Urbane, ebullient letters mirror Van Vechten's literary world

Letters of Carl Van Vechten, edited by Bruce Kellner, New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press. 301 pp. $25. For 50 years - from 1913, when he first established himself in New York City, to 1964, when he died - Carl Van Vechten was at the center of lively literary, artistic, and musical circles in America and Europe. His friends ranged from H.L. Mencken to Langston Hughes, from Gertrude Stein to Mabel Dodge Luhan, from Carlotta O'Neill to Wallace Stevens.

Fortunately for us, he wrote to them - and his letters to 150 correspondents have been edited and generously annotated by Van Vechten's biographer (and former correspondent), Bruce Kellner.

Kellner, who has been working with Van Vechten material for more than 20 years, published the excellent ``Carl Van Vechten and the Irreverent Decades'' in 1968. Now he allows Van Vechten's ebullient irreverence to speak for itself, and the result is a privileged view of literary life in the first half of the century.

Van Vechten published seven novels, but he was more than a novelist. He began as a music, dance, and drama critic and gained a reputation for his insight and urbanity. He then moved to fiction, at the same time serving as popularizer and supporter of black and avant-garde artists. His prot'eg'es included Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, Bessie Smith, and Ethel Waters; and he helped to publicize the work of Stein, Nijinsky, Erik Satie, and Igor Stravinsky. He ended his career as a portrait photographer.

Many of the letters in this collection are to his second wife, the Russian actress Fania Marinoff, written when they were separated because of travels: Both sojourned on their own to distant ports. It is to Fania (his ``dearest darling Baby'') that he discloses his first meeting with Gertrude Stein (``a wonderful personality''), his visit to Matisse's villa (``with a big garden, poisonous begonias and a monkey''), and assorted gossip.

In the mid-1920s the letters chronicle Van Vechten's growing interest in the Harlem Renaissance and his increasing involvement in the lives of black artists. ``Jazz, the blues, Negro spirituals, all stimulate me enormously,'' he wrote to Mencken.

He encouraged Langston Hughes to write his autobiography and brought black artists and writers together with such notables as Louis Untermeyer, Alfred Knopf, and Irita Van Doren.

Van Vechten's enthusiastic participation in the arts took him to the Cotton Club, to a temple with evangelist Aimee McPherson, to F. Scott Fitzgerald's yellow mansion on the Delaware (15 bedrooms, and chestnut trees blooming on the lawn).

He reported with glee the opening of the Museum of Modern Art in 1939: ``Cars were stalled all the way up and down Fifth Avenue as Piccadilly is when there is a Drawing-Room, and inside the Museum I discovered that when they are crushed together in a heated room rich people smell a little worse even than poor people.'' The first exhibition, he decided, was ``a smash hit.''

Van Vechten's letters are a celebration of art and life. He encouraged individuality and idiosyncrasy as long as he recognized an underlying sincerity, but he was disturbed by the brittleness and archness of some of his contemporaries. ``Everybody is striving to do something new,'' he wrote in a novel in the early 1920s, ``instead of writing or painting or composing what is natural.... The great secret is ... to do what one has to do.''

Somewhere early in his career Van Vechten discovered for himself what he had to do and ardently pursued his interests. The high spirits and love for life that endeared him to his friends and admirers will, no doubt, endear him to the readers of this delightful and welcome collection of letters.

Linda Simon teaches writing at Harvard University.

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