Carl Van Vechten (van VEHK-tuhn) moved deftly through three careers: He began as a music, dance, and drama critic, producing several volumes of wide-ranging, urbane essays; then he devoted himself to fiction, writing seven well-received novels in a decade that saw the first publications of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and John Dos Passos; finally, he became a noted photographer, specializing in portraits of writers and artists.
Van Vechten’s father was a banker turned insurance company executive; his mother was a college graduate, suffragist, and political and social activist. Born when his parents were in their forties, Van Vechten had two siblings much older than he and so spent his childhood surrounded by four adults. Predictably, this atmosphere nurtured a precocious child. By the time he was an adolescent, Van Vechten had thoroughly immersed himself in whatever cultural offerings could be found in Cedar Rapids—opera, theater, and concerts that stopped in the city on tour—and began to apply his own talents to amateur theatrical productions and family piano recitals. Physically he was an awkward youth—too tall too early, with large buck teeth—and his omnivorous appetite for culture made him feel socially awkward among his peers. Longing to escape from the complacent bourgeois existence of Cedar Rapids, he enrolled at the University of Chicago and, in 1899, took his first steps east, a direction that would eventually lead to New York and then to Paris.
At college, Van Vechten studied with Robert Morss Lovett and William Vaughn Moody. He also began writing passionately and composing music. After graduating in 1903, he took a job on the Chicago American; he was assigned to write short news pieces and collect photographs to illustrate news stories. He soon decided, however, that, for his purposes, Chicago was little better than Cedar Rapids. In 1906, he left for New York.
Van Vechten’s first writing assignment there was an opera review for Theodore Dreiser, then editor of Broadway Magazine. Soon Van Vechten joined the staff of The New York Times as assistant to the music critic. From 1908 to 1909, he served as Paris correspondent for the Times, a post which brought him into close contact with leading European dancers, sculptors, artists,...
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