Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Photographed by Van Vechten, 1940

Writer-turned-photographer Carl Van Vechten took a few pictures of Henry Miller on January 22, 1940, in New York City. Miller was fresh off the boat from Greece, having ended the adventure that had begun with his escape to Paris in 1930.

After nearly a decade of living the life of a devoted artist in Paris (followed by a brief sabbatical in Greece), Henry Miller was forced to get back on a boat to America on December 28, 1939 [1]. A couple of weeks later, the S.S. Exochorda pulled into port in New York on January 15th, 1940. [2] Miller took a room at the Royalton Hotel, and asked Frances Steloff of the Gotham Book Mart to receive his mail for him at her bookshop. [3]

Since her shop opened in 1920, Steloff got to know many prominent New York literary figures. One such author was Carl Van Vechten, who’d done much for the Harlem Renaissance with his novel, Nigger Heaven (1926)--- significant for its positive portrayal of African Americans at the time, but ultimately hampered by its unfortunate title, which Van Vechten meant ironically (some analysis and explanation: Wilfred D Samuels and Robert Worth). At the end of the 1920s, Van Vechten traded in his pen for a camera, and built up a significant portfolio of portraits through his connections to the Art world and his fascination with African American culture.

One of his artist friends was Gertrude Stein. Frances Steloff, to mark the 20th anniversary of her shop in 1940, published an anniversary book in December 1939 [4] called We Moderns (1940), for which Van Vechten wrote a paragraph about Stein (and photographed the cover as well). Henry Miller also contributed to the collection, with a profile of his friend, "Michael Fraenkel." (see We Moderns link above)

I don’t know exactly how and when Miller met Van Vechten, but I mention the Gotham Book Mart, Frances Steloff and We Moderns because it seems to me that this could be the point of connection. Through Steloff, who acted as Miller’s Postmaster, I assume that he was introduced to Van Vechten, and was asked to pose for him.

Henry Miller (XV Q 5) by Carl Van Vechten, 22 Jan 1940. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C., LOT 12735, no. 815

In 1940, Van Vechten’s photo studio was located at 101 Central Park West [5], although he seems to have also taken pictures at his apartment at 150 West 55th Street [6]. Miller visited one of these on Monday, January 22, 1940. [7] Only three days earlier, on Friday, January 19th, Van Vechten photographed iconic vocalist Ella Fitzgerald. [8]

I’ve found no account of the meeting between Miller and Van Vechten on the 22nd. We know that Miller had been in New York for only a week. All we have are three photographs—almost like a mug-shot series: turn to the left, face forward, turn to the right. Perhaps this is intentional, as Miller was still a banned man in America; a criminal artist and fugitive of creative expression. However, Van Vechten’s numbering of these photos (XV Q 1, XV Q 5, XV Q 8) suggests that these are only three selections from a series of at least eight [9]

These photographs are currently held by the U.S. Library of Congress, and are in the public domain.

Henry Miller (XV Q 1 and XV Q 8) by Carl Van Vechten, 22 Jan 1940. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C., LOT 12735, no. 814 and 816.

Miller and Van Vechten remained in contact after the photo shoot. In Robert Ferguson’s Henry Miller: A Life (p.273), he states that Miller sent Van Vechten a copy of his “Jazz Passacaglia” section from Colossus Of Maroussi for his evaluation (not sure if this was before or after he met him). Karl Orend points out in The Brotherhood of Fools & Simpletons (notes 90 + 97) that, in the weeks after these photographs were taken, Miller convinced Van Vechten to have his horoscope cast by Conrad Moricand. Impressed with the precision of Moricand’s interpretation of his star chart, Van Vechten wrote to Henry on April 15, 1940, to suggest that he photograph the astrologer himself (it doesn’t appear to have happened; all of this info from Orend, as above).

Years later, in 1954-55, Miller’s debt ledger for those years shows that he borrowed a few bucks from Van Vechten [10], who would have been around 74 at the time. Carl Van Vechten died a decade later in 1964.

Countles photos by Van Vechten may be viewed online at the Library of Congress or Yale’s Beinecke Library (search "Vechten").

UPDATE JAN 11/09: I found the cover for George Wickes' Henry Miller: Down And Out in Paris (1969/1974) on Ebay (at left). It appears to show a slight varitaion of the three Van Vechten photos held in the Library of Congress collection (as seen above).



[1] See my posting about the Exochorda; [2] A Literate Passion, p.322 - Miller writes a letter to Anais Nin while still on board the Exochorda; its dated Jan 12, 1940. See the link on the following sentence re: Exochorda; [3] Jay Martin's Always Merry And Bright (p.367) and Mary Dearborn's Happiest Man Alive (p.209); [4] Shifreen & Jackson's Bibliography of Primary Sources v.1, B8a-B8b; [5] according to his photo stamps on many of his photos from 1930s to 1940s (see Beinecke archive as example); [6] The Homoerotic Photography of Carl Van Vechten by James Smalls, 2006 - p. 4, and Kellner's Van Vechten bio at Beinecke website; [7] acc. to dates in Library of Congress pages; [8] see Library of Congress; [9] acc. to Library of Congress pages; [10] PBA Galleries auction item 216 from May 1998.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

RC, typo at "Countles photos by Van Vechten may be viewed online at the Library of Congress..."

Just wanted to point that out. Another good article - no mistake. Thanks. Hope all is well with you.

You know, I wonder whether some day someone will organise a conference - or some kind of event - to celebrate HM. I get the odd email from the HM Library, but even they don't seem to do such a thing. A three or four day Miller event in the woods would suit me. But, you know, it would be good to just meet up in a bar with fellow Miller Readers - here in the UK I mean. Nothing though. No forum - not even a forum. The HM Lib. used to have one - but it didn't last.

Anyways, better push on. All the best RC.

6:58 pm  
Anonymous Smartbrains said...

You know, I wonder whether some day someone will organise a conference to celebrate HM. I get the odd email from the HM Library, but even they don't seem to do such a thing.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

As I don't wish to telegraph my Miller connection, at this point in time, I do want to point out that I own one of the 9 photographs that Van Vechten took of Henry...more of an art shot than a mug shot. If I could figure out how to upload the image I would. Henry is turned to his right shoulder, eyes downcast and chin slightly tucked under. Very enigmatic.

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