24 February (1934): Carl Van Vechten to Langston Hughes

Here, Carl Van Vechten writes to Langston Hughes about an array of plays, musical performances, and literary works-in-progress by friends and contemporaries, giving a snapshot of the Harlem Renaissance. He focuses on They Shall Not Die, a dramatization of the Scottsboro trial, as well as Four Saints in Three Acts, an opera with a libretto by Gertrude Stein that features historical as well as fictional saints (a performance of which receives mention in Van Vechten’s work Parties).  


Dear Langston:

Your letters are works of art and pleasing to the mind and eye. Your birthday party sounds marvellous. And Im so glad you and Mary Blanchard are getting on so well together. Please write me about the Sale. I was very disappointed in They Shall Not Die. The courtroom scene is good, but it is a bed play and it is laid on so thick that you just dont believe it; at least I didnt. But the Negroes are good and quite beautiful. I wish they had been a little more human. They are just very sweet boys while ALL the white characters, including Walter White (not of course the Labor Defence) are made out to be fiends. There is a very spurious love interest between Lucy Wells (Ruby Bates) and a travelling salesman that made me sick to my stomick. Emma Goldman attended the same performance I did and agreed with me that it was very bad propaganda. But Four Saints in Three Acts, by Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson is another thing. This Spanish opera interpreted by a Negro cast as Spanish saints is too divine, both gay and devout and altogether lovely. I have seen it three times. The performance is superb. Everybody is agreed about this. And certainly historical; because white characters on the downtown stage have not been assumed before by Negroes. Certainly not on the opera stage. And your friend Zora has just written a very swell novel (Jonah’s Gourd Vine) which Lippincott’s will publish presently. This is so good that I think you and Zora had better kiss and make up. She is at present working with Mrs. Bethune at Daytona beach. I am still photographing madly and was very disappointed that Noel didn’t fix it up for Ramon to come around while he was here making personal appearances. He sang Señor Platero charmingly. Miss Waters is off the air but she is now the star of a downtown nightclub in addition to her other duties in As Thousands Cheer. I saw Adelaide Hall at a very amusing cocktail party yesterday and she is opening next Sunday at the Cotton Club. Harold Arlen’s new number is called ILL WIND. Watch out for this.

                 tons of California poppies and four chow dogs to you!

PS. Have you seen Nora Hold? She had thought to be in New York by now.


From Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, 1925-1964. Hughes, Langston, Emily Bernard, and Carl Van Vechten. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.