Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Lunch at Algonquin

Carl Van Vechten, the American writer and photographer, was born 140 years ago today. He is well remembered for his photographs of artists and celebrities, but also for being an enthusiastic patron of the so-called Harlem Renaissance. For nearly a decade he kept a daily record of his social (and often drunken) activities. After having been sealed by Van Vechten himself until 1980, this diary record was finally published in the early 2000s. It’s a good read only if you want to know who he was lunching with at the Algonquin or drunkenly stumbling with ‘from one cocktail party to another on an almost daily and nightly basis’!

Van Vechten was born on 17 June 1880 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. His father was a banker, and his mother was a musician and arts benefactor. He was educated locally, and then, in 1899, decided to study various art and music topics at the University of Chicago, where he also contributed to the college newspaper. After graduating, he went to work as a columnist for the Chicago American, developing a gossipy semi-autobiographical style, and occasionally including photographs he’d taken. Eventually, he was fired for, what some described as, ‘lowering the tone of the Hearst papers’. In 1906, he moved to New York City, where he was appointed assistant music critic at The New York Times. The following year, he was granted leave to travel in Europe to research his interest in opera, and while in England married Anna Snyder from Cedar Rapids.

On his return to The New York Times in 1909 he became the first American critic of modern dance - at a time when Isadora Duncan, Anna Pavlova, and Loie Fuller were on stage - while at the same time developing an interest in avant garde art. Around 1913, he became friends with the American author Gertrude Stein, championing her work, and maintaining a lifelong correspondence with her. Indeed, she appointed Van Vechten her literary executor, and, after her death, he brought her unpublished works into print. 

Having divorced Snyder, Van Vechten married the actress Fania Marinoff in 1914 - the marriage lasted 50 years even though he took many male lovers. The couple were known for socialising with black friends and groups; Van Vechten was a pioneering advocate of African-American artists, and became very involved with what is known as the Harlem Renaissance. He gave up his newspaper job in order to write full time, soon publishing several collections of essays relating to music, ballet, and cats. His first novel - Peter Whiffle: His Life and Works - was published in 1922. The Tattooed Countess (1924) and Nigger Heaven (1926) also proved popular.

In the early 1930s, Van Vechten gave up writing, choosing to become a photographer instead, taking portraits of many of his friends and acquaintances. Among his subjects were fledgling artists and established cultural figures of the time such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Langston Hughes, Alfred A. Knopf, Bessie Smith, and Stein. During World War Two, he volunteered at the Stage Door Canteen (an entertainment venue on Broadway for servicemen). Saul Mauriber, one of the restaurant staff there, became his photographic assistant (eventually acting as photographic executor for Van Vechten’s estate). Van Vechten’s photographs were widely exhibited and frequently used as illustrations in books and magazines. During his lifetime, he presented various parts of his collection to several university libraries; and, after he died, Mauriber arranged with The Library of Congress for it to acquire some 1,400 photographs. Van Vechten died in 1964. Further information is available from Wikipedia, Library of Congress, Encyclopaedia Britannica, The Daily Beast and The New Yorker.

Between 1922 and 1930, Van Vechten kept a daily diary of his activities. An edited version, heavily annotated by Bruce Kellner, was published in 2003 as The Splendid Drunken Twenties: Selections from the Daybooks, 1922-30 (University of Illinois Press). Some pages of this can be previewed at Googlebooks. According to Kellner, Van Vechten left no explanation as to why he started or stopped keeping the diary, but he sealed it until the 100th anniversary of his birth - i.e. 17 June 1980. Kellner further says: ‘During the subsequent twenty-odd years, the small daybooks have proven of inestimable value to a number of writers on various subjects, although the entries are almost entirely free of literary or social observation and commentary. Instead, they record the daily comings and goings - as well as the drinking habits, feuds, and love affairs - of a wide number of significant figures of the period. Taken as a collective accretion over their nine years, they make clear that the twenties passed - for many people, including Van Vechten himself - in an alcoholic haze, cheerfully at first and then desperately, as the decade’s denizens stumbled from one cocktail party to another on an almost daily and nightly basis, until the long bender wound down to the sobering silence that gradually followed the stock market crash in October 1929. At the end of 1930, when Van Vechten stopped keeping his daybooks, the party was over.’

All of Van Vechten’s entries are very brief, matter of fact - usually containing lists of names of people he’s met during the day. More often than not he could be found meeting them at Algonquin, the famous Midtown Manhattan hotel that had opened in 1902. Kellner’s annotations are considerably more substantial than the entries themselves.

Here are several extracts (without the footnoted annotations) from The Splendid Drunken Twenties.

10 September 1922
‘Meade Minnegrode came in afternoon to see my Melvilles for his bibliography. Tom Beer came with him. Joe Hergesheimer turns up & has dinner with me at Leone’s (raided 2 nights ago, but we still have cocktails). Afterwards he came down to the house. Fania, who has been at lack [Marinoff]’s in the country all day, returns & Tom Beer and Ernest Boyd come in. They stay till one o’clock. I work all day on 4th chapter.’

22 October 1922
‘Lunch at Algonquin solo. Afternoon at Mrs. Atherton’s. She tells me that she visited Philadelphia at time of Walt Whitman’s funeral, “Everybody was drunk but Agnes Repplier.” Fania goes to Leo Lane’s for dinner & I dine at Avery [Hopwood]’s. John Floyd there. We visit The lungle, 11 Cornelia Street in the [Greenwich] Village, a tough gangster resort. Avery loses his overcoat. On way to police station to report loss we run into a murder.’

6 November 1922
‘Tea at 5 at Waldorf with Hugh Walpole [English writer] (No tea. We sit in his room and talk.) I give a lunch at the Russian Inn for Boyd & Ettie Stettheimer. Andrew Dasburg & Antonio de Sanchez join us. I give The Blind Bow-Boy to Alfred [Knopf]. Tom Beer at the Yale Club at 7, gives me a bottle of absinthe. Cocktail with Joe Hergesheimer at Algonquin. Dinner at Algonquin with Fania. . .’

27 November 1922
‘Still have bad cold. Sent “On Visiting Fashionable Places Out of Season” to Emily Clark for The Reviewer. Lunch at Algonquin with Marinoff & Claire Schermerhorn. Rita Romilly & Helen Westley came in after lunch. Dinner with Marinoff at Ceylonese Restaurant. We went to the premiere of Gertrude Saunders in Liza at 63 St. Theatre, a negro review. Wonderful!’ 

24 January 1923
‘Lunched at Algonquin with Ralph Van Vechten & Charles Brackett . . . Dinner at 7 with Gertrude Atherton at Madison Square Hotel. She told me the marvelous history of her father & mother, & of her husband George Atherton, who died on a man-o-war &, as a guest, was not buried at sea but was brought home in a keg of rum.’

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