The Making of an American


Arts & Culture

Carl Van Vechten shaped and burnished the legend of Gertrude Stein.

G Stein Van Vechten

Carl Van Vechten’s iconic 1935 portrait of Gertrude Stein

Tender Buttons, Gertrude Stein’s collection of experimental still-life word portraits split into the categories of objects, food, and rooms, and which—excluding a vanity publication in 1909, which she paid for herself—was the first of Stein’s work to be published in the United States. Stein had hoped that this enigmatic little book would be her big break, the thing to convince the American people of her genius. That was not to be. Tender Buttons left critics bemused and made barely a dent on the consciousness of the wider reading public. There was no great clamor for more of her writing; Stein would have to wait another twenty years to become a household name. Nevertheless, the publication of Tender Buttons is now widely regarded as a landmark in American literary modernism, the moment when one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century first unfurled her avant-garde sensibilities before the American public.

That moment would never have arrived had it not been for the work of Stein’s most important champion, Carl Van Vechten, the man who arranged for the book’s publication. Little remembered today, Van Vechten was a pioneering arts critic, a popular author of tart, brittle novels about Manhattan’s Jazz-Age excesses, an acclaimed photographer, and a flamboyant socialite whose daring interracial cocktail parties were a defining part of Prohibition-era New York’s social scene. But his greatest legacy is as a promoter of many underappreciated American writers, artists, and performers who went on to gain canonical status. Names as diverse as Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, and Herman Melville all felt the effects of Van Vechten’s boost. His first great cause was Gertrude Stein. He did more than anyone else to carve her legend into the edifice of the American Century, arranging publishing deals for her, photographing her, and publicizing her work, a task he continued long after her death.

Stein knew how crucial Van Vechten was to her career—not merely in the practical aspects of getting her work into print, read, and discussed, but in helping create and disseminate the mythology that surrounds her name. “I always wanted to be historical, almost from a baby on,” Stein freely admitted toward the end of her life. “Carl was one of the earliest ones that made me be certain that I was going to be.” Van Vechten and Stein were strikingly different, led wildly different lives. Hers was rooted in the domestic stability she enjoyed with her partner Alice B. Toklas; his was an exhausting whirl of binges, parties, and pansexual escapades. But they had two crucial things in common: the conviction that Gertrude Stein was an irrefutable genius and a love of mythmaking, an obsession with re-scripting reality until they became the central actors in the fantastical scenes that unfolded in their heads. When Stein played fast and loose with the facts in her memoirs, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, many were furious over her distortions. But Van Vechten understood that telling the literal truth about her life—or anybody else’s—was never Stein’s concern.

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Van Vechten‘s self portrait, 1933

Indeed, one of those fabrications originated from an essay Van Vechten himself had written, about his experience of the remarkable Paris premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps two years earlier. That first performance of Stravinsky’s taboo-busting ballet was a defining moment in the emergence of modernism as an artistic force, and Van Vechten’s ecstatic review of it has been cited over the last century as a key eyewitness account of the event. But he never attended the first night: he had failed to get tickets and had to content himself with the second performance instead. Still, Van Vechten immediately understood the epochal significance of the occasion. He decided he would not allow such a trifling matter as the truth to prevent him from finding a place at the center of events. Gertrude Stein happened to be in the audience with Van Vechten for that second performance, and when he wrote her about his deception, he breezily reassured her that writers such as they “must only be accurate about such details in a work of fiction … I am not a bit muddled about the facts.” Stein could not have agreed more. In fact, she so approved of Van Vechten’s fiction that she embellished the story further in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, suggesting that the first night of Le Sacre du Printemps was also the occasion of their first meeting, and that after the performance she rushed home to write a portrait of her new acquaintance.

Van Vechten and Stein had actually met in that summer of 1913 at the Parisian townhouse Stein shared with Toklas. Over the previous several months, Van Vechten, at this point a critic for the New York Times, had developed a fascination with Stein and her burgeoning legend—his friend, the shamanic Fifth Avenue salon hostess Mabel Dodge, had given him a copy of the prose poem that Stein had recently written about her, Portrait of Mabel Dodge at the Villa Curonia. Van Vechten, always drawn to novelty and exoticism, was immediately captivated by the thoroughgoing oddness of the writing, as well as the tales he had heard about the deeply unconventional woman responsible for it: a middle-aged Jewish lesbian in self-exile in France. On meeting Stein for the first time he was thrilled to discover that she was every bit as strange and marvelous as he had hoped she would be. He wrote his lover back in New York about Stein’s charisma and intelligence, as well as the delicious male nudes by Picasso that hung on her walls, some with “erect Tom-Tom’s much bigger than mine.”

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After that first meeting Van Vechten’s interest in Stein swiftly morphed into an obsession. Back in New York he set himself the task of hauling her from obscurity and into the mainstream. Van Vechten’s encounter with this “cubist of letters,” as she was described in a New York Times article he wrote about her, came at a perfect moment for both of them. In the early months of 1913, many Americans got their first glimpse of artists such as Kandinsky, Matisse, Picasso, and Duchamp when the Armory Show exhibition of modern art hit New York with incendiary force. Stein’s links to these European radicals—“freaks,” as at least one American newspaper labeled them—generated much curiosity about her. Van Vechten, for his part, was at the beginning of his journey as a Manhattan tastemaker, loudly extolling the virtues of African-American theater, ragtime, and modern dancers such as Isadora Duncan. In Stein he found the perfect cause to champion: a unique artist whose mercurial work pulsated with the spirit of the age, but also one whose public image he could shape and bind himself to.

Early in February 1914, Van Vechten urged his friend and New York Times colleague Donald Evans to publish the manuscript of Tender Buttons through his new publishing house, the Claire Marie Press. A thousand copies were printed, but Evans suggested he did not expect them all to sell: “There are in America seven hundred civilized people only” Claire Marie’s brochure claimed, and it was “civilized people only” that the company said it was interested in reaching, which begs the question of whom exactly the remaining three hundred books in Tender Buttons’s print run were intended for. Of Stein’s work, Evans said that “the effect produced on the first reading is something like terror.” It was an unconventional means of promotion—but one that ensured Stein remained the very image of the aloof literary genius.

Van Vechten did a better job of bringing Stein’s writing to public attention with an article, “How to Read Gertrude Stein,” published in the fashionable arts magazine The Trend in August 1914. As the double meaning of the title suggests, it was intended to be an insider’s guide to understanding Stein’s work as well as her personality, framing Van Vechten as the man with an all-access pass to the great enigmatic genius of the age. Always a more assured critic of music than of literature, Van Vechten turned to musical referents for his most effective explanations of Stein’s writing, a tactic that countless others have followed in the intervening century. “She has really turned language into music,” he asserted; “Miss Stein drops repeated words upon your brain with the effect of Chopin’s B Minor Prelude.” The article also helped to develop and solidify Stein’s image as a guru-like figure, the sort of character Jo Davison would capture in his famous sculpture of Stein as Buddha some years later. “As a personality Gertrude Stein is unique,” Van Vechten wrote. “She is massive in physique, a Rabelaisian woman with a splendid thoughtful face; mind dominating her matter.” Stein wrote her charge to let him know that she was “very well pleased with your article about me.”

Considering Van Vechten’s hero-worshipping of Stein, it was more than a little strange for them both that over the next dozen years she remained a cult figure while his fame and importance soared—as a critic and a novelist, but most crucially as a trendsetter and the premier white promoter of the Harlem Renaissance. Success and celebrity never dampened his ardor for Stein, though, and he worked tirelessly on her behalf. In 1922 he came close to convincing Alfred A. Knopf to publish Stein’s Making of Americans, and references to her writing suffused his own literary efforts, which always attempted to frame Stein as the most important author of her generation, the light source from which all modern American writers took their nourishment. He even found opportunity to crowbar Stein into the heart of his infamous 1926 bestselling novel about the lives of African-Americans in Harlem, Nigger Heaven—a mind-blowingly insensitive title that caused every bit as much offence to black people then as it would now. The novel’s heroine is Mary Love, a young black woman with a passion for literature and European history, but who struggles to connect with what Van Vechten characterizes as her innate blackness, her “heritage of rhythm and warmth.” Accordingly, Mary develops an obsession with Gertrude Stein’s depiction of the black experience in “Melanctha,” Stein’s novella about an African-American woman from Baltimore. In fact, Mary has committed great chunks of the book to memory, and Van Vechten dedicates a page-and-a-half to her recitation of a particular passage. It is a preposterous moment in an often bizarre novel, but nothing better reflects Van Vechten’s fealty.

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Van Vechten’s self portrait, 1934

Publicly and privately, Van Vechten lavished Stein’s work with praise, but in thirty-three years of friendship, Stein never returned the compliment. The mountains of letters the two swapped over the decades clearly show that Stein’s affection for Van Vechten was genuinely deep, but her faint praise for his literary work is hugely conspicuous. “What you have done is very clear and I like it” was her tepid response to Van Vechten’s novel The Blind Bow-Boy, widely thought to be his finest moment as a novelist. It was the most effusive she ever got about his work.

In almost all of his friendships, Van Vechten liked to assert himself as the senior partner, a bossy proprietorial force of nature who dazzled and bulldozed with wit and charisma. Yet with Stein, whose singular genius he never doubted, he was happy to play the supplicant; at her he never lashed out or sulked as he did with so many others when he felt his specialness was being ignored. It was the reason that the two of them were able to maintain such a happy relationship for so many years. Ernest Hemingway once noted that Stein could never remain friends with anybody whom she saw as a threat. Van Vechten, a man she considered a literary lightweight and who was forever vociferously renewing his oath to her, was about as far from a threat as it was possible for her to imagine. Whenever Stein and Toklas executed one of their periodic culls of friends and groupies, Van Vechten, singing Gertrude’s praises thousands of miles away in his Manhattan bubble, avoided the blade.

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By the start of the 1930s, Van Vechten, rich and bloated from what he termed “the splendid drunken twenties,” had given up writing and taken up portrait photography, spending days on end locked away from the unpleasant realities of Depression-era America surrounded by prints of his beautiful and celebrated subjects. He shot an astonishing array of noteworthy people, from George Gershwin to Georgia O’Keeffe. When The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas became an unexpected bestseller in 1933, Van Vechten became impatient to add her picture to his gallery. The suddenness of Stein’s success surprised Van Vechten as much as anyone. Almost the moment her book hit the shelves she morphed from a cult figure into a bona-fide celebrity. Fulsome reviews by prominent writers appeared everywhere, and a photograph of her taken by one of her new favorite courtiers, George Platt Lynes, graced the cover of Time. Van Vechten was thrilled for her—but bitterly jealous, too. He feared that in the frenzy of acclaim, he would be pushed from the frame at the expense of new, younger disciples.

The chance to link himself definitively to Stein in this phase of her career came in the fall of 1934, when she arrived in the United States for her triumphant homecoming lecture tour. Van Vechten was partly responsible for instigating and arranging the tour, and he provided invaluable assistance in soothing her nerves and cooing praise into her ears, reassuring her that her time had come; the American public really was crazy for her at last. He saw the proof himself as he followed Stein to many of her engagements across the country—striding around the stage with her hands in her pockets, she charmed audiences with a beguiling mixture of esotericism and folksy, homespun wisdom. To some she seemed like an adorably eccentric grandmother; to others, a radically prophetic voice. To just about everyone she was as enchanting as the woman Van Vechten had first met in Paris in 1913.

When he got the chance to photograph Stein during her tour, Van Vechten made sure he did so in a way that took her public image to a new level of grandeur. In Virginia, he shot her in front of neoclassical buildings, including the Rotunda designed by Thomas Jefferson, deliberately placing her within the pantheon of historic American heroes. Once again their shared instinct for myth creation kicked in; they both understood that this was the moment in which Gertrude Stein would achieve her immortality. Touring America, she saw the history of the nation more vividly than ever before, and she sensed her place within it. When she passed through Dayton, Ohio, she noted to Van Vechten that this was where the Wright Brothers had started out; Marion, Ohio, she learned excitedly, was Warren Harding’s hometown. From Illinois she wrote Van Vechten breathlessly, urging him to “make a pictorial history of these United States and I will write one and we will all be so happy.”

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Van Vechten’s self portrait, 1935

By now, Stein’s letters to Van Vechten were routinely addressed to “Papa Woojums,” Woojums being the name of the family unit that Stein, Toklas, and Van Vechten created for themselves around this time, and in which each adopted a distinct role. While Van Vechten and Toklas were the parental figures—Toklas was “Mama Woojums”—Stein was “Baby Woojums,” not because she was helpless or vulnerable but because she was special, a treasured jewel who needed coddling and directing lest her savant genius go to waste. It was a subtle but telling reconfiguration that recognized Van Vechten’s talents and satisfied his self-image as a man of importance—yet still ensured that Stein remained the center of attention.

The night before Stein sailed back to France, Van Vechten had her come over to his apartment for a final photo shoot. In his cramped makeshift studio, he positioned her in front of a crumpled and ragged Stars and Stripes, as if the flag was being blown about in a strong breeze. This was not a Gertrude Stein that had ever been seen before; not a Delphic oracle or a bohemian eccentric, but a pillar of the establishment. With a firm, unsmiling gaze and the haircut of a Roman senator, Stein had been transformed by Van Vechten’s lens into something permanent, weighty, and emphatically American, like a female addition to Mount Rushmore. Van Vechten’s mission to embed himself in Stein’s public profile was complete. The photograph has become perhaps the definitive image of Stein, and when a book of her lectures was published shortly after the tour, it was this photograph that adorned its front cover, chosen by Stein herself.

When Stein died in 1946, it was to Papa Woojums that she left the task of getting her large number of unpublished manuscripts into print, the measure of her respect and affection for him. Despite fearing that “Gertrude had bitten off more than I could easily chew,” Van Vechten faithfully undertook his duty. Within a little more than a decade, Stein’s complete works had been published.

Edward White is the author of The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America. White studied European and American history at Mansfield College, Oxford, and Goldsmiths College, London. Since 2005 he has worked in the British television industry, including two years at the BBC, devising programs in its arts and history departments. He is a contributor to The Times Literary Supplement. He lives in London.