116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
'I am determined never again to visit that unloved town,” Carl Van Vechten once said of his hometown of Cedar Rapids.
His disdain for the small Midwestern city was not a secret, but he mentioned Cedar Rapids often, and it was the location of one of his best-selling novels.
Carl was born into the Charles D. Van Vechten family in 1880. His father was a successful insurance man and his mother was instrumental in getting the city's first public library established. The family home was at 845 Second Avenue SE.
He grew up loving art, music and theater while other boys his age were interested in baseball. By age 13, he was a gangly, awkward boy who soared above his classmates at just under 6 feet tall. He described himself as sullen and unattractive with two very big, ugly front teeth that looked 'like squares of broken crockery.”
Often a guest at classmate's parties, he was one of a class of 19 that graduated from Old Washington High School in 1899. The commencement program included an oration by Carl: 'A Master in Character Drawing.”
Carl's next stop and the first in his quest to find more metropolitan surroundings was the University of Chicago. He graduated from there in June 1903.
In 1907, the long friendship between Carl and classmate Anna Elizabeth Snyder was consummated with a summer wedding in London. Friends and relatives received cards announcing the marriage, which originally had been planned for fall. The card explained that since Anna and Carl were in Europe at the same time, it was decided to have an earlier wedding. After several months in Europe mixing business with pleasure, the young couple returned to New York in October and made their home there.
Anna intended to spend the summer of 1908 in Cedar Rapids with her parents, the James A. Snyders, but Carl arrived shortly after she did to announce that the New York Times had appointed him Paris correspondent. He returned to New York on June 6, while Anna stayed for another week. They set sail for Paris on June 16. Carl had been on the staff of the Times for a year and a half and the Paris assignment was an important promotion.
Anna made several trips home to Cedar Rapids, but Carl rarely came with her. His interests in New York were expanding, but Anna was less interested and the marriage foundered. The couple divorced in 1912. Carl was ordered to pay $25 a week in alimony, but he couldn't afford it and Anna didn't need it. They parted as friends until Carl married Russian actress Fania Marinoff. Upset by the news, Anna demanded back alimony and obtained a legal order of commitment, sending Carl to jail.
Carl's cell at the Ludlow Street jail in Manhattan was filled with flowers, he was allowed a piano, and food and drink were delivered from outside. He wrote several pieces while he was there. After several months, Anna finally agreed to a $1,000 cash settlement, freeing Carl to pursue his career.
During his lifetime, Carl wrote seven novels, nine music and literary criticism books, two books about cats and introductions for others' books.
His first successful book, 'Music After the Great War,” was dedicated to Fania. His second, 'Music and Bad Manners,” received favorable reviews, especially in his hometown.
A letter arrived at The Gazette from Carl in February 1917 expressing his appreciation of the articles the paper published about the book. That summer he and Fania made one of his rare visits to Cedar Rapids. Staying with his father, he renewed several friendships from his high school days, including Gazette writer Edna Barrett Jackson. She wrote, '... for two hours Mr. Van Vechten told in a quiet, unostentatious manner, of his professional life, his impressions of events of the day, and his hopes for the future. The tall, thin, blond youth of early days is now a large, powerfully built man, his hair slightly tinged with gray, and eyes that are constantly alert and eager, expressing in a forceful way his interest in all things musical.”
By 1918, Carl's view of Iowa mellowed. In his essay 'The Folksongs of Iowa,” he wrote, 'This fair land is unusually personal in its appeal and its beauty, which may not be immediately appreciated by those who glance at it casually from the back of an observation car on the Overland Limited, but in the end proves to be haunting. Indeed, to me the Iowa scene boasts a peculiar picturesqueness which I do not find elsewhere in the United States.”
The work that made the biggest impression on Carl's hometown was the one published at the start of 1926, 'The Tattoed Countess.” Local readers suspected the characters of the countess and Gareth Johns were thinly disguised representations of Mahala Douglas and the author himself. Carl, as a boy, saw Mahala as an interesting woman of the world. The book was quickly turned into a movie starring Pola Negri and Charles Emmett Mack. A scene in which the countess used a rawhide whip on the city attorney drew many theatergoers to the box office.
When his brother, Ralph, died in 1927 and left him a substantial inheritance, Carl stopped writing. Instead, he began taking photographs. His subjects were most often celebrities and were taken by invitation only. They were so good, they were featured in art exhibits, including one in Cedar Rapids.
Carl and Fania celebrated their 50th anniversary just two months before he died in 1964. When Fania died in November 1971, much of the inheritance she and Carl had received from Ralph's estate was released to the Cedar Rapids community. More than $1.3 million was distributed between Coe College, the Children's Home and the Home for Aged Women.