romantic and sexual relationships with men, especially Mark Lutz.
Van Vechten initially met Gertrude Stein in Paris in 1913. They continued corresponding for the remainder of Stein's life, and at her death she appointed Van Vechten her literary executor; he helped to bring into print her unpublished writings.:306
Several books of Van Vechten's essays on various subjects such as music and literature were published between 1915 and 1920. Between 1922 and 1930 Knopf published seven novels by him, starting with Peter Whiffle: His Life and Works and ending with Parties. His sexuality is most clearly reflected in his intensely homoerotic portraits of working class men.
Van Vechten was interested in black writers and artists, and knew and promoted many of the major figures of the Harlem Renaissance, including Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, Ethel Waters, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston and Wallace Thurman. Van Vechten's controversial novel Nigger Heaven was published in 1926. His essay "Negro Blues Singers" was published in Vanity Fair in 1926. Biographer Edward White suggests Van Vechten was convinced that Negro culture was the essence of America.
His older brother Ralph Van Vechten died on June 28, 1927; when Ralph's widow Fannie died in 1928, Van Vechten inherited $1 million invested in a trust fund, which was unaffected by the stock market crash of 1929 and provided financial support for Carl and Fania.:242–244
By the start of the 1930s and at age 50, Van Vechten was finished with writing and took up photography, using his apartment at 150 West 55th Street as a studio, where he photographed many notable persons.
After the 1930s Van Vechten published little writing, though he continued writing letters to many correspondents.
Van Vechten died in 1964, at the age of 84, in New York City. His ashes were scattered over Shakespeare Gardens, Central Park, Manhattan, New York He was the subject of a 1968 biography by Bruce Kellner, Carl Van Vechten and the Irreverent Decades, as well as Edward White's 2014 biography, The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America.
Archives and museum collections
Most of Van Vechten's personal papers are held by the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. The Beinecke Library also holds a collection titled "Living Portraits: Carl Van Vechten's Color Photographs Of African Americans, 1939–1964", a collection of 1,884 color Kodachrome slides.
The Library of Congress has a collection of approximately 1,400 photographs, which it acquired in 1966 from Saul Mauriber (May 21, 1915 - February 12, 2003). There is also a collection of Van Vechten's photographs in the Prentiss Taylor collection in the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art, and a Van Vechten collection at Fisk University. The Museum of the City of New York's collection includes 2,174 of Carl Van Vechten's photographs. Brandeis University's department of Archives & Special Collections holds 1,689 Carl Van Vechten portraits. Van Vechten also donated materials to Fisk University to form the George Gershwin Memorial Collection of Music and Musical Literature.:284
In 1980, concerned that Van Vechten's fragile 35 mm nitrate negatives were fast deteriorating, photographer Richard Benson, in conjunction with the Eakins Press Foundation, transformed 50 of the portraits into handmade gravure prints. The album ’O, Write My Name’: American Portraits, Harlem Heroes was completed in 1983. That year, the National Endowment for the Arts transferred the Eakins Press Foundation’s prototype albums to the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
- Music After the Great War (1915)
- Music and Bad Manners (1916)
- Interpreters and Interpretations (1917)
- The Merry-Go-Round (1918)
- The Music of Spain (1918)
- In the Garret (1919)
- The Tiger in the House (1920)
- Lords of the Housetops (1921)
- Peter Whiffle (1922)
- The Blind Bow-Boy (1923)
- The Tattooed Countess (1924)
- Red (1925)
- Firecrackers. A Realistic Novel (1925)
- Excavations (1926)
- Nigger Heaven (1926)
- Spider Boy (1928)
- Parties (1930)
- Feathers (1930)
- Sacred and Profane Memories (1932)
- The Dance Writings of Carl Van Vechten (1974)