Felix In Hollywood

A Blog for the Smart Set

Sunday, December 20, 2009

These Three Kings - A Christmas Carl. Part 1

Well it's really one monarch with three different titles.
Today we celebrate
Carl Van Vechten, June 17, 1880 – December 21, 1964,
on the anniversary of his passing.

TITLE #1 - The Author.

In my cradle days (seventeen to be exact) I one day ventured into the Lambda Rising bookstore. It was then in a row house on S st., NW just east of Connecticut Ave. in our nations capital. About five minutes into my browsing, a paperback caught my eye. It was on the bottom shelf as the books were displayed in alphabetical order by author. It was called "Parties" by Carl Van Vechten.

I picked it up really for the cover art. It made me happy. Reading the back cover it seemed to have something to do with New York in the twenties. Well I had always kinda felt that I had been born in the wrong era, and the twenties seemed to be interesting enough from what I had heard: speakeasies, bathtub gin, flappers and what not. This might just be fun to read. Then I looked at the publishing date, 1930! Holly cow, a book about the twenties, written in the twenties. Sign me up! So to the sales counter I went. One copy of Parties and a free copy of the "Washington Blade" and off I went.

I loved that book. I devoured that book! And it began for me, not a constant and avid, but a never abated fascination with Mr. Van Vechten. Since that long ago day in 1977 I've only managed to read one other of his books (The Tattooed Countess) but the fascination in the man, and my research on him, has mined riches.

About "Parties": It concerns a group of beautiful rich young do-nothings each with their own fabulous art deco penthouse. Their lives being spent on a succession of days that go something like this: Four pm, wake up as the butler brings in a bed tray of sidecars. At six-ish or so, it's off to a favorite speakeasy. Around ten, to some glorious home for a dinner party. One am, head to a jazz spot in Harlem. Sometime after dawn, home to pass out. Then rinse and repeat.
And it's floridly descriptive of fashions, of Harlem, of cocaine use and of bisexual and interracial affairs. In short - it's dreamy. He started writing the book days after the '29 crash and it is, in fact, about the death of the roaring twenties. How funny it is that I should find the book in the late '70's (the gay community's equivalent of the Roaring Twenties.)

Van Vechten started off as a journalist, critic, reviewer and social commentator. He was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and went to college in Chicago. In 1906 he moved to New York and was hired as the Assistant Music Editor for the New York Times. He was at the Times for the next several years eventually becoming the first American critic of modern dance. Collections of his essays and articles were published through the late teens and finally Knopf Publishing put out seven of his novels between 1922 and 1930, ending with Parties.

By 1930 his career as an author was basically over. So what did he do with the remaining 34 years of his life, you may wonder.

Well, that's a story that takes us to.......
...Part 2!

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