Decades ahead of his time, "Harlem's most famous 'Honorary Negro'" was also, despite two wives, fairly open about his many gay relationships -- big leaps for a white Iowan born in 1880. Now, Carl Van Vechten is celebrated primarily as a photographer, but he also was a famously controversial novelist, Gertrude Stein's literary executor, and one of the early 20th century's greatest cultural kingmakers. Yet he has been without a full-scale biography since before Stonewall. Today FSG publishes London critic Edward White's debut, The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America [Kindle] which covers his queer life in detail, thanks to troves of private papers that have been unsealed since the last biography. White's book arrives with starred reviews from three pre-pub journals including Booklist which calls it "a marvelously written, masterful portrait of an exceptionally complex person." In the New Yorker, Kelefa Sanneh praised the book's "startling breadth" and agreed with White's assessment of Van Vechten as a "prophet of a new cultural sensibility that promoted the primacy of the individual, sexual freedom, and racial tolerance and dared put the blues on a par with Beethoven." Library Journal selected it as one of their Four Essential Nonfiction Picks for February.
I already admire the book for being a rigorous 300-odd pages, unlike so many lazy biographies of mammoth bloat.
Author of Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns, David Margolick blurbs, "Journalist, novelist, critic, photographer, iconoclast, visionary. Dandy and groupie, hedonist and dissembler, provocateur and self-promoter. Champion of Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes, drinking buddy of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, "honorary Negro" to some, racist exploiter to others. Denizen of the black and gay demimondes, flouter of racial and sexual divides and taboos. Carl Van Vechten was all of these things, and much more besides, in his brilliant and gaudy life. It would burst an ordinary biography at the seams, but Edward White manages to do to Van Vechten in death what no one ever accomplished in life: tame him. With wit, style, and skepticism, The Tastemaker both cuts Van Vechten down to size and restores to him the lofty stature he deserves."
Two years ago, Yale published Emily Bernard's much-praised Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black and White [Kindle] which does incorporate Van Vechten's gay affairs, including his interracial, intergenerational relationship with the closeted young novelist Wallace Thurman, author of The Blacker the Berry, but Bernard's book is not a full biography.
The thorny issue of white patronage of black artists is the heart of one of Kevin Killian's favorite books last year, Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance [Kindle only $2.99].
Van Vechten's photo work can be seen The Homoerotic Photography of Carl Van Vechten: Public Face, Private Thoughts, as well as in Portraits and Passionate Observer and Extravagant Crowd.