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May 8, 2006

TT: Also present

I blogged a couple of weeks ago about Carl Van Vechten, the photographer-boulevardier-enthusiast whose portraits of famous people were recently exhibited at an Upper East Side bookshop. Since then I've had occasion to re-read an out-of-print biography of Van Vechten, and I confess to being envious of what you might call his achievements in the field of propinquity. Among many, many other things, he attended both the Armory Show in New York and the Paris premiere of The Rite of Spring, at which he shared a box with Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, who subsequently became his lifelong friends, joining a troupe that also included Ronald Firbank, George Gershwin, Zora Neale Hurston, H.L. Mencken, Eugene O'Neill, and Bessie Smith.

Van Vechten was born in 1880, died in 1964, and in between was intensely curious about everything to do with the arts. I had forgotten when I wrote my previous posting, for instance, that he was not merely a dance critic but the very first American dance critic, and that he lived long enough to see and admire both Anna Pavlova and New York City Ballet. Van Vechten preserved his curiosity well into his old age: among the subjects of his later photographs were Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond, over whose music he "swooned," writing with special admiration of "those long Rossini-like monotonous crescendos that stretch out endlessly like the moon of my delight in the orient." (I'd bet money that this is the album he had in mind.) He even set down his opinion of Elvis Presley for posterity:

I heard him with amazement and I am convinced that his appeal is purely (or impurely) sexual. And as he does not appeal to me on that basis, I have discarded him forever, unless he comes around with his hand-organ to sing at my door.

"To me," Van Vechten wrote, "discovery is nine-tenths of the interest in life." Not a bad motto for someone in my line of work.

Posted May 8, 2006 12:00 PM

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