Love’s Centenary on Twelfth Street

Mining downtown’s camp cultural zeitgeist

By D. Silverman

“CARL VAN VECHTEN” [detail], 1923. Ralph Barton. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian,

One July, a century back, the Duke of Middlebottom presented the smart set of New York with a shining brief flash of a summer “season” in glittery performance of a one-night operatic spectacle at the private theater of his rented townhouse on West Twelfth Street.

The performers, the audience, and the fictional Duke, were situated in Carl Van Vechten’s 1923 amorous novel, The Blind Bow Boy.

(Your abashed reporter, despite presumably having heard the phrase uttered, uh, oh so many times, did not directly comprehend the titular subject to be Cupid, nor the reference Shakespearean—as in, Mercutio: “Alas poor Romeo! he is already dead… his heart cleft with the blind bow-boy’s butt-shaft.” )

The novel is a jewel box of vintage literary, artistic, musical and fashion name-dropping—set in and around the Village—coddled in campy debauchery and bootleg gin.

One big asterisk: Those familiar with Van Vechten’s oeuvre will not be surprised to encounter various N-words, along with some choicely diminutive J-words and such, gratuitously spattered about the book—apparently less in overt bigotry than attempted comedic effect.

(To those taking the plunge, the annotated 2018 MHRA edition elucidates many now-obscure cultural references.)

We might start by observing two orbital characters in the book: Harold Prewett and Ronald, Duke of Middlebottom; abetted by Campaspe, a sort of wealthy, fabulous, fairy-godmother figure, who, incidentally, lives on East Nineteenth Street. (Carl V.V. himself, quelle coincidence, resided at 151 E 19th St.)

Harold, just out of college at 21, is “an attractive young man, with chestnut-coloured hair, brown eyes, a healthy complexion, and a fairly competent build.”

Duke Ronald is introduced by way of his former London butler, now Harold’s servant, whose prior duties included “arranging the pipes for the opium, sir, sterilizing the needles, and running for the doctor when a young lady has overdosed herself with vodka… but I have my personal dignity, sir, and I left the Duke… One of his young ladies wished to whip me, sir. The incident aroused the Duke. He forgot himself, sir. May I say good-night, sir?”

His Grace, appearing unannounced in New York on page 101, has “taken a furnished house on West Twelfth Street for the summer, against the advice of friends who had urged the advantages of Sutton Place.” Descriptions of the house and sumptuous decor consume five pages.

Suffice it to say, the street-door was up a flight of steps, where a vast drawing room extending the full length. Above that, two bedrooms (one facing the street, the other overlooking the fountained garden) were joined by a bath “paneled in alternating squares of malachite and lapis lazuli, with a tub of rose-jade with golden faucets. The floor was paved with diamond-shaped bloodstone flags. Two full-length mirrors, set in the wall, were backed with black instead of quicksilver.” (He has “taken the house for the sake of this bathroom!”—Who wouldn’t?)

The third floor had been transformed “into a miniature theatre, the walls of which had been decorated by Paul Thévenaz with dying stags, agile monkeys, wriggling serpents, gorgeous macaws, iridescent humming-birds, mad huntsmen, bayadères, odalisques, and Hindu Rajahs… It was in this theatre that the Duke proposed to give New York its season of summer opera.”

Without indiscreetly betraying an actual address, the text implies West Twelfth between Fifth and Sixth. At least three stories high (probably with a ground level kitchen), possibly an upper level above or subsumed into the third floor theater. Strolling along that block, one still sees potential contenders for inspiration (if any reader is aware of a period townhouse with a theater above and garden out back, do let us know—we’re always in search of a grand bath).

Among the furnishings, I was awed by a gathering of three recent floral paintings in the drawing room: “a bowl of zinnias by Florine Stettheimer, orchids by Charles Demuth, and magnified, scarlet cannas by Georgia O’Keeffe.”

For, in picking this arrangement of rendered flowers, Van Vechten shows prophetic insight into the future reputations of their creators (all friends of his). In 1922, when the book was written, these artists merely perched on the verge of wider recognition. Though each had had a solo gallery show—the museum exhibits and collections, the major success and most important works were still to come.

However fictional the setting, the actual paintings can be seen today: Stettheimer’s Bowl of Zinnias (1920) hangs at LACMA, Demuth’s Wild Orchids (1920) at the Kemper, and O’Keeffe’s close-up of red cannas (1919) would be one of just a few she had painted at that point (with more yet to bloom).

Spoiler alert—(is it even possible to spoil a hundred-year-old story?)—if you don’t want to know the ending, best cover your eyes now…

Throughout 260 pages, various participants have coupled (or yearned), uncoupled and recoupled; the one-night opera season was a success; and the conclusion finds Campaspe on an ocean liner bound for Sicily—watching the fiery sunset from a deckchair, she becomes aware of two men leaning on the rail, and in the final words, she recognizes, silhouetted against the sky, “the faces of Harold Prewett and Ronald, Duke of Middlebottom.”