Twitter Facebook Tumblr Pinterest Instagram

« older | Main Largehearted Boy Page | newer »

April 2, 2015

Book Notes - Edward White "The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America"

The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Edward White's The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America is a fascinating and thoroughly researched biography of the complex man who helped shape 20th century American culture.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"White's engaging biography adeptly depicts America as a burgeoning cultural powerhouse, one that Van Vechten helped build. A marvelously written, masterful portrait of an exceptionally complex person."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Edward White's Book Notes music playlist for his book The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America:

Though he's not much remembered today, Carl Van Vechten was one of the most remarkable Americans of his generation. At the peak of his powers in the 1920s, he was a legendary party host, a flamboyant figure in Manhattan's gay demimonde, a loudhailer for the Harlem Renaissance, and a promoter who furthered the careers of artists as diverse as Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, Gertrude Stein, and George Gershwin. Wherever there was excitement to be had or scandal to be made, that's where Van Vechten would be. As the great gossip columnist of the day Walter Winchell observed "where there's smoke, there's Carl Van Vechten."

From hot jazz to the forgotten novels of Herman Melville, Van Vechten championed the genius of American art long before it was fashionable to do so. And he made his own contribution to the unfolding American canon with a series of bestselling novels, hyper-camp chronicles of modern Manhattan and its mad excesses. In 1926 he suddenly became infamous too, as the author of the hugely controversial Nigger Heaven, the first novel to introduce a mainstream white readership to the lives of black people in Harlem. Opinion is still split about whether that novel showed Van Vechten – as lilywhite as the Knickerbocker name suggests – to have been an exploitative racist or an enlightened, colour-blind progressive. When he gave up writing in the early '30s, Van Vechten dedicated the remaining decades of his life to photographing the greatest names in the modern, urban American culture that he had helped create – from Ella Fitzgerald to Scott Fitzgerald; from Marlon Brando to Billie Holiday – and amassing a vast archive of African-American artistic and cultural experience which he gifted to Yale University.

But before the photographs, the university archives and the bestselling novels, the boozy parties, the PR campaigns, the orgies, and the race scandals, Van Vechten crafted some of the finest, most pioneering music criticism ever written in the United States. He lauded Europe's early modernist composers before their sounds had arrived in America, and was among the first writers to argue that the black traditions of ragtime, the blues, spirituals and jazz are the artistic equals of European orchestral music. As a teenager music helped him to transcend his bourgeois Midwestern upbringing and make some kind of emotional sense of his homosexuality; as an adult it gave him a conduit into the lives of others: the black populations of Chicago and New York; avant-garde Parisians; Spanish peasants. Consequently, when I was writing my book about Van Vechten, I spent a lot of time listening to the music that shaped his life. This is a list of some of those pieces, and one which he never heard but which helped me get to grips with the complex personality of a truly extraordinary man.

Richard Strauss – 'Dance of the Seven Veils' in Salome
As a junior critic for the New York Times in 1906 Van Vechten attended the American debut of Richard Strauss' Salome at the Metropolitan Opera House and had a ring-side seat for the brouhaha that followed as the Met's genteel patrons forced the cancellation of any future performances. Their delicate eyes and ears had been mortally offended by the erotic 'Dance of the Seven Veils', a seven-minute section in which Salome disrobes in order to win the favour of her father and secure John the Baptist's head on a plate. Van Vechten, however, loved the whole thing, and cited this as one of the key moments in America's journey away from the puritanism of the Victorian world in which he had grown up.

Igor Stravinsky – Le Sacre du Printmeps
The debut performance of Le Sacre du Printemps in Paris, May 1913, is remembered as one of the pivotal moments of the twentieth century, a moment when old consensuses about music, art and he notion of beauty were swept away. For decades, Van Vechten's eye-witness account was considered a crucial source for the riot that apparently broke out among that evening's audience who were shocked, disgusted and exhilarated by Stravinsky's discordant, visceral score. But, the truth is that Van Vechten wasn't in the audience that night at all. Annoyed that he had missed out on an historic occasion, he simply chose to lie when he wrote articles about it in later years. That this might have been unethical behaviour for one of the nation's most respected music critics was of no concern to Van Vechten who enjoyed what might generously be termed a fluid relationship with the truth. As he wrote his friend Gertrude Stein "one must only be accurate about such details in a work of fiction. The real point is that in my own consciousness I am not a bit muddled about the facts."

Leo Ornstein – 'Suicide in an Airplane'
One of Van Vechten's great pleasures in life was introducing people to exciting new artists or brilliant talents sadly forgotten. Of the many figures I learnt of through Van Vechten perhaps my favourite is Leo Ornstein, an American composer who during the years of the First World War was regarded by many as the United States' most promising exponent of the 'futurist' music pioneered in Europe. An NME journalist once described the rock band Idlewild as sounding like "a flight of stairs falling down a flight of stairs", a phrase that sprang to mind the first time I heard Ornstein's 'Wild Men's Dance'. My favourite work of his however, is 'Suicide in an Airplane', a tense, juddering composition for piano and not, as the title might suggest, a System of a Down b-side, or something. Van Vechten first saw him play in 1911, but Ornstein was still composing new works in the 1990s. He died as recently as 2002, aged one-hundred-and-eight.

Nora Holt – 'My Daddy Rocks Me with One Steady Roll' / Andy Razaf – 'Go, Harlem!'
Van Vechten had been a fan of black music ever since his college days in Chicago. Twenty years later in New York, he befriend a number of black writers and discovered – for himself, at least – Harlem, a city within a city where white people of the time rarely visited. From that moment he became obsessed –"violently interested" is how he put it – with black culture and the lives of black people that lasted the rest of his life, although his interest was not universally welcomed among African-Americans, some of whom accused him of being a racist who exploited black culture for his own ends. One of his favourite things to do in Harlem was to listen to his great friend Nora Holt sing, especially her raunchy, heartfelt rendition of 'My Daddy Rocks Me with One Steady Roll.' In the minds of white pleasure seekers downtown Van Vechten became an authority on black life and the go-to tour guide of Harlem hotspots. In 1934 he even earned himself a namecheck in the hit song 'Go, Harlem!' by Andy Razaf, one of the writers of 'Ain't Misbehavin''. "Like Van Vechten, start inspectin'", runs the line.

George Gershwin – 'Rhapsody in Blue'
In the days before he was recognised as the greatest American composer of his generation, George Gershwin was a permanent fixture at Van Vechten's parties, usually showcasing his latest work on the piano, including what was to become his definitive work Rhapsody in Blue. "He used to play all night without ever repeating anything," Van Vechten recalled of those evenings. If you're writing about artistic figures in 1920s' New York it is impossible not to hear the opening bars of Rhapsody in Blue in your head at some point. For me, the sound of that slowly stretching clarinet looped itself over and over as I sat in the New York Public Library reading the letters and journal entries that Van Vechten used to complete first thing in the morning, usually through the dense fog of a hangover, before another day of drinking, carousing and networking began, all squeezed around writing his latest novel or brokering a deal for some unheard of new talent. Being Carl Van Vechten was an exhausting business.

Suede – Animal Nitrate
I listened to Suede's debut album a lot during the writing of the book. It was recorded nearly thirty years after Van Vechten's death, but I think it helped me keep in mind a part of his personality that the generous, expansive, American sounds of, say, Gershwin could not – a part that expressed itself through codes, asides and ironies, a part rooted in hidden desires and unspoken truths. I remember first hearing Suede's song 'Animal Nitrate', at the age of eleven or twelve and being utterly compelled but discomfited. Mercifully, at that age I didn't grasp what the song was actually about – the sordid sex and drug habits that enliven the otherwise drab existences of modern-day J. Alfred Prufrocks – but I sensed that it was a glimpse into a different world from the one I knew. Roughly a decade later I had a similar kind of revelation reading Van Vechten's novels about 1920s' New York. My image of that period had previously been gleaned from Fitzgerald, Dos Passos and old Hollywood movies. Van Vechten's bestsellers showed me something different: encrypted subterranean worlds of pan-sexual variety and multi-racial complexity in which desires and identities are questioned in a way that can seem presciently post-modern. But, as always with Van Vechten, he approached these serious topics by the funniest, most frivolous means possible, in a way that owes a gigantic debt to Oscar Wilde. And it is dear old Oscar who is the unlikely common ancestor of both Van Vechten, and that glittering English lineage of fey, arch and androgynous rock stars to which Suede belongs: Bowie, Bolan, Bryan Ferry, Morrissey etc.. In fact, in his younger days Brett Anderson – Suede's wan, waifish frontman – could have been a character from a Van Vechten novel, all whiplash lines like an Aubrey Beardsley etching brought to life; his eyebrow arched, his mind on the unmentionable, and, to borrow Dorothy Parker's description of Van Vechten, his tongue always in somebody else's cheek.

Billy Jones – 'Yes, We Have No Bananas!'
The quality of Van Vechten's I admire the most is his complete open-mindedness, something which actually manifested itself more and more the older he got. The notion of a 'guilty pleasure' was anathema to him; he could enjoy an evening at Coney Island as much as a performance of Wagner's 'Ring Cycle.' Without a trace of irony he once declared Gentlemen Prefer Blondes to be as important a novel as Uncle Tom's Cabin. 'Yes, We Have No Bananas' – a novelty hit from 1923 – is a ridiculous song, but Van Vechten had a pretty high tolerance threshold for the ridiculous, and was able to enjoy it purely as an expression of fun and frivolity. He sent a copy of the record to a friend in England, saying it perfectly articulated the giddy mood of the nation. Considering Van Vechten's life at this time consisted of little more than cocktail parties, nightclubs and living it up with gorgeous young things half his age, you can understand where he was coming from.

Noel Coward – 'I Went to a Marvellous Party'
Although he was a patriotic American – and a fiercely proud New Yorker – Van Vechten travelled widely and had friends all over the world, and dozens in Great Britain, including Noel Coward. They were both impish creatures who specialised in work that is superficially light and humorous, but boasts layers of meaning and complexity beneath the surface. More than that, they both had a certain aristocratic bearing and a decadent outlook that regarded living as the highest of all art forms. Coward's turn in The Italian Job as Mr. Bridger, the refined English criminal who refuses to let his standards slip merely because he is being held at Her Majesty's pleasure, reminds me more than a little of the anecdotes that Van Vechten used to tell about the time he endured a short prison sentence and insisted on being allowed to decorate his cell with a piano and soft furnishings.

Bessie Smith – 'Careless Love Blues'
Van Vechten developed obsessions with a number of female blues and jazz singers, such as Ethel Waters and Nora Holt, and befriended many of them. One to whom he never managed to get close, despite his best efforts, was Bessie Smith. Smith used to tell a story about how she once physically assaulted Van Vechten's wife (despite being gay, Van Vechten was married for fifty years) at one of their glitzy parties, leaving a room full of white New York hipsters aghast at her brutishness. This might be a bit of mythmaking on Smith's part as Van Vechten himself made no mention of the incident in his diary and his admiration for her talents never waned after the night in question. In fact, several years later, Smith returned to the scene of her supposed crime to pose before Van Vechten's camera. Tragically, she died in a car crash not long after the session, but the shots Van Vechten took captured her at her charismatic best, and exhibit the skill he developed as a portrait artist during the '30s, '40s and beyond. I've chosen 'Careless Love Blues' because it captures the power and earthiness of Smith's voice that Van Vechten adored.

Marilyn Monroe – 'I Wanna Be Loved By You' from Some Like It Hot
Van Vechten's pursuit of new voices, new sounds, and new experiences ended only when he died in December 1964, at the age of eighty-four. He saw Some Like It Hot shortly after its release in 1959 and belly-laughed all the way through it, especially at the ending when Jack Lemmon in drag sails off into the sunset with his aging beau. He also adored the movie's female lead, Marilyn Monroe who was one of the few stars that Van Vechten desperately wanted to photograph but never got the chance. Though he loved Monroe, he was less enthusiastic about certain other pop culture idols of the late '50s and early '60s, Elvis Presley included. While many Americans feared that 'The Pelvis' would fatally corrupt the morals of the younger generation, Van Vechten's complaint was pretty much the opposite: he dismissed the kid as just another bland Bobbysoxer heartthrob with zero sex appeal.

Edward White and The Tastemaker links:

The Daily Beast review
Kirkus review
Los Angeles Review of Books review
Los Angeles Times review
New York Times review
New Yorker review
Publishers Weekly review
Washington Post review

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)

submit to reddit