“I spent only one night photographing Billie Holiday,” he [Carl Van Vechten] wrote, “but it was the whole of one night and it seemed like a whole career.” The session began badly. Gerry Major had arranged the meeting, and had asked Holiday to wear a gown for the sitting. Holiday, however, arrived “at the appointed hour in a plain gray suit and facial expression equally depressing.” In spite of his disappointment, Van Vechten began photographing Holiday. It wasn’t going well and he was considering giving up when he thought to show Holiday his photographs of Bessie Smith. The photographs brought Holiday to tears; she explained that Smith had been an inspiration to her in the early days of her career. Their discussion of Smith softened the mood, and Holiday agreed to wearing a drape fashioned to look like an evening dress instead of her suit for some of the photographs.

At midnight, Holiday announced that she had to go home; she promised to come back shortly. Van Vechten, afraid she might go in search of drugs, sent his assistant Saul Mauriber to Harlem with her to insure her return. Holiday and Mauriber reappeared with Mister, Holiday’s boxer. She was in a different mood entirely, more lively and relaxed. Van Vechten continued to photograph her for some time.

Afterward, “she related in great detail the sad, bittersweet story of her tempestuous life.” Van Vechten’s wife Fania soon joined the group, and “in a short time Fania, like the rest of us, was in tears, and suddenly, also like the rest of us, found herself attached to Billie as if she had known her intimately for years.” Holiday didn’t leave the apartment until shortly before dawn. “We never saw her again,” Van Vechten wrote, “but not one of us will ever forget her.”

Portraits of the Artists, Esquire Magazine (1962)

Billie Holiday photographed by Carl Van Vechten, c. March 1949

Zora Neale Hurston was born 123 years ago today, January 7, 1891 in Notasulga, Alabama and raised in the legendary all-black town of Eatonville, Florida. She made the following observation in her 1950 essay, What White Publishers Won’t Print. ”For various reasons, the average, struggling, non-morbid Negro is the best-kept secret in America. His revelation to the public is the thing needed to do away with that feeling of difference which inspires fear, and which ever expresses itself in dislike. It is inevitable that this knowledge will destroy many illusions and romantic traditions which America probably likes to have around. But then, we have no record of anybody sinking into a lingering death on finding out that there was no Santa Claus. The old world will take it in its stride. The realization that Negroes are no better nor no worse, and at times just as bonny as everybody else, will hardly kill off the population of the nation.” This rare color photograph of Ms. Hurston was taken by Carl Van Vechten in 1940. Photo: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

In honor of my first book signing tonight at The Studio Museum in Harlem (144 W. 125th Street - 6 to 8pm!) I am showcasing classic Black art legends. This is Lady Bird Cleveland, mother of legendary model Pat Cleveland photographed by Carl Van Vechten on November 16, 1954 with her painting in oil of Eartha Kitt. Now known as Lady Bird Strickland, she is still painting today. She told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2013 that her calling is “to paint black history from the heart.” Photo: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. 

Missy Elliott’s Super Bowl takeover reminded me of this: If she acts, this could be a great role for her. Gladys Bentley (1907-1960) is in the “Scandalous Glamour” chapter in my book, Vintage Black Glamour. She was born in Philadelphia and ostracized by family, friends and even doctors early in her life because they wanted to “cure” her of homosexuality. She was a 16-year-old renegade when she arrived in Harlem and was an immediate success singing at rent parties and clubs. Unapologetically masculine onstage, she was known for her signature top hat and tails and her gleefully obscene set drew large crowds to her shows at The Clam House, the famous gay club, and other hot Harlem venues of the day. She recorded for Okeh records in the 1920s and was the model for a blues performer in “Parties” a novel by Carl Van Vechten, the Harlem Renaissance legend who took this picture. In the 1950s, Ms. Bentley would denounce everything about her notorious career and declare that she was no longer a lesbian - thanks to female hormone treatments. She continued to perform, but her career waned and, just before she was to be ordained as a minister, she died of influenza at the age of 52 in 1960.