The Gilded Age: A Tale of Yesterday
From the beginning of their adventure in America, the Van Vechtens did things their way—with force, panache, and little regard for what others might think. The trend started with Teunis Dircksz Van Vechten, a twenty-eight-year-old farmer, who sailed with his wife and infant son from the Netherlands to the shores of the New World in the summer of 1638. Along with a dozen other farmers and merchants, the family set out from the tiny Dutch island of Texel aboard the Arms of Norway on May 12 and arrived in New Amsterdam nearly three months later on August 4 ready to transform the fecund, open land before them into their fortune.
After two years working as a laborer for another colonist, Teunis acquired the tenancy of a farm on the Rensselaerswijck patroonship, a vast manorial estate given by the West India Company to Kiliaen van Rensselaer, a diamond merchant from Amsterdam. Teunis was soon making a fine living for himself and his family, amassing enough money to buy a 50 percent stake in a nearby brewery. Like many Dutch pioneers of the time, the Van Vechtens were pulled toward America rather than pushed from Europe. It was the promise of prosperity and the prospect of adventure, not the need for sanctuary from religious persecution or crushing tyranny, that tempted them across the ocean. For that very reason, some found life on Rensselaerswijck hugely frustrating, as the impositions of the colony’s rulers often seemed more exacting than those of the royal government back home. Yet few of the colonists made such a fuss as Teunis, who bridled at any attempt to impinge on his liberty.
If the patroonship records can be believed, Teunis was a hothead, an old-fashioned brawler, who liked to settle disagreements with his sharp tongue and sizable fists. But he was also a man of strong principle, whose lack of deference frequently enraged authorities. In 1651 he was prosecuted for publicly humiliating one official—the director of the patroonship no less—calling him “an old grey thief and a rascal.” More serious, he threatened to stab the Reverend Johannes Megapolensis with a knife; punishment, he said, for being “an informer.” Perhaps it had been Megapolensis who let slip that Teunis was selling produce at a price not sanctioned by the patroonship, a crime for which he received a further prosecution. There were other moments when the disdain for Old World bondage was less about taking a stand and more about indulging a wicked sense of humor. In September 1648, Teunis ordered a young employee at his brewery to fire a musket four times during the middle of the night, seemingly for the amusement of watching Jean Labatie, the self-important Frenchman in charge of the nearby Fort Orange, panicked into action.
These acts of rebellion were coupled with plenty of arduous endeavor. The Van Vechtens thrived in the New World, and by 1685 their coffers had grown sufficiently for Teunis’s grandson Michael to buy a plot of around nine hundred acres in the vicinity of the Raritan River in New Jersey, where he built a large family home. Nearly a century later, the house played a crucial role in the Revolutionary War, when it was willingly loaned by its owner, Derrick Van Vechten, to Quartermaster Nathanael Greene during the Middlebrook campaign against the British in the winter of 1778–79. Derrick Van Vechten had a reputation for throwing first-rate entertainments, and those he gave for Greene did not disappoint. At one soiree a high-spirited George Washington took a shine to the quartermaster’s famously beautiful wife. “His Excellency and Mrs. Greene danced upwards of three hours without once sitting down,” reported Greene, “a pretty little frisk.” A lively, star-studded party in support of a revolutionary cause; Van Vechtens past and future would have been proud.
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In the eight decades that elapsed after the Revolutionary War, the scope of American civilization drifted decisively westward, and at least one branch of the Van Vechten family drifted with it. By the time Carl Van Vechten was born in 1880, the family name was fast becoming one of the most important in the burgeoning state of Iowa.
In 1877 a fire razed the general store Van Vechten’s parents, Charles and Ada, ran in Minneapolis, so they moved south to Cedar Rapids, where Charles’s brother Giles had recently opened a bank. Known as the Parlor City because of its reputation for being a well-ordered and respectable community, Cedar Rapids was booming. Although founded in the 1840s, its real genesis moment came in 1859, when the arrival of the railroad transformed what had been a small town of just a few hundred people into an important player in the industrialization of Iowa farming. By the 1870s large grain-processing and meatpacking firms, including Quaker Oats in 1873, had set up in Cedar Rapids, transporting produce to Chicago and beyond in enormous quantities. The town boasted around ten thousand inhabitants when Charles and Ada arrived with the children; by the end of the century it was more than double that figure, making it one of the largest settlements in Iowa and one of the fastest-growing communities in the Midwest.
For industrious men like the Van Vechten brothers, Cedar Rapids held glittering prospects. After working as the cashier in his brother’s bank for seven years, Charles struck out on a lucrative career in the insurance industry, an occupation he maintained well into his eighties. Throughout that time he strived hard to maintain a leading presence in the community. The fabric of civic life in Cedar Rapids was sewn together by voluntary associations of spirited individuals committed to the service of God and country, and Charles was involved in many of them; he sat as chairman of the cabinet at the First Universalist Church of Cedar Rapids and was a Mason, a Rotarian, and a member of the Knights Templar. The journalist William Shirer grew up in the Cedar Rapids of the early twentieth century and described it as “churchy, Republican, wholesome,” a pithy but accurate sketch of the ordered and genteel society that the elder Van Vechtens helped form.
Carl’s arrival into the world came as something of a surprise to his parents. Born on June 17, 1880, he was by far the youngest of Charles and Ada’s three children. Emma, their daughter, was thirteen when Carl was born; their son Ralph, already a strapping specimen of all-American masculinity, was nearly eighteen. Just entering middle age and assuming their years of child rearing were fast coming to an end, Van Vechten’s parents were, he said, “very surprised to have a visit from the stork,” though the new baby was greeted joyously by the entire family.
Ada was besotted with her little boy, whom she regarded as a gift from the heavens. At thirty-nine she savored the pleasures of motherhood that she had been too anxious and inexperienced to enjoy with her first children. She set about recording every moment of Carl’s young life as best she could in a journal solely devoted to his first three years. She studied him diligently as his personality developed, noting his burgeoning talents, the flourishing of his soft, cherubic features, and the joy that he brought her. “My little boy’s birthday,” her entry for June 17, 1882, reads. “Two years old, and oh what happy years they have been.” His specialness to Ada peeks through the numerous photographs she had taken of him too. At eighteen months she sat him alone before the camera, posed on a crushed velvet armchair, wearing a black dress with a white lace collar, wisps of his long hair falling over his ears. He was a gorgeous, fat-cheeked baby with brown eyes like little pools of melted chocolate; it is easy to see why Ada found him so adorable. This was one of the first of many photographs that Ada arranged for Carl throughout his childhood, and it was she who introduced him to the camera’s unique ability to extract and preserve beauty.
Other members of the family joined Ada in her efforts to make Carl feel precious and worthy of singular attention. During her pregnancy Ada’s brother Charlie made a grand sentimental gesture, promising to write a special letter to the new baby every Christmas until he turned twenty-one. It seemed like a good idea at the time, and at first Charlie wrote charming letters about all the marvelous things that Santa might bring and how lucky Carl was to have been born a beautiful baby boy in the United States at a time of peace and plenty. But each year it became harder to find homespun wisdom worth committing to paper. Fearful that Carl might feel hurt or rejected, Ada could not bear the idea that her brother should stop the letters, so Charlie was compelled to continue the tradition. By the boy’s ninth Christmas, Charlie said, the chore was enough to make a man “tear wildly at his hair and roll his eyes upward in a pitiful way.”
Among them, Ada, Charles, and the rest of the family spun around Carl a silken cocoon of genteel comfort. The family home, an elegant but restrained example of the Queen Anne architectural style so fashionable among the wealthy middle class in the late nineteenth century, had been gifted to Van Vechten’s parents by Uncle Giles, whose success in banking had helped him build a considerable fortune. Giles’s own house was a grand white-brick building with turrets, tall chimneys, and enormous bay windows “surrounded by great oak trees, their spreading branches shading the well-kept lawn.” In his 1924 novel, The Tattooed Countess, which drew upon his childhood for its setting, Van Vechten evoked Giles’s house as a midwestern temple to an age of prosperity, temperance, and moral certainty. Charles never matched his brother’s tremendous wealth—worth millions in today’s money—but a combination of astute investment and hard work ensured that he and Ada always kept a beautifully furnished home, maintained by a retinue of three or four domestic servants, and Carl of course was treated to the finest of everything.
The family began each day at 7:30 a.m. sharp with a vast hourlong breakfast, the sort of honest, gargantuan meal that drove back the frontier and furred up the arteries all at once. Bowls of fresh fruit and oatmeal preceded a main course of sausages, bacon, eggs, fried steaks, and potatoes in cream, with pancakes, buckwheat, corn, and doughnuts thrown in for good measure, all augmented by pots of steaming tea and coffee and thick milk delivered each morning fresh from the udders of Uncle Giles’s Jersey cow. The surrounding Iowan countryside offered a rural paradise for curious children. Immediately outside the town center there was a scraggy patchwork of mills, silos, grain elevators, and the other grimy apparatus of Cedar Rapids’s fortune. But beyond that no suburbs, only the Corn Belt: fields and open meadows, lightly pocked by a scattering of small farmsteads among a flourish of brooks, maples, willows, and wildflowers. Van Vechten’s connection to this landscape was forged early and remained his whole life. In its rolling, twisting hectares of green and pale yellows that shimmered and rippled in the summer breeze like an incoming tide he saw a deeply undervalued beauty that was “essentially American” and affected in him “a kind of inspiration associated with great rivers, high mountains, or that mighty monster, Ocean,” that others revered in more overtly dramatic locations. Old family photographs, some taken by Van Vechten himself, capture long summer days at Indian Creek, five or so miles from town, where he spent hours observing the wildlife, swimming in the warm, glistening waters, and camping out with his brother.
It would be hard to imagine a more indulged child in the state of Iowa. Van Vechten admitted he had probably been spoiled rotten as a boy. As the years passed, the material comforts and Ada’s swaddling adoration fostered a self-centered and importunate nature within Carl. His idea of playing with other children was bossing them around, and delayed gratification was an entirely alien concept to him. “I hated interference, objections of any kind,” Van Vechten recalled of his childhood, though he could have easily been talking about his adult self. He made that observation in 1921 while looking at a deep scar that ran across his palm, a legacy of the time he grabbed a kitchen knife by the blade from his mother’s hand, “in a fury at not compelling her immediate attention.”
Perhaps the impatience and egotism that caused his livid outbursts and squawking tantrums are not uncommon in children. The obsessiveness that began to exhibit itself around the age of twelve almost certainly is. It was at this time, during vacations at Uncle Charlie’s house in Michigan, that Van Vechten’s cousin Roy introduced him to collecting birds’ eggs. Roy was a studious young man, a bespectacled teenage oologist whose idea of a fun weekend was shinning up trees to study the nesting patterns of the eastern meadowlark. Taking just one egg from a nest, he maintained, was pointless. Only by taking a clutch—that is, the entire contents of a nest—could one hope to learn anything of value. Back home in Cedar Rapids, Van Vechten followed Roy’s lead, not out of intellectual curiosity but rather to satisfy the acquisitiveness that was a fundamental part of his personality. He recalled that “my mother, picturing the despair of the mother bird, begged me to leave at least one egg in each nest.” He never did. Often the need to own and control the beautiful things in his orbit was so insistent it overruled all appeals to both heart and head, even when it risked hurting those who loved him the most.
A half century of ardent collecting began with those clutches of eggs. It was, ironically, a birdlike quality, a magpie’s irresistible attraction to objects of ornament and beauty. Long after the ardor for birds had wilted, bangles and rings, objets d’art, precious first editions, rare recordings, silk shirts, and brightly colored neckties in their hundreds all became collecting fixations of his. Anything elaborate and exquisite, anything new or novel he scooped into his embrace, as man and boy. Even when he could not justify the expense, he spent extravagantly on the latest things: a Victrola phonograph; a sharp new suit; a sleek portable typewriter. During one of his trips to Europe just prior to the First World War, he procured an object apparently unfamiliar to Americans at the time, a timepiece that instead of resting in a pocket was attached to a dainty leather bracelet and worn around the wrist. Returning from another overseas vacation some years later, he disembarked his ship surrounded by porters hauling his twenty-five pieces of luggage onto the dockside, the spoils of a frenzied shopping tour of the markets and department stores of Paris and London.
Guided by the same acquisitiveness, as a child he gathered a peculiar menagerie of pets: pigeons, thrushes, field mice, canaries, pigs, turtles, chameleons, and, so he claimed as an adult, even an alligator all passed through his protection at one point or another. None of them survived long, and when they died, he was never very bothered. In fact, even the deaths of family members troubled him relatively little as a boy. The passing of his grandmothers, both of whom lived in Cedar Rapids, one of them in his home, caused him no great anguish, and the same was seemingly true when his cousin Roy died tragically young and in blackly ironic circumstances, in an elevator accident in a hospital where he was receiving treatment for an illness. It was not until the age of twenty-five when his mother died that Van Vechten endured the common experiences of bereavement. “Death, up to that time, had meant very little to me,” he admitted. “People died, and I didn’t seem to have any feeling about it,” he said before adding that “I’d begun to think I didn’t care whether people died or not.”
It is a remarkable admission that illuminates Van Vechten’s understanding of his place in the world and his connection to others. He was a solitary little boy with a striking capacity for self-reliance, and as the only child in a large, extended family of doting adults he was made to feel precious and unique. Even his siblings coddled him. Because of the age gap, Ralph and Emma were more like a devoted aunt and uncle than a brother and sister with whom to squabble and compete for their parents’ affection. As a consequence, from an early age he valued those around him, and especially other children, less for their friendship and more for the purpose they might serve in allowing him to pursue his interests. Roy of course was useful for his collecting tips. Others gained favor by patiently sitting through performances of his model theater or posing for photographs he took with the family’s box camera. If children would not act as he wished them to, there was always some new fad to amuse him or some new thing to collect and possess and invariably an older relative on hand to provide it.
Nevertheless, during his adult years Van Vechten often found cause to recast his indulgent and peaceful upbringing as deathly stifling. In the 1910s and 1920s, such lamentations were a common cry of modernist writers and artists. Theirs was a generation of pioneers, according to their shared mythology; the herald of a new age in binary opposition to the United States of the nineteenth century, which had been a dry and dusty landscape inhabited by creatures fossilized under the weight of bland materialism and puritanical instincts, the word “puritan” often decoupled from its theological definition and used as a shorthand for anything that seemed prudish and old-fashioned. In her 1926 biography of her husband and fellow writer, George Cram Cook, Susan Glaspell declared that the Iowa they both experienced in the 1890s “was not civilized. It knew nothing about success in life itself as apart from success in profession or business.” Cook himself, according to Glaspell, identified a “Puritanic distrust of pleasure and beauty” in the young people he encountered in Iowa City around this time.
Those observations could have been lifted directly from Van Vechten’s description of Cedar Rapids in his novel The Tattooed Countess, in which he ridicules the people he grew up among as either vicious gossips or well-meaning bores stuck in a Victorian cage of brittle and contrived manners. According to the novel’s teenage antihero, a clear facsimile of the young Van Vechten, his fellow townsfolk were hideously repressed, unable “to be themselves, to do what they want to do, to live for love or whatever it is they want to live for.” Undoubtedly a germ of truth existed at the heart of the caricature. “It was the day of the quilting party,” as one who lived through the era described it, “of the Sunday promenade in the cemetery, of buggy-riding, of the ice-cream festival and the spelling bee,” and polite society in places like Cedar Rapids often betrayed an acute suspicion of the pleasures enjoyed in the surging metropolises. The late-nineteenth-century craze for phosphate soda fountains and ice-cream parlors, for example, came about largely as godly alternatives to the saloon, and the extravagant Wild West shows of Buffalo Bill helpfully sanitized the history of the western frontier, reminding town dwellers of the virtuous individuals who had tamed the wilderness so future generations might enjoy its bounty. What was missing from Van Vechten’s sketch of the Midwest that he had known were the subtle but insistent currents of radicalism that washed over him since birth, courtesy of his parents, neither of whom bore any relation to the vapid, small-minded hicks of The Tattooed Countess.
His mother may have been guilty of mollycoddling her youngest child, but she was in almost all other ways a formidable and inspirational woman. Cedar Rapids got its first public library thanks to her, when she seized on an initiative launched by Andrew Carnegie to partially fund the building of public libraries for communities across the United States. The cultivation of the mind as a means of individual and social progress was a principle very dear to Ada. Before her marriage to Charles, she had studied at Kalamazoo College, where she became a committed supporter of women’s suffrage decades before the cause gained its first flourish of respectable, mainstream prominence. In later life Van Vechten suggested that during her time at Kalamazoo his mother had become friends with Lucy Stone, the pathbreaking suffragist who shocked the United States by refusing to take her husband’s name after marriage. More likely, Ada befriended the similarly named Lucinda Hinsdale Stone, who, along with her husband, James Stone, turned Kalamazoo into one of the country’s first coeducational colleges. Hinsdale Stone acquired the sobriquet “Mother of Clubs” because of her pivotal role in creating institutions such as the Ladies Library Association, an attempt to advance the issue of women’s rights through education. The influence clearly rubbed off on Ada. Along with Giles’s wife, Emma, who at one point served as the president of the Women’s Club of America, she established various groups for local women to join, exposing them to issues beyond the stereotypical female concerns of homemaking and child welfare.
Also important to Ada were the civil rights of black people, a passion she shared with Charles, and which they both pressed upon their children. Among the Van Vechtens’ small retinue of domestic servants were two African-Americans—a laundry maid and a gardener—whom the children were instructed to address as Mrs. Sercey and Mr. Oliphant, rather than by their first names, as would have been customary. This was no slight eccentricity. Even in a community in which support for the party and causes of Lincoln was solid, as was the case in Cedar Rapids, it was a bold statement, which must have seemed willfully perverse to conservative neighbors. In 1909 Charles went much further, teaming up with a young black teacher called Laurence Clifton Jones to found the Piney Woods School for Negro Children in Mississippi, investing thousands of dollars of his own money. Charles believed that he had a moral duty to use his money for philanthropic ends, reforming the world around him by educating minds. He did this in large ways and small. In the 1940s Van Vechten still had a gift his father gave him on his eleventh birthday, a copy of Cudjo’s Cave, an abolitionist novel by J. T. Trowbridge. Van Vechten eventually donated that same book to his own philanthropic mission designed to combat racism, the James Weldon Johnson Collection at Yale University. His father’s influence was slow-burning, however, and despite Charles’s best efforts, he could not completely insulate his son from the misguided attitudes of the day. To his embarrassment, Van Vechten recalled that as a young child he avoided the touch of anyone with very dark skin, afraid their color might leave a stain on his pale skin, like black ink spilled on a white cotton tablecloth.
Underpinning all their civic action was Charles and Ada’s Christian Universalist faith, which Van Vechten conceded shaped his family’s life in subtle but profound ways. The core Universalist conviction that all humans, irrespective of their conduct on earth, will ultimately find reconciliation with an ever-forgiving and beneficent God had significant implications on the development of nineteenth-century social and political ideas in the United States, allowing all manner of radical causes to flourish under its wing. In the debate about women’s rights, the Universalist Church blazed a trail by making the suffragist Olympia Brown an ordained minister in 1863. Around the same time, some members of the Universalist Church were also involved in operating the Underground Railroad, which helped slaves escape the South to claim their freedom in the North. Above all, Universalists maintained a strong faith in the essential good within all people and in the individual’s capacity to positively affect the world around him. From his parents’ measured religious philosophy Van Vechten learned early that having the courage to be different was a laudable, if not sacred, quality.
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It was a vital lesson too because as he grew, Van Vechten felt his differentness from those around him with increasing acuity. Physically he stood out from the crowd by his early teens. The plump softness of infancy had been stretched into a tall, ungainly frame, and his pinched, downturned mouth now gave his face a look of severity. And then there were the front teeth that became a trademark in his years of fame and infamy: huge, angular, misshapen, and apparently resistant to dental intervention of any sort. But the oddness was much more than skin deep. While other boys spent their playtime as cowboys and Indians, or reenacting Yankee victories in the Civil War, Van Vechten’s obsessiveness was turned inward, constructing a cavernous interior world of music and literature.
As an adult he claimed that before puberty he had made his way through Tristram Shandy and the complete works of Shakespeare and Ibsen, had adored Beethoven, and could play Mozart concertos on the piano. He proudly told friends that because Cedar Rapids was such an uncultured place his musical education was autodidactic. Nobody else in town even knew what a concerto was, while he was mastering concertos through sheet music, he snorted priggishly. Even his brother, Ralph, who played the violin well, was not “sophisticated enough to know that string quartets existed.”
These were shameless exaggerations. It was true that he had obvious musical talent, a fact that helped him greatly in his later career as a music critic, and was also a voracious reader, but he was no child prodigy. As often with Van Vechten’s tall stories, there is an important, greater truth tucked beneath the tissue of embellishments. Being a sophisticate among the hayseeds was a crucial part of the story that Van Vechten told about himself over the years, the central pillar upon which his adult personality was constructed. In an unpublished autobiographical sketch written in his early twenties, he claimed that by the age of ten his love for music and literature was so intense and all-consuming that it made him acutely aware that he was fundamentally unlike the other children in Cedar Rapids—especially the boys. The essential differentness he felt because of his artistic passions was a metaphor for another awakening he experienced around the same time but that as a child he neither understood nor would have been permitted to talk about: that of his nascent attraction to other males.
In the environment of the 1880s and 1890s it is easy to see how the two could become linked in his mind. The arts were often considered feminine concerns, while healthy American boys were expected to have the backwoodsman at their core; Tom Sawyer was closer to the model of precocious male youth than Mozart. Van Vechten wrote in The Tattooed Countess that Gilded Age society did not understand “boys with imagination and the creative impulse; they are looked upon with vague disgust and suspicion.” Even Uncle Charlie, who shared his appreciation of literature, teased him a little about his artistic temperament, warning him in a Christmas letter not to waste too much of his time on poetry. Far better, he ragged, to channel his creative energies into the great new American art form of advertising slogans. “They have some practical common sense in them,” Charlie said. “Everybody reads them. And they pay. What line of Shakespeare do you think ever had such wealth creating possibilities within its compass as the immortal, ‘Good morning. Have you used Pears’ Soap?’” Business was a manly pursuit, but the arts needed to be treated with caution, on the whole best left to girls, sissies, and foreigners.
At the age of eleven or twelve Van Vechten witnessed in the crypt of the Grace Episcopal Church in Cedar Rapids a local sixteen-year-old boy called Herbie Newell perform the skirt dance, a variation on the cancan first made famous by English music-hall star Lottie Collins. In his recollection of the performance the specter of sexual awakening hangs in the ether. He had never seen anything like it: Newell, dressed as a woman, “excelled in female impersonation,” gracefully kicking up the “thirty or forty yards of soft material” that swirled around his waist. Throughout his personal and professional lives, performances of dance and female impersonation were two of the key ways in which Van Vechten explored his sexual attraction to men. Both created brash and unapologetic visions of maleness transported beyond the gender norms of the early 1900s, and dance had the bonus of providing a socially acceptable means of publicly admiring the male body. Newell’s dance was expressive and unconventional, a strange contortion of masculinity. It was the moment when Van Vechten’s appetite for creative expression, his inchoate sexual feelings, and his sense of being unusual soldered together as a single, inseparable entity. Like him, Newell was clearly different from most other boys and did not belong in Cedar Rapids; he was “headed for the Broadway stage and stardom.”
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As it turned out, Herbie Newell never made it to New York. In fact, the closest thing that Cedar Rapids had to Broadway stars for Van Vechten to dote on were the Cherry Sisters, five chaste, teetotal, tone-deaf siblings whose bizarrely awful musical act elevated them to the status of national celebrities for a brief moment at the end of the nineteenth century. The sisters moved to Cedar Rapids as adults, having grown up in neighboring Marion and spent twenty years touring their execrable self-written material, apparently oblivious that the huge audiences they drew came mainly to laugh at their ineptitude and po-faced self-delusion. In the big cities of the East they became a novelty hit because audiences saw in them all the worst stereotypes of the Midwest: pious, parochial rubes, uncultured and living in the past. It was those stereotypes that Van Vechten perpetuated in later life, casting the Midwest as a cultural desert, diametrically opposed to the vibrant and fertile cities in which he made his name as a cosmopolitan trailblazer.
The scene of the sisters’ most infamous performance was on home turf, in Cedar Rapids’s Greene’s Opera House, run by the father of Louise Henderson, one of Van Vechten’s childhood friends. The next day’s Cedar Rapids Gazette featured a devastating review. “Imagine two hundred leading citizens jumping to their feet, waving hats, umbrellas, brooms and handkerchiefs, reaching toward the stage and shouting themselves hoarse in mockery of approval at the appearance before them of the greenest, gawkiest females that ever faced the footlights, and doing nothing but tramping out on the stage with a basket of flowers and with less grace than an elephant would eat soup.” Clearly the patrons of Greene’s Opera House were accustomed to far more accomplished acts. In fact, when the Cherry Sisters made their bows there, the place was an Iowan cultural institution, an eighteen-hundred-seat theater built in 1880 as a boosterish statement of Cedar Rapids’s growing wealth and an attempt to connect the town to the cultural current of the rest of the nation. No full-length opera was ever performed there, of course; the name was a misnomer popular of theaters of the time, and the ornate decor similarly attempted to emit an air of cultivation that bore little relation to the bills of pantomime and polite variety that were its stock-in-trade. Regardless of its clumsy pretensions, this was Van Vechten’s favorite place in the whole of Cedar Rapids, a refuge of fantasy and magic in which exciting new worlds animated before his eyes and were crucial in developing his artistic sensibilities.
Greene’s had opened at a propitious moment. For much of the nineteenth century, theater in the United States had been regarded as either a snobbish interest of a tiny elite in the East or a low, immoral distraction for single men, not far removed from the brothel and the saloon. In the 1880s vaudeville emerged: variety theater as professionally run as any of the great industries and designed to make the theater “as ‘homelike’ as it was possible to make it,” in the words of the impresario B. F. Keith, so that it “would directly appeal to the support of ladies and children.” Cedar Rapids’s location as a railroad hub meant that it instantly became one of the key stops on the new theater circuit, though not always one that the performers relished playing. Cedar Rapids’s audiences had a reputation for giving instant and bracingly honest critiques. When the Marx Brothers performed a skit based on The Spirit of ’76 at another Cedar Rapids venue, the Majestic Theatre, there were boos and catcalls from swaths of the audience, incensed by what they considered an insult to the flag. The young Van Vechten was nowhere near as discriminating. During his formative years a litany of theatrical talent whizzed through the town for one-night-only performances, sprinkling a film of stardust over Cedar Rapids as it went. From his favored vantage point of the balcony at Greene’s, Van Vechten saw many of vaudeville’s biggest stars, as well as celebrated names from outside the variety tradition. Richard Mansfield appeared as the caddish dandy Beau Brummell, Lillian Russell in American Beauty, and Otis Skinner in Romeo and Juliet; all three were celebrated names who packed theaters in New York and Chicago with ease. Van Vechten devoured everything the producers served up, from Shakespeare to minstrelsy; from Stephen Foster and John Philip Sousa to the productions of the American Extravaganza Company, which put on spectacular Arabian Nights–style pantomimes with evocative titles such as Fantasia and Superba.
Beyond the pure escapism, Greene’s offered a glimpse of another America far away from the cornfields and church socials of Iowa, one brightly illustrated by a collage of multiethnic cultures and propelled by the brutal dynamism of urban life that was swiftly enveloping the nation. Young Carl saw a production of A Trip to Chinatown, a hit musical that revolved around fast-living members of the Bohemian Club, wealthy San Francisco bachelors who patronized fancy restaurants and dallied with young single ladies. Despite being set in California, the show featured a popular song, entitled “The Bowery,” that helped establish the infamy of New York’s vice districts in the late 1800s. Sissieretta Jones, an African-American singer otherwise known as Black Patti after the Italian soprano Adelina Patti, appeared with the Black Patti Troubadours, a revue company of dozens of black singers and dancers and acrobats, one of whom was a then unknown Bert Williams. There was even a demonstration of Edison’s revolutionary Vitascope motion picture technology at which Van Vechten and a thousand other astonished patrons watched a Native American tribal ceremony, a round from Jim Corbett’s victorious bout against Charley Mitchell in Florida, water cascading down New Jersey’s Paterson Great Falls, and Loie Fuller dancing on the Parisian stage, the wonders of modern machinery summoning them all to appear under the same roof.
Van Vechten documented his passions in scrapbooks—another collecting obsession that stayed with him for life—spending hours filling their pages with magazine cuttings, theater programs, newspaper reviews, and a vast collection of cigarette card photographs of the biggest stars of the day. Actresses rather than actors, enchanting in their bustles and gowns, their hair pinned elaborately and their cheeks dusted with rouge, held his fascination. The charismatic comedian Della Fox was a particular favorite, but there were also less conventional heroines (or heroes), such as Richard Harlow, a hulking two-hundred-pound female impersonator, further testament to Van Vechten’s interest in men who refused to be men. The scrapbooks were his attempt to possess beauty in much the same way that a lepidopterist pins butterflies to a board. Held in stasis between the covers of his books, the luminaries of the theater who swept into town never really left: they and the glamour they exuded were with Carl, always.
As a teenager he photographed his own moments of theatrical fantasy, getting friends to re-create poses from magazines or shows he had seen. He had Louise Henderson stand on a chair on his back porch, pretending to be an opera singer, while another female friend lay among flowers like Shakespeare’s Juliet laid to rest. These were the adolescent prototypes of the famous Van Vechten studio portraits, studied and deliberate encapsulations of beauty and talent. As child and adult Van Vechten used his camera lens to eschew the banal and ugly, focusing on perfect little moments of make-believe to be captured for posterity.
In those sepia images, and in the dark of Greene’s auditorium, an intangible presence reverberated like a new elemental force; through the taffeta drapery of the Gilded Age, the bright lights of a new world flickered before Van Vechten’s eyes. Very soon the drapes would be torn down and the illumination would be total.
Copyright © 2014 by Edward White