At Home With Drosselmeier by Coleman Dowell

BOMB 10 Fall 1984
Issue 10 010  Fall 1984
236416106 03062015 Coleman Dowell 01 Bomb 010

Carl Van Vechten and Coleman Dowell, February 26, 1957. Photograph by Saul Mouriber.

My first impression of Carl Van Vechten’s drawing room was the lasting one. The day of our meeting in January, 1957, was dark and the chandelier was blazing. Coruscant in its light were seagreen peau de soie, china cats, portraits, the marzipan colors of impressionist paintings; on a large table under the source of light were boxes: of silver, cloisonne, sandalwood, studded with turquoise or lapis lazuli, or intricately inlaid. Later I was to be offered from those boxes candied ginger, crystallized violets and rose buds, and other sweetmeats to rival the delights of Konfituerenburg in The Nutcracker. If Fritz rather than Clara had been bewitched by Herr Drosselmeier and taken out of this world, the analogy to the changes wrought in my life for a time would be exact. Van Vechten was a master magician and some of his illusions over the years were disquieting.

He was an original man, but his greatest asset was to have been “of his own time” a more primary guarantee of temporal success than great originality.

The reason for our meeting was that I might try to persuade him to allow me to turn his 1920s novel, The Tattooed Countess, into a musical. I went there knowing that others had been refused the rights, some of them Great Names—Richard Rodgers among them; but I was in my twenties and somewhat arrogant, arrogant enough to have written a great many songs and several dialog scenes before I asked permission of him. Before I played the music for him he assured me that our “contact” (his amused word) had guaranteed my talent, and he was happy for me; but Hollywood had made such a mess of the movie version, called Woman of the World and starring Pola Negri, that he had sworn off allowing any further adaptations of his works. Still, I was not intimidated, and the songs hooked him, and I left with his approval and permission. A letter from him a few days after our meeting is full of his enthusiasm. By that time I had been—commanded, I suppose is the best word—to show up and to be photographed, and another early letter tells me that the first batch of proofs is highly successful, adding that he does not know, however, the way people like to see themselves.

A letter not too long after that bids me to show up with my lion, which was stuffed, unlike Tallulah Bankhead’s which, in one photograph, is in the process of scratching her badly; it is in color and the drops of blood are like small jewels strung on the long pink chains of the scratches. That was just pre-Zoo for the lion of Tallu.

In the letter concerning my lion, perversely named Tiger, Van Vechten says that the three of us must be photographed by his assistant for posterity, “… while I am still alive and you are still beautiful.”

Looking over the letters for the first time in years, I am amazed at how quickly I was drawn into that circle; made, in fact, the often unwitting center of it. One letter, about a party that I did not attend, brings this home: “Despite the mention of Langston’s name the party was for you and arranged around you.” (That would be Langston Hughes, an intimate friend of the Van Vechten’s and a remarkably sympathetic man.) I am pleased to see that I at least sent flowers, for he mentions that they have been photographed “so they exist in perpetuity!”

If one great comparison is more apt than another I would say that The Louvre under Louis XIII best presents the atmosphere of Carlo’s drawing room. There was a measure of rivalry and envy perhaps a little greater than is usual in New York circles, but it was also more submerged; all the unsavory implications and directives, there, fell through the interstices of ordinary speech, so ordinary as to be surprising, at first; one had expected elevated talk of the great, and high bitchery, and found instead banalities, imagined until then to have been the special province of the Midwest … I had, of course, taken my ideas from Van Vechten’s own novels, and finally it was enough to know that he had been capable of writing it … The games hidden beneath this mundane surface could be quite cruel but one knew it only after one had been for the first time badly wounded. My first time occurred on an evening when the press of the famous had made me a wreck at the thought of playing my “Countess” songs, a feature of most gatherings at Carlo’s in those early years. Leontyne Price sang, Geoffrey Holder improvised a dance, his long fluttering hands like big tropical butterflies, and a pianist just launching a concert career played something brilliant and showy. When it came my turn I refused. Gloria Vanderbilt and Sidney Lumet, then Mr. and Mrs., insisted that I play; they had not heard the songs and would not tolerate my refusal (this said so very nicely, Mrs. Lumet’s eyes crinkled persuasively). Thus won, I went to the piano and played an introductory chord, and the Lumets left. Instantly. The game perceived, I sat on and played the songs and sang them, and my champion was Langston Hughes. There are compensations for the victim of such games: I have never played so many encores on request.

I wonder if it would amuse the altruistic originator of Fat Lady Jeans, the former Mrs. Lumet, to learn that her nickname among us was Ears? One was fascinated by their size and prominence, as one still is, and by her skin so fine-grained but dead white and exhausted looking as a Southern lady’s handkerchief in a 1930s August.

Leaving Mr. and Mrs. Lumet now, I allude to a discussion which will give a sense of the importance of talk at Van Vechten’s: a discussion about big ears on women; it was said that their size connoted the dimensions of her sex, which led to more bawdiness concerning the penis sizes of the lovers of these jug-eared women. This improvisation was prolonged because Carlo was so amused by it, and fell from the sofa onto the floor suffering all the visual symptoms of apoplexy. The old queens impassively watched one’s efforts to turn the massive body, which once turned was subjected to an extremely amateur mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Dead silence and then wild laughter as Carlo’s tongue shot into my mouth, the moment for which he and they had been waiting. They knew their man.

Often the evenings were spent innocently, writhing on the floor in laughter at Florence Foster Jenkins; or less innocently refraining from laughter at Paul Swan’s dance recitals where dancer and audience practiced an extreme form of masochism. The Gish sisters were visitors there, and the most regular of regulars was the silent film actress, Aileen Pringle. Her irreverence touched everyone and her tales of early Hollywood could be chilling as well as funny. If I’ve got it right, she was the daughter of a Governor of Bermuda and had some claim to a feeling of superiority to what she called “mostly trash,” that is, the early screen stars. She was definitive on the subject of William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies, the latter her ‘pal’; I wish I could set it all down here, her recountals of evenings at San Simeon, but I am afraid I might find that I had violated somebody’s trust—perhaps Pringle’s if she is still alive. She was rather tender about Elinor Glynn, which was refreshing; and chilling about Van Vechten’s Hollywood days. “He taught us,” she said, “to accept niggers.” This was in Nora Holt’s apartment in Harlem with Jimmy Daniels and other blacks in close proximity. I’ve discovered that no word carries farther in a stage whisper than “nigger.” But I suppose they had all been through it together before, for they were old friends linked by what seemed a genuine affection.

Another silent film star habitue was Dagmar Godowsky who liked to sit near to and facing the door; she explained this in a Viennese accent so thick it was more like a hearty soup than speech: “I’m a snob. I like to sit where I can see who is arriving.” I gave one party, at least, that met her standards; there were movie and stage stars, a political figure, one clothes designer of-the-moment and a beautiful model, and three English Ladyships, all oversized, perched like big not-too-friendly birds on the only old, fragile piece of furniture I owned, a 17th-century refectory table. This was either a party for Eileen Herlie, whom we were courting to be our Countess, or it was in honor of a Van Vechten anniversary. For all my total recall I cannot somehow separate those two occasions, but if it was the latter then Carlo was responsible for the guest list and I believe the Ladyships came with Hermione Baddeley, one of my friends. Anyway, Dagmar approved of everything, even the uninvited guests who made us run out of food (“People should not eat too much in public”—a revealing statement; Daggie was very fat.) The last time I saw her she bade me come by and meet her monkey. I’m sorry I never went.

Thus the circles, Carlo’s and mine, became interchangeable. He photographed my friends and nourished them on bad gumbo and good Champagne; I fed and bourboned his friends and stored up mental portraits. The parties back and forth across the Park grew so incessant for a time that I pretended to always be busy on Thursdays so I could get some rest, but after tasting Sardi’s Thursday special, osso buco, I again became available, for Van Vechten was always in that place, and thus we began to go together. I tried asking Vincent Sardi to keep his waiters from standing around watching Carlo eat. I said it was like feeding time at the Zoo, meaning the waiters’ horrified attention, but Sardi turned it against me: “You should not say such things about your friend.” I would tuck Carlo’s napkin about him, tie it around his neck, but food still spilled and gravy still ran and often shot between his teeth in trajectories that could score bulls-eyes on the waiters. But the wonder was that Carlo’s widely-spaced, exceedingly protuberant teeth could retain anything at all. Still, a provincial myself, I would sit there loathing the waiters whom I saw as newly arrived from Sicily, saying to myself, “He’s old, world famous, does everything with gusto, and it doesn’t matter what people think about him, especially waiters.” But it mattered to me.

A letter of January 3, 1958, informs me that there will be an informal supper party for the Baroness Blixen (“of Denmark,” he writes, perhaps fearful for my literacy) “on Sunday evening at 6 o’clock.” It appeared that the baroness wished to meet some American Negroes, and so would I come?—a typical Van Vechten dig at the young white Southerner … It occurs to me just at this moment that perhaps Pringle’s use of the word ‘nigger’ was somehow meant to discredit me, and that they were all in on it—Jimmy Daniels, who was definitely not my friend, and Norah Holt, who was … . If this is paranoia it is not the first nor will it be the last instance, though I believe this mild affliction began at Van Vechten’s where it could have been designated, like the pox at older Courts, the Court Disease.

One’s intuition, of which paranoia may be a legitimate appendage, could become extraordinarily sharpened by contact with the crowd at Van Vechten’s. I generally arrived at his house after several drinks at home but on that Sunday I stayed on the wagon. When I arrived at 146 Central Park West I was sober, and apprehensive. The drawing room was unusually packed, people ranged around the walls in layers. At each new arrival everyone craned, expecting the great writer. I wondered if they all held her in the same veneration I reserved for her exclusively; she and Edith Sitwell were the only literary figures for whom I had ever felt awe, one for her great discipline, the other for her lack of restraint; but to me Isak Dinesen stood on a pinnacle that the great Jacobean poseur could never have attained … . The bending human walls at each ring of the doorbell seemed about to permanently cave in, so that to one’s apprehension was added acute claustrophobia, and the curtains in that drawing room were never opened, not even during the day, so that one was caught forever in the chandelier’s blaze.

I wonder if it was intuition that informed Carlo, for he answered one ring of the door himself. In a churchly quiet—little coughs, a few shuffles of the feet—he escorted Isak Dinesen to her throne-like chair. She was dressed in black—silk jersey, I think—and wore a large black hat deeply edged with plumes. As they progressed, she leaning upon him, half his height and a quarter his weight, the black plumes funereally nodded, now this side, now that, but we could not see her face. When she had been seated and given Champagne Carlo turned about and surveyed the room, head lowered as though he peered over the tops of glasses. My heart failed when his eyes stayed on me. “Cole,” he said, “come and talk to the Baroness.” I sank to my knees before her, a graceful gesture, but it was because I could not stand.

I spoke to her of our joy at having her in America, her first visit. She spoke. I spoke. And spoke. “I will accept as many invitations as I can,” she told the room in reply to my invitation to dinner. Was it a bid for rescue? In desperation I told her that I had read recently a book by a fellow countryman of hers, and though it would be second-rate Isak Dinesen I thought it was first-rate anybody else: “The Red Umbrellas,” by Kelvin Lindemann.

For the first time the plumed hat brim was tossed upward, a movement of great abruptness, and the fascinating face was revealed. But the eyes, surely, were blazing in anger? They were. She said that the book had been submitted and sold under her name, a fact well known in Denmark but unmentioned in the reviews in this country. Her rage, larger than our context of the drawing room, greater than the company, was focused upon me. What an awful thing it had been for her, that deception! She can only have believed that I knew of the controversy which involved a lawsuit, and had baited her deliberately.

Was the shifting about behind me of all those bodies sympathetic to my plight or impelled by a peculiarly New York glee? As for me, I discovered in myself a potent dislike for the Baroness Blixen; in fact, I detested her with all my humiliated spirit, attaching my loathing like a leech to her titled self, which left Isak Dinesen, the revered, in the clear. My bestowal upon her of this schizophrenia—which may in fact have afflicted her in her daily existence—allowed the denouement of this episode and permits me to tell it now, though not without shame.

Our encounter ended with Donald Gallup’s rush to the rescue and I melted into the murmuring and certainly malicious crowd: all contact with me was avoided. From this vantage point of 26 years later I view all of us with a certain compassion. We were playing the game as we had been taught, abiding by stringent rules that were tarnished heirlooms by the time we received them from an older more ruthless race—see James and Wharton—and from a time when certain concepts, such as society and honor, had almost totally different consequences, if not meanings. Whether or not the motivationless malice of much of today’s sport is better I can’t say, but suspect that structured, official, mandated cruelty is more regrettable, as malice aforethought is more deplorable than a spontaneous act of similar weight.

To return to one’s story: a feature, a phoenix far too frequent, of Carlo’s parties was a woman of such monumental ability to bore that she was surely a genius. I cannot characterize her further, for she is still alive. Except to say that her one claim to distinction was her marriage to a black man; one so far right that some called him a fascist, but, you do understand, Black.

Leashed by my powerful intuition I was drawn from the supper table and down the corridor to the drawing room door, where I was allowed to lean and observe. At the other end of the vista, tiny and shocked, sat the Baroness in the clutches of you-don’t-know-who. Untouched before her were oysters and champagne, and a peanut butter canapé appeared to be stuck to her long black glove; she would extend her hand in slow motion toward a dish as though to part with the canapé but when her hand again lifted the Ritz cracker was still with her; this maneuver, performed two or three times while I watched, led to the conclusion that she was involved simultaneously in a Bea Lillie comedy and, with the jawing Lorelei, a tragedy. Observing the perpetual motion of the jaw of Mrs. S. I could imagine what she was saying … If you had been on an automotive journey with that woman she would have gone something like this: “Here comes a telephone pole; it’s getting closer; now it’s passing; now it’s gone. And HERE comes ANOTHER telephone pole …” All the way from New York to California.

The rest of the story is simple. The black plumes once again lifted, the great haunted eyes met mine across the centuries of boredom, and forgave, and beseeched. And I went away. If there is a chamber for me in Hell, Mrs. S. will join me there and tell me, forever and ever, what she was saying to Isak Dinesen, for I became convinced it was she and not the cruel Baroness who begged for my help.

At large parties tables were set up in the library and in Carlo’s studio. The library could accommodate at least a dozen people and was where the fun was. The studio contained only two tables, four people to each. I had the thought that those in the studio were isolated as people with diseases are, to see how they will infect each other and respond to stimuli and certain medicines. Once I was put in there with Brooks Atkinson, Ruth Ford, and Irene Dalis of the Metropolitan Opera, a memorable Fricka. I had never seen Miss Ford act, and Atkinson, for all his milque-toast appearance, inspired fear. At the other table sat Louis Kronenberger, also a critic.

Ruth Ford—none of us had met Atkinson before—attacked at once. Atkinson apparently had given her a bad notice for something years ago, perhaps for her Temple Drake in The Nun’s Story. She informed him, in her somewhat harsh voice, that his duty was to her, not the other way around; that he should make every effort to understand what she was doing, and that she should not ever have to worry about what he was doing. And the Times critic agreed. And agreed. Occasionally Miss Dalis would interject something about her roles in Wagner but Miss Ford did not care and Mr. Atkinson could not, or maybe he did not want to, break the spell. Miss Ford was extremely handsome in her indignation, the slight Southern cast of her speech both charming and threatening, in the way that a cast in the eye can convey beauty or a malediction.

Carlo and Fania Marinoff, his wife, wandered through the rooms with magnums of champagne; visiting the tables, as he filled our glasses she hung from his shoulder in her ancient and beautiful clothes (she swore that she had not bought a new dress since the 1920s) that were like tapestries, or rugs. Their orbit resembled a comet’s and I came to wish that they were Halley’s which appears only every 70 years or so. Because each time they got to us Fania would shout, in her rich actressy voice, “Brooks, remember that name: COLEMAN DOWELL.” And I could feel Mr. Kronenberger turning behind me, perhaps metamorphosing into the monster of, was it Time Magazine? In any case, the monster of opening nights. After several of these mad ellipses my prayer was that before my opening night something would have wiped the occasion from their minds. As it turned out, by then Atkinson had retired and had been succeeded by someone who had the shortest term of any “critic” in history, and Kronenberger, if he was still around, did not bother to review the musical, for which I was grateful.

There is no denouement to this story. Unlike “Mare” Koch (as the newscasters call him) I was seldom victorious and all my enemies went, and go, unscathed. No, like most parties that one was not rounded off but remained open-ended, all things possible as the result of friendships and animosities engendered there. For all Van Vechten’s Drosselmeier-like magical abilities, he could not influence the future beyond arranging meetings, which you and I can do, and laying plans which, for all their intriguing elaborateness, ganged aft agley. This was a disappointment to me, that the old, very famous and accomplished man could not, for example, order a theatrical hit, or good reviews, or force two people to fall in love. Though he did mate them, or cause them to mate.

When Leontyne Price came to him, from Mississippi, as so many Black artists came from all over the country for his evaluation, assistance, aegis in cold, hard, anti-Black New York—he told her he had just the husband for her and introduced her to William Warfield, and they got married. Whether one says ‘dutifully’ I can’t tell you. The marriage did end in divorce, but they were still married when I knew them up at Carlo’s.

However, there was a small and at the time funny consequence of my meeting that evening the actress Claudia MacNeil, one of the stars of “Raisin in the Sun.” We liked each other and spent the rest of that evening together, but that seemed to be the end of it, for months went by and neither of us called the other. Then we met again at a luncheon at Le Moal, the host of which was of course Van Vechten. It was a large and “famous” crowd and the table had been carefully arranged to accommodate our ambitions for The Countess: we finally had producers and a tentative star in Eileen Herlie, my first choice. On one side of my place card was Al Hirschfeld’s, which was meant to guarantee that our show, no matter what else was opening in the same week, would dominate through the Hirschfeld drawing the front page of the theater section on Sunday before our first night. Carlo arranged the table; I was to see to the rest. On the other side of my place card was Danton Walker’s, who actually gave me a tiny plug in his column the following week. But not because I had through proximity and charm influenced him: Claudia, who always referred to herself in the third person—Claudia thinks, Claudia feels, Claudia does—thought we should sit together, FELT we should sit together, and Claudia DID—she rearranged the table to her satisfaction. Carlo watched helplessly; perhaps he was amused, perhaps he approved, for he admired chutzpah above all other attributes for which no word exists in English.

It occurs now, struggling with this memory, that Claudia MacNeil’s officious friendliness may have shifted the bobbins of a few fatal threads, helping to alter the pattern from what would have been into what came to be. Why else the occasion, the occurrence? For I never saw her again and yet I see now that that day marked a change … But hindsight, like lupus, is the great pretender: remove one of its masks and another lies beneath, just as convincing …

Also at that luncheon was Mattiwilda Dobbs, who sang, during my Van Vechten years, what he termed the only perfect recital he had heard since—was it one of Mary Garden’s? Anyhow, that other ‘perfect’ recital had been a hell of a long time before. Miss Dobbs was very beautiful and as remote as, for example, Leontyne Price seemed to be accessible. But this latter star concealed another star within, and the sharp points were not aligned …

Among the people I took as gifts to the Van Vechtens were Kim Hunter and Bob Emmett, Tamara Geva, Balcomb Greene and his wife, Terry, and Ruth Yorck. Carlo knew something about Ruth Yorck but would not say what it was. In my presence they had a cryptic exchange in which the name Josephine appeared regularly, and the smiles were like a game, bold, elusive, as they took turns pursuing and eluding and implying. This was what passed for conversation at Carlo’s; in all the years I spent in that place I never heard nor took part in a conversation as I define the word; at Carlo’s there were monologues, exchanges of bon mots, bitchery, some facts, but there was never the give-and-take of conversation. Years later, many years later, I discovered what I think it was that Carlo knew and Countess Yorck knew he knew about her: in the biography of Josephine Baker there is an anecdote in which Miss Baker and a woman ‘named Landshoff’—Ruth’s maiden name—are depicted as being naked at a party of men, Barons and the like, in Germany. They fall to kissing each other, then fall, or sink, to the floor for more serious embracing, and the men gather round for the show … Someone who had known Ruth in Germany had said, “She was the most exciting woman in Berlin at that time” and when I pressed him for reasons all he could come up with was that she had ridden her motorcycle into the Opera house. But clearly her fame amounted to more than that, and what Carlo knew was simply this sexual license of which I was perfectly aware. What candor am I allowed? These are memoirs, not fiction. Having reminded myself of this I replay an old soundless memory of Ruth coming out of the bathroom at John LaTouche’s in Vermont followed by an embarrassed (and obviously gay) Black pianist then studying in a nearby village; Ruth is lustily wiping her mouth. A successful encounter, later verified by the pianist to his friends, though he got the title of the fellator wrong: he told them ‘the Duchess’ had done it. And here is Ruth talking of the pleasure of playing with a lover’s feces, a word she would never have used. Shit it is and shit it was. The last time I saw her was at her tiny house on Cornelia Street, in the garden strung with Japanese lanterns, the garden packed with people among whom were a name or two—Marguerite Young comes to mind—the purpose of the gathering being that all whom she had helped in their careers should be photographed in motion for German television. I had just begun my third career, as a prose writer (simultaneous with my second career as a model) and Ruth had translated and seen into publication in Germany a story of mine, and this is why I was there. I can’t recall why it was the last time we saw each other; there was esteem between us; I think our estrangement was on account of a letter I published in The Times in support of a Professor Poll of Columbia whom Leo Lerman had typically attacked, gnat stings all over the poor Professor’s body. I’ve always, as a Southerner should, detested gnats. Ruth, I recall, was unaccountably fond of Lerman and when I threatened on the telephone (to her) to follow up my letter with a physical attack on him she told me, in vibrating cello tones, how delicate the person was compared to me, and contrasted our ages, and asked me to feel “just a little ashamed, my darling.” I didn’t and somehow that may have brought our physical encounters to an end, though we still spoke on the telephone. Is it a faulty memory that lets me recall plans we had made to go to Vermont, to LaTouche’s house (LaTouche then dead, Kenward Elmslie the squire of the tiny house) just before she died at a matinée of Marat-Sade in Ellen Stewart’s arms? I know we had such plans once, and that they were frustrated, and I choose now to think that only death … you know. But it was probably something petty on my part. ‘My Greek boy’ she called me. I never knew why.

Carlo always knew something about everyone, that he was determined to keep from me. When I asked, for example, just what Gertrude Stein meant about Hemingway’s muttering that he could not tell all because of his public, he looked enigmatic and even censorious, and clammed up, though he was also master of the seeming non sequitur when he said, immediately afterward, that Gertrude would have loved me. He called out to Fania to verify the statement and she did. “What do you MEAN? WHY would she have loved me?” No answer. And in my emphatic questions (emphases my undoing?) perhaps they heard the child, and you do not tell things to children.

Did I carry Barbra Streisand to him, or did I know her after he was dead? Letters would tell, the photographs would tell, but I am unwilling to check for fear they never met. For they belonged together: his camera and her photogenic face, his piano and her voice, his approving eyes (and Fania’s) and her thrift-shop clothes which looked very much like Fania’s own rugs and tapestries. And of course, there would have been her Jewishness and his approval. Next to Blacks he felt most passion for Jews. (Fania, announcing to the world in her stentorian voice, “I’m a JEWESS, darlings.”)

I carried a lot of young men to Carlo, either because of their beauty and/or eccentricity, or because they practiced some offbeat hobby or profession, such as deciphering hieroglyphics, or because they were Jewish. I met Peter Fiebleman at Carlo’s and he managed to combine all the above elements and their attributes. He had just published a very eccentric and lovely novel, “A Place Without Twilight,” and he was an American Jew, and he had lived in Spain and acted upon the Spanish stage as a Spaniard, without detection, when such a masquerade was extremely dangerous. Or so the story ran. I also met James Purdy there, God knows talented, God knows eccentric; and God surely knows, not Jewish. I have never met a more perfect embodiment of Middle America, or of Waspishness. In a letter to me after Van Vechten’s death Purdy says that he does not believe Carlo loved him. But the letters I have from Carlo about Purdy refute this, and he cautions me to keep Purdy’s letters as long as I like but that they must eventually go to the collection at Yale. Purdy was touched with magic for me even before I read his stories (he had not yet written one of his odd novels) because Edith Sitwell herself, great authoress of “Facade” and “The Canticle of the Rose,” had been his champion, had called him ‘an American genius.’ Hearing of this before our meeting I prepared myself for nuances, for an offbeat beauty, a sense of turbans and pearls. But found the uncompromising bleakness of his own “Daddy Wolf.” And a certain defensiveness about his work that could easily pass as pettiness. Referring to a story of his, in which a mistreated child spews something black from his mouth, I asked the author, “How could you do it?” and won, I think, his enmity which, through our sporadic letter writing, was never far below the surface. Recently someone I know went to interview Purdy, all the way to Brooklyn and the one room I had heard about but never seen, and I sent regards. According to my informant the only response was, “He hates my writing.” I had never thought about it until then …

Two black women refused to let me take them to Van Vechten’s, both of them for the same reason: they had been warned by their parents against being drawn into the racist, and worse, web. One of the women, Barbara Scott Preiskel, had been given the warning in Washington; the other, Lorraine Broyard, has received instruction in Sag Harbor. When I cruelly (I later saw) tricked Barbara by inviting her to a party with Van Vechten she chose the alternative to meeting him, which was to leave. I suppose I had not realized the depth of her conviction. Several years ago she was listed among the ten most successful women executives in America. Lorraine Broyard’s claim on my memory is two-pronged. The first horn of the dilemma, as I see it, is that she refused to sleep with me because I was too old; I was then 29; the second horn is that her brother, to whom she showed my first stories, sent strong encouragement, saying, “Your friend has something,” but now I wonder what is was he meant that I had, for in his capacity as a Times book critic he has never paid notice to my ‘mature’ writing. Still, Anatole, thanks for the early kindness and if your sister is around, kiss her for me and tell her that I am really too old now.

386256850 03062015 Carl Van Vechten Bomb 010

Edna St. Vincent Millay. Photograph by Carl Van Vechten.

Ent’r Acte

Others one saw with regularity at the San Remo on Central Park West were Diane Carroll whose beauty, like Miss Dobbs’s concert, seemed to me to be perfect; Nora Holt, upon whom Van Vechten had patterned the siren in “Nigger Heaven;” she had once, it was said, been truly wicked like Lasca in that novel but was now (then) a cultural leader in a Harlem beginning to break out of its Northern bounds and move South; and there were the Lin Yutangs. If a softening of tone is discernible it is meant to be, for this lovely philosopher and his family always had that effect upon me. They arrived always in the spirit of Christmas, their voices beyond doors like bells, their hands bringing charming gifts. Chinese Baptists!, somehow risible; but they were still very Chinese. We discovered that we lived in the same building and as friendship advanced we made feasts for each other which did not have to include the Van Vechtens. Madame Lin invariably put me on her right and I’m fairly sure this was because I drank so much and each time she poured wine for me she could pour for herself, and she would urge me, “Drink up, drink up!” She was allowed by Dr. Lin two martinis before dinner and wine with but nothing afterward, and both attitudes were informed by her having had a heart attack in the recent past.

In my bookshelves I have a copy of Dr. Lin’s IMPERIAL PEKING inscribed to me on my birthday, May 29th, 1962, and this helps recall the birthday feast and the dish named in my honor, Crystal Shrimp (I was at work on a new musical with “crystal” in the title). I loved Dr. Lin’s serious consideration of all things—pipe in mouth seriously contemplating the little plastic recirculating fountain in my living room—and Hong’s apparent giddiness, and the beauty of Mei Mei, and the endearing sobriety, like a child’s, of Adet, who, like her father, was a brain; and I loved their options: Shall we, they would ask, move to Paris, or Taiwan? … When his plane would land in such as Brazil or Argentina, hordes of teenage fans would be there to greet him. Try to imagine philosopher-groupies in our own country.

We did not see very much of Alicia Markova but when she was in town there was always a celebration. Her beauty and the unequaled grace of her walk turned us all into quietened spectators. Once when I was in London I was taken to tea with her sisters, Doris Barry and Vivian Marks. The apartment was a shrine to Markova; ballet slippers were framed like paintings. They referred to their sister as Madame and there was perceptible neurosis in their talk of her, though the talk was not reluctant. Their eager neurosis intrigued me. When I saw Markova again I told her of the visit. This did not please her at all. Was it because the London apartment was decidedly shabby and might with its pervasive comfortable ordinariness spoil the gossomer she had woven from her own body into an aura over the long years? It’s true that one imagines a Markova living either among clouds or in a room like Rebecca’s bedroom in that film, attended by someone as fierce as Danvers. Neither fantasy allows for the odor of breakfast fish which that day pervaded the apartment near the Marble Arch, though I certainly did not bring in this detail in my increasingly awkward interview with Markova; for it is certainly true that when one tries to make amends for some tacit transgression, the original condition only grows worse. The more I protested, not knowing why, my devotion to red-haired Vivian and dark Doris (tea had segued into dinner in Shepherd’s Market and that meal—two veg. and a cut off the joint—into scotch-and-soda back at their apartment) the more remote the ballerina became. I saw her again through the years but only across a room over the backs of Helen and Oregano, the two white china cats. A mystery befitting Drosselmeier, a rather melancholy one. I had so liked sitting at Markova’s pretty feet.

I have mentioned that Leontyne Price was a regular but her husband, William Warfield, was present only twice when I was there. The marriage was then breaking up. The last occasion of his presence may have been a barometer for the weather of that marriage for he made me a proposition I could not accept involving an activity in the bathroom. When the mention of money did not do the trick I got called, in front of several people, “Young Massa”. Considering the alternative, this was like a settlement out of court. Years later in Rome, Leontyne was rude to a friend and me and I always supposed it had something to do with a sense of loyalty to her former husband, though I was by that time, or my star was, setting in the Van Vechten firmament: the musical had flopped. Still, moments of the Roma adventure are worth preserving.

On the Via Veneto my friend and I ran into Price’s secretary-companion, a fat young man whose name is not recorded in any of my papers. The diva was in Rome recording opera; I know that Giorgio Tozzi and Rosamund Elias were there also. The second encounter with the secretary brought the surprising news that Miss Price wanted to see me and this message was delivered day after day with some trifling excuse which did not matter to me at all. I was quite happy exercising my Roman feet, as we called them, from sunup to sundown. We dined with Rosamund Elias several nights in restaurants where olive oil was highly featured, starred indeed—so good for singer’s throats. Miss Elias, a wonderful artist, exemplified what I had come to expect of opera singers, which was heartiness, an attitude both unassuming and secure, and a sense of humor that embraced bawdiness. Also with us, among us, apparently hounding, with no success, Leontyne, was the little blonde girl whose babysitter Price had once been, whose family had sponsored Price’s career to a certain extent. As we had not asked to see Leontyne, my companion and I did not mind not seeing her, but the blonde Southern girl minded very much; her little blue suits and dresses became wrinkled, her big blue eyes more forlorn with defeat. Remembering that Price had once been her babysitter, it was an easy step to see the depressed child as a little lamb bleating after a lost ewe. The secretary told us privately that Miss Price had said (and I quote accurately; I wrote it on a napkin that also features the secretary’s rather malicious pen drawing of Marian Anderson), “There ought to be a statue of limitations on gratitude.” I murmured that there probably was such a statue, on the Palatine …

At last in the lobby of the Excelsior one night, as my friends and I stood admiring Rise Stevens in her scarlet dress, no longer an Octavian but a most ravishing Marchellin, Miss Price swept in, bore down upon us, staring straight into my face; and bore on past carrying like a treasure ship the gold of her eagerness to see us. Perhaps it was after all too precious to spend.

But to speak of the ‘rilly rilly’ great (pace, Ed Sullivan), Truman Capote was refused admittance to Carlo’s because of his “maliciousness.” I put this in quotes for two reasons: I am quoting, and because it is such a fascinating reason in the milieu. I think Capote had given Carlo too much competition in the center-stage department. One of Carlo’s dicta to me was that a good host should be self-effacing; this was probably thought of and proffered on an occasion when he needed to subdue me in my own house, still a difficult thing to do. Another bit of advice was NEVER REFUSE ANYTHING(ah, William Warfield). I think what he meant was “never refuse to give me anything” for he was then in the midst of a campaign to part me from some beautiful handmade Bohemian (I think) cups and saucers to which I was, in his view, unaccountably attached. I still have them, or the remnants.

The other time that Van Vechten kissed me was more regrettable than the first, the day I thought he was dying on the floor and tried to revive him. There was no excuse for the second kiss, he just grabbed me and stuck his peanut-encrusted tongue into my mouth. Second-hand peanuts are always hard to take but the regrettable part was that this bit of playfulness was witnessed at close quarters by Dorothy Gish. I think my real deep wariness of VV began that night, because of Dorothy, who was more innocent-appearing even than her sister, her little lisp making her seem like a child.

Now, before I press on, having spoken of my dislikes perhaps too frequently, I must detail that I was disliked by a number of people in spite of Van Vechten’s belief that all fell before my charm. Brooks Atkinson’s wife, Oriana, for example, dismissed me as soon as seen, and as though I were a servant—or, as I suspect she thought, a snake in the garden, but this time consorting with Adam rather than Eve. Many people believed that VV and I were lovers. I was always there and my numerous photographs backed me up, so to speak, whenever Carlo left my side, which was not too frequently. But for the record, beyond two kisses recorded there was no physical contact between us; and this was not due to my reluctance … I was the only person at Carlo’s who could cause Zachary Scott to quit his incessant grinning and look subdued, if he did not in fact frown.

Now it occurs to me, hindsight being surely one of the properties of memoirs, that some negative reactions may have been because of the makeup I sometimes wore. Having a good clear complexion I naturally did what I could to tamper with it. My favorite makeup was 7-A, which I believe was called Juvenile—and I am speaking here of theatrical grease paint, scarcely the most subtle substance to put on your face. In childhood theatrics when we used burnt matches to draw on moustaches and old-age lines, I had burned one eyebrow almost entirely off and sometimes I would fill in this curious blank with boldly drawn brows of theatrical eye-liner, also greasy. Van Vechten never mentioned the times when I came to his house like a clown (as I think now I must have looked) nor did anyone else ever mention it, not even under the brilliant studio lights with which Van Vechten erased lines rather than retouching his photographs. But now, having become a conservative in that respect (a little face-bronzer in mid-winter about does it) I can’t imagine why I did what I did nor how I got away with it. I see myself riding subways made up for the stage, and wonder why I was not jumped on and beaten up. But that’s the eternal provincial, the hillbilly, speaking, for in this theatrical town actors do, and often, ride the subways made up, usually after a performance. I’ve seen Tom Ewell carrying greasepaint on his face and the aura of Monroe about him, under the mortuary lights of a late subway train.

But as I said, Carlo was never critical of me, not in the early years.

This, however, did change.

173609544 03062015 Isak Dineson Bomb 010

Isak Dineson. Photograph by Carl Van Vechten.

Act II

Both Carlo and Fania specialized in statements and behavior meant to have a shocking effect. When they came to my apartment for dinner Carlo always rode but Fania walked through the Park, blessed days of memory and safety. Fania, arriving and finding Carlo surrounded by women, would shout, “You whores leave my old husband alone!” This could be disquieting to a lady innocent and new to the scene … I should explain that the frequently shouted lines did not always devolve upon theatrical intention, but was due to the growing deafness of both parties. Fania had another tragically impending infirmity that I did not learn about for years.

Once, leaving the opera with the Van Vechtens, we stopped to chat with a famous man-and-wife. She is dead but he, as I write, is still among us, so I will just say that he is one of New York’s most respected publishers. Oh, let’s call them Alfred and Blanche Knopf … As soon as their backs were turned Carlo shouted that she looked like an old prostitute tonight. One observed the slowly stiffening backs of the victims and felt the way the crowd about us subtly shifted their attention from cab-grabbing to us. In tones as ringing as his own had been, Fania questioned Carlo’s paternity. This was followed by an exchange of invective that was frightening because of the blood-darkened faces, the apparently genuine rage. The crowd, upon which I morbidly concentrated, seemed mesmerized and one could feel their longing for a knife, a gun, a heart attack. Mob psychology is the same at the Met as in post-midnight Times Square. All at once without transition Carlo made kissing sounds and called Fania in a dulcet coo his naughty angel. One saw then that they had only been amusing each other and did not care what the rest of us thought (or feared).

The stiffening back of the victim:

Noguchi turns away from a table at Capri and Carlo loudly announces that he USED to be very beautiful:

A small rather humpbacked woman turns away from another table after kissing Carlo’s hands and murmuring endearments. Carlo, to the restaurant at large, “The last time I saw ( … . . ) she puked on the table.”

Or consider the slowly stiffening front of the victim:

At a counter-tenor recital we are all in the front row. The man is a friend of theirs, Russell Oberlin (whom Carlo wrote to me could have played our Countess as well as anyone). Fania and Carlo are separated by four or five regulars. The tenor sings to a lute, bending over it, lulling it. When the song is particularly soft Fania screams out that Russell looks like a mountain pouncing on a mouse;

An opera singer in quiet recitativo falters to hear what Carlo and Fania think of her costume. The singer is Price, the opera is The Girl of The Golden West, and the costume is described at full hoot as ‘a pair of bloomers.’ This is followed by maniacal laughter; seven people laughing, unable to stop, can daunt even a woman who believes in statues of limitations. Can daunt even Puccini.

One explanation for the terrible behavior is that scarcely anyone was scarcely ever sober. And yet as much as the youngest of us drank, it was not enough to settle Carlo’s distemper on the matter. He once told me, when I had unaccountably refused a drink, that he had not drawn a sober breath until after the age of 40. It seemed like a prescription, a formula for a colicky child.

Let it be understood that all of these people mentioned here were Carlo’s subjects, many in more ways than one. He photographed us and commanded us, a most benevolent king, much of the time. Among my letters from him I find a collection of faces and bodies on postal cards: Irra Petina, Anthony Armstrong-Jones, Pearl Bailey (nude to the waist), Tallulah Bankhead, Markova, Mattiwilda Dobbs, Olivier, Luise Ranier, Gertrude Stein, Jean Marrais, Edna St. Vincent Millay. No Elinor Wylie. I may have wanted that one too much; but he was free with anecdotes about her (about anyone, so long as the stories were not serious-minded). About Elinor Wylie he said, “Tell her ‘The Venetian Glass Nephew’ is the best novel you ever read and she will turn her back on you. Tell her she is beautiful and she will follow you anywhere.”

These letters and photographs, telegrams and postal cards, are like his voice in my ear telling me: of Alice Toklas’s conversion to Catholicism which upset him and Fania very much; telling me of Marilyn Monroe’s intent to divorce Arthur Miller and saying, “… she hopes Simone Signoret will be as obliging.” He had a passion for Signoret (eccentric, beautiful, and Jewish), who had been his prime choice to play The Countess. Even then, she was growing quite zaftig, but that might have suited Ella Natattorini; the question was: Signoret, an Iowan? When I posed it he would counter with: Margaret Leighton, an Iowan? (for she was interested). Greer Garson most looked the part, and had even promised me “I’ll bring you luck, Mr. D.” but I never had the chance to find out what that beautiful woman could do. When our producer fled we were stuck with Irene Manning.

Undoubtedly the flop of the musical, which closed in May 1961 after five performances, affected him deeply. But it was a cheap, distraught, even foolish little production and I cannot, 23 years later, talk or write coherently about it. I have it from others that he had expected the musical’s success to cap his career, as he put it. He had written this to many people during the halcyon days when we planned scenes to resemble Renoirs, when we, against Iowa tradition, decided to have a boating party on the river, an intricate scene with stars becoming chandeliers and bobbing boaters turning before our eyes into waltzers. One line in the song that spanned those scenes made him cry—he cried openly and for a rather long time. The townspeople are singing as Ella and Garetti, she 50 and he 17, step out of their boat and into a waltz:

Young night embraces
The fading day
Like a lover—

Carlo’s only letter that I can find with reference to the flop was written the day of the reviews and sent across the Park by messenger. It is filled with concern for me, not for himself, and there are no reproaches. He assures me that his love, and Fania’s, will endure. A letter written later that year attests to the continuance of our familiar games: “… do not BUY me a snake.”

The only other letter I received about the flop from anyone I had known through Carlo was from Lin Yutang who stuck to the quality of the songs, reminding me that VV had been among our best music critics: “… and in music, as in literature, time is the real judge.” Given by Dr. Lin, as it were, the choice of professions, I renounced the former and took up the latter. And Van Vechten renounced me.

But not before I had paid some dues. At least that is the way I see it after long years of contemplating it. Otherwise, why the delay? These dues are in the form of public humiliations, too many to go into, for he was not inventive and the sameness of the episodes is boring. Why I endured them, or more than one, is a matter for the analyst’s couch, a bed I have never lain, and will never lie, upon. One example of these paid dues will suffice.

The place is Le Moal, the exact location within the restaurant is the window with its two tables, a choice spot from which to contemplate the cold rain edging toward grey snow. At the other table are two women who look much alike. From the start Van Vechten baits them for he wants the window to himself, or wants a better audience. Trying to make safe conversation I mention that my hair is growing thin on top. He says, “You will buy a chestnut wig of hyacinthine curls and I will lead you around on a thin gold leash set with rubies” and for the benefit of the puzzled ladies he adds, “Nude.” Having their full attention he informs me, “They are mother-daughter lovers.” And they leave, hurriedly, touching in that familiar agitation of the Van Vechten mark. We drink daiquiris and he expands upon his theme for the benefit of the new arrivals, a better audience for they are two men. He grows obscene, his face mottled red, and to amuse and perhaps disarm him I improvise a blues riff using his chosen theme of sadomasochism:

Baby, baby, baby,
I got news for you
Baby, baby, baby
I got news for you
I’ll be anything you want, baby,
And do anything you tell me to.
I’ll be your big fat sassy mama
And boss you all around
I’ll be your big fat sassy mama
And boss you all around
And get down on all fours, honey,
And be your poor mistreated hound.

He is vastly amused, some of his tears of joy due to the disgust of the two businessmen in our window. “More! More!” he cries, pounding on the table. And I give it.

I’ll lick your boots
And even higher
If you tell me to,
I’ll lick your boots
And even higher
If you tell me to
But if you rent me out to other
mens, baby,
I’ll cry a boo hoo hoo hoo hoo.

And we get very drunk and I don’t mind too much the information handed me and the watchful men that I will now have to settle in life for being ‘a famous typist,’ for I was then supporting myself by typing for an insurance company, from which I played hookey when he beckoned. There are other digs, none of them leaving very large holes (though I can recall them still). At last we are ready, to brave the sleet. At the hatcheck counter, which at Le Moal is (was) just opposite the bar, he zeroes in on the woman in charge, whom neither of us has seen before. Is she not new? and she replies in heavy French accent that she is. Further questions reveal that she is from the Auvergne and, surprisingly, that she is Jewish. At this he tells her in his normal voice, which has become several tones louder than the average, that if he were not in a hurry to get this young man back to his duenna he would come back there and eat her cunt.

I remember the slow swiveling at the bar as customers turn upon their stools; it seems to me that they are as graceful as the Rockettes doing one of those delayed-step routines, but only now do I see it that way. At the time this is what occurs: I leave him with the non-comprehending woman and rush from the bar onto sleety Third Avenue and up, anywhere, anywhere to get away from the suddenly intolerable person, the great man of the world gone small. Behind me I hear his voice calling to passersby: “Stop him, stop that young man!” I wonder if someone will trip me up as I am the only young man running pell mell toward Bloomingdales. But no one seizes me and at Bloomingdales I take refuge from the sleet storm under the marquee at the entrance to the Men’s Store. And here he comes, waving his umbrella which he has not bothered to open. And sidles under the marquee beside me, among the preoccupied throng also sheltering there. He addresses them, in a way, through me, at least they pay attention as though addressed. I will not record his speech though I can recall the words. But the speech ends when he gives me a prepared-for and carefully thought-out and very public goose, deep enough to pain my virginity in that place.

Yes, I saw him again. And again. But the night came, as such nights always do, I suppose, in such circles—perhaps anticipation of such nights is the flocculant for such circles—the night came when Van Vechten cut me at the opera. I had seen his group far down in front and had no intention of invading them but was spotted by one who came for me, and when I got to that place of judgment I was cut. Leaving, I met a woman gaping in the aisle at the imposing man in the red-satin-lined opera cape. “Who is that famous person?” a very New York question. I told her. But wish that I had said Carl Van Doren.

When Van Vechten died I read about it in the early morning Times on my way home from a party. The notice said that he would be at a certain funeral parlor and I went there and he was not there nor expected. Back at home I called his apartment and Miss Perkins, as he called her—Mildred Perkins, his cook and friend—said “Lover boy, do you mean he didn’t invite you?” I had a moment of fear for her; it sounded as though she were asking if Carlo had not invited me to his own funeral. But she was referring to his assistant. She wept and I did too, a bit. She asked me why I had given them up. Later Fania was to say, “You little bastard, why did you drop us?”

Saul Mauriber, Carl Van Vechten’s assistant, compiled and published a collection of VV’s photographs under the title PORTRAITS. Here some of them are, the regulars and the meteors, in their touching moments, their unguardedness, their beauty. Talent gleams from the surfaces and from deeper within, a combination of Van Vechten’s artistry and the brilliancy of so many of his subjects. His photography, like his writing, his style of dress, his music criticism, his life, was innovative and unmistakable. His subjects live on. How they glow.

A couple of years after his death Fania came to dinner. I thought she was being her usual hyperbolic self when she said that she could not see a GODDAM thing and PLEASE put on more LIGHTS. When I took her home, to the apartment she had taken on Central Park South when Carlo died, I saw the old drawing room in its effects, but it was like a wild vision as though my first impression had been taken and expanded and parodied, for all the delicate things lay under the light of thousands of watts, not a kindly light to throw upon the past. It was then I realized the degree of Fania’s affliction. This expansion of effect, of coruscation, was like the growth of the Christmas tree in The Nutcracker: blown out of proportion; and I said goodbye to Fania in this flood of unreality, which actually was no real change at all. She was Clara left forever in The Land of Sweets, in the blaze of marzipan colors, in the tragedy of can’t-go-home-again, of blindness.

But the Van Vechtens always managed to have the last word. Fania died in New Jersey in a place called Dun Rovin, a name of the sort that used to inspire her lustiest scorn, and thus one hears her laughter, a whoop aimed at the gallery. It is an announcement to Carlo that the intervening years have not changed her and that she anticipates no changes in him. His naughty angel.

I hope he listened.

655267596 03062015 Carl Van Vechten 01 Bomb 010

Pearl Bailey. Photograph by Carl Van Vechten.

From Coleman Dowell’s A Dark Book, a work in progress.

The Almanac Branch by Bradford Morrow
A Handful of Anomalies by Coleman Dowell
Alan Scarritt 001

I have never abided by a clear logic and so I had my nervous breakdown before and not after I met David Merrick. 

Marie Laveau Is Calling Me by Tina L'Hotsky
Kirsten Bates 001

In the early Summer of 1947 I decided to take a long bus trip down South from New York to New Orleans passing through scores of small Southern Towns and Confederate wayfares. 

Political Power: Anjali Enjeti Interviewed by Madhushree Ghosh

On publishing a novel about the partition of India and an essay collection on living in the South as a South Asian American.

Originally published in

BOMB 10, Fall 1984

María Irene Fornés, Jeff Weiss, art by Cindy Sherman, Billy Sullivan, Robert Gober, Laurie Simmons, and more.

Read the issue
Issue 10 010  Fall 1984