Inventors of Gay: Carl Van Vechten

By: Christopher Harrity

Carl Van Vechten
June 17, 1880 – December 21, 1964

This prolific photographer and writer carved a special place within the Harlem Renaissance; he was also the literary executor of Gertrude Stein. He was married twice, and was with his second wife, Fania Marinoff for almost 50 years. But like many men before the age of open gay identity, he opted to keep his orientation mostly undisclosed. Twenty-five years after his death, his papers that had been kept under seal were opened and they revealed a rich but discrete gay life.

Besides the many celebrities he photographed, (including Judith Anderson, James Baldwin, Tallulah Bankhead, Jane Bowles, Marlon Brando, Paul Cadmus, Truman Capote, Salvador Dalí, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lynn Fontanne, Horst P. Horst, Frida Kahlo, Alfred Lunt, W. Somerset Maugham, Sir Laurence Olivier, Cesar Romero, Bessie Smith, Gore Vidal, Evelyn Waugh, and Anna May Wong) he also created some beautiful homoerotic studies among Manhattan’s dancers and models and his Harlem friends.

Among his most popular books was Nigger Heaven (right), about life in Harlem. The title refers to the seating that African Americans were relegated to in the highest reaches of the upper balconies in theaters. The book was controversial, lauded by some like gay writer and poet Langston Hughes, and reviled by other like the more conservative W.E.B. DuBois. The book sparked a Harlemania, and for a while, rich white folk came looking for excitement in the previously all-black neighborhood.

Regardless of the controversy of the book, Van Vetchen was dedicated to informing the world about the cultural riches of Harlem and bringing talented African American artists and writers into the living rooms of white America.

Friends with:
Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy
Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas
Virgil Thomson – gay composer
Lincoln Kirstein – gay ballet impresario and producer

Why we care:
Van Vetchen began to break down the walls of racism by focusing on talent and beauty in Harlem. In his photography, he made friends with the many celebrities he shot, and seemed to have photographed all of the important gay and lesbian celebrities and artists of the day.


Truman Capote - Langston Hughes

Emphasizing the physical beauty of dancers.

Diahann Carroll and Gore Vidal

More links:
The Homoerotic Photography of Carl Van Vechten: Public Face, Private Thoughts

Hide/Seek: Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance (below)

"Inventors of Gay" is our series on important people and cultural influences in LGBT history that helped create the culture we enjoy today.