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#TBT: Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance

#TBT: Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance

Carl Van Vechten

Carl Van Vechten's photographs of the key LGBT figures of the Harlem Renaissance make that period come alive.


Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964) knew, or had photographed, more famous people in the world of arts, letters, and politics than most anybody of his time. He was twice married, and through an inheritance he was well-funded with a trust that was untouched by the fall of the stock market in 1929. He was also bisexual, and fairly open about it at the time.

A New York Times music critic, a novelist, and a photographer, and he was the first American critic of modern dance. He was also close friends with Gertrude Stein and became the literary executor of her estate.

Van Vechten was a famous patron of the Harlem Renaissance, a flowering of African-American culture that spanned the 1920s, '30s, and beyond. His friendships with the major LGBT players of that creative period were many, and his collection of photographs of those figures is invaluable.

All images here from the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection.

Alvinaileyx633_0Alvin Ailey
January 5, 1931-December 1, 1989
A dancer and founder of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Ailey received the Kennedy Center Honors while living and was posthumously recognized with a Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2014. Ailey was inspired by his brutal upbringing in the South, and his signature work, Revelations, is one of the best-known and most performed dance pieces. He was cautious about being openly gay. He found success early, but by the '70s he turned to drugs, alcohol, suffered a nervous breakdown in 1980. He was secretive about his private life, including his homosexuality, and, unbeknownst to most at the time, died from AIDS-related complications at age 58. (Source: Alvin Ailey: A Life in Dance by Jennifer Dunning)

Zora_neale_hurstonx633_0Zora Neale Hurston
January 7, 1891-January 28, 1960
Considered one of the preeminent writers of 20th-century African-American literature, Hurston was closely associated with the Harlem Renaissance. She has influenced such writers as Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Gayle Jones, Alice Walker, and Toni Cade Bambara. Hurston was an American folklorist, anthropologist, and author. Of Hurston's four novels and more than 50 published short stories, plays, and essays, the best-known work is her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. (Source:

Langstonhughesx633_0Langston Hughes
February 1, 1902-May 22, 1967
James Mercer Langston Hughes was an American poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist. He was one of the earliest innovators of the then-new literary art form called jazz poetry. Hughes was discreet abut his private sexual life, but academics and biographers presume Hughes was homosexual and he included gay codes into many of his poems, not unlike Walt Whitman, whose work influenced Hughes. (Source: University of Illinois, Springfield)

Jamesbaldwinx633_0James Baldwin
August 2, 1924-December 1, 1987
James Baldwin created works of literary beauty and depth that will remain essential parts of the American canon. Racism, interracial relationships, and homosexuality were all explored in writing. Essentially an American writer, he wrote much of his work in Europe. His clear call for humanity and equality was an influential part of the civil rights movement. (Sources: PBS)

Bricktopx633_0Ada "Bricktop" Smith
August 14, 1894-February 1, 1984
Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith, better known as Bricktop was most famous as what she called "a saloon-keeper." A dancer and a vaudevillian in her youth, she landed in Paris by 1912 and was a key figure of the Jazz Age, teaching Cole Porter and his friends the latest dance crazes. She was famous for her cigars and her proteges, including Duke Ellington, Mabel Mercer, Ethel Waters, and Josephine Baker (with whom Baker's son claims she had an affair). (Sources: The New York Times; Josephine: The Hungry Heart by Jean-Claude Baker)

Jimmie_danielsx633_0Jimmie Daniels
Daniels, like many of his contemporaries, began his career in Harlem but honed his craft singing in European nightclubs, where the audience had a more sophisticated appreciation of African-American performers. Upon his return in 1934 he had a two-year relationship with architect Philip Johnson. Daniels managed and starred at a number of New York nightclubs for the rest of his life, most famously the Bon Soir. (Source: The Legacy Project)

Bessie-smithx633_0Bessie Smith
April 15, 1894-September 26, 1937
"The Empress of the Blues," Smith was the most popular female blues singer of the 1920s and '30s. After busking as a child to make money for her impoverished family, her first work was as a dancer in traveling troupes. Jazz legend Ma Rainey is speculated to have been one of the first women Smith had an affair with, though there is no record of this. Smith frequently got into trouble with her jealous husband, Jack Gee, over her affairs with women such as Lillian Simpson, a chorus girl in Smith's touring show, Harlem Frolics. Like Rainey, Smith sang songs with explicit lesbian content such as "It's Dirty But Good" from 1930. She had a long-term relationship with Richard Morgan until her untimely death from an auto accident when she was 44. One of Smith's songs with lesbian content went like this: "When you see two women walking hand in hand, just look 'em over and try to understand: They'll go to those parties / have the lights down low / only those parties where women can go."
(Sources: University of Illinois, Springfield;

Billieholidayx633_0Billie Holiday
April 7, 1915-July 17, 1959
After a brutal childhood in Philadelphia and Baltimore that included a stint in reform school and jail, she made her way to a career in Harlem nightclubs. Billie's fame soon was widespread, thanks in part to her popular recordings with pianist Teddy Wilson and his band. Known as "Lady Day," Holiday is also remembered for her work with saxophonist Lester Young and her recordings "Strange Fruit" and "God Bless the Child." In life, Holiday faced many personal tragedies and a drug addiction. Throughout her career, Holiday was openly bisexual and was rumored to have dated a notable number of actresses, including Tallulah Bankhead. (Source: University of Illinois, Springfield)

Paulmeersx633_0Paul Meers
Dancer and dreamboat Paul Meers and his dance partner and wife, Thelma Meers, in 1935 found their marriage to be incompatible, and little wonder. The sleek and beautiful ballroom dancer, nicknamed "The Brown Valentino," was rumored to be the boy toy of numerous men about town. His skills took him to the Cotton Club and dancing gigs with Mae West and Josephine Baker. (Sources: The Huffington Post; Native Stew)

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Christopher Harrity

Christopher Harrity is the Manager of Online Production for Here Media, parent company to The Advocate and Out. He enjoys assembling online features on artists and photographers, and you can often find him poring over the mouldering archives of the magazines.
Christopher Harrity is the Manager of Online Production for Here Media, parent company to The Advocate and Out. He enjoys assembling online features on artists and photographers, and you can often find him poring over the mouldering archives of the magazines.