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Parties - Carl Van Vechten

The star of this book the leading actor and actress is:
¾ ounce cointreau
¾ ounce lemon juice
1 ½ ounces of cognac
Shake well with cracked ice, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass and add orange wedge.

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You can almost taste it.

The supporting actor and actress of this grand farce are David and Rilda. If the name Rilda puts you in mind of Zelda I’m sure that was the intention. F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda have become synonymous with the Jazz age. Their drinking and partying reached legendary levels. Their antics at time childish, but certainly memorable, makes me wonder if they didn’t somehow know their time on this planet was going to be short. Neither of them made it to their 50s.

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Photograph of F. Scott Fitzgerald taken in 1937 by Carl Van Vecthten.

If you were a character in this novel you might start the day at David and Rilda’s in the bar they’ve had installed in their apartment. Now some people who have been out all night might be finishing the day at the D&R bar to mix briefly with those that are just rising for the day to start or end the day with Sidecars. Now the three ingredients: The Father, The Son, The Holy Ghost can be mixed in equal parts, but as you can see in the recipe above most people request a larger share of The Holy Ghost.

Now after downing a few too many Sidecars you will need to sleep. You will hopefully wake up just in time to go to Rosalie’s for horrible food, but plenty of booze. Did I mention this is prohibition? There you will find yourself watching David and Rilda who show up separately. In fact the friction is palatable between the two, and you will wonder as a servant brings you yet another Sidecar whether you are more in love with David or with Rilda.

”It doesn’t seem as if I’d seen you alone in years. We meet at parties and speakeasies. We love and eat and live at parties. Probably we’ll die at a party too...She spoke bitterly.”

You weren’t suppose to hear that, but you find it very interesting. Are they doomed for divorce? And if so which one will you stay friends with? Or will you satellite between the two watching each one crash that much faster without the other?

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Harlem Jazz Clubs were the place to be and the place to be seen.

After the party at Rosalies the people that are still ambulatory head down to Harlem to hang out in the speakeasies and clubs and listen to Jazz. You end up next to Simone Fly which makes you nervous.

”There was Simone Fly, a slim creature in silver sequins from which protruded, at one end, turquoise blue legs and, from the other, extremely slender arms and chalk-white (almost green) face, with a depraved and formless mouth, intelligent eyes, and a rage of cropped red hair. Simone Fly resembled a gay Death.”

You learn over and share what in your cognac soaked mind is a witty observation. She turns unfocused eyes on you and after a few wobbles of her head she finally replies.

”Stop Kissing Parrots.”

Which is what she always says when she doesn’t understand what you said or simply doesn’t know what to say. You scoot your chair a little further away and find yourself close to King Swan, chauffeur to the bootlegger Donald. You try the same witticism on Swan.

”King Swan, disdaining to reply, knocked his cigarette ashes into the cuff of his trousers and blew his nose violently into a purple handkerchief with the head of Gloria Swanson printed in the white centre.”

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Gloria Swanson

It isn’t long before Swan is missing his cuffs and piling ash on your shoes. You decide to go see what David is doing. He is talking to the actress Midnight Blue and barely acknowledges your existence, but you image that he at least gave you a tilt of his chin. Another round of Sidecars arrive, and so you studiously work on finishing this one before the next round arrives.

”Now my dear...she turned her attention to David...I never allow anything but silk and flesh to touch my body. Do we or don’t we?
I guess we do, all right, David replied, not without enthusiasm.
Then you follow me at once, she suggested.”

You fumble for your notebook of observations because you want to write down that line, but you look across the room at Rilda dancing with a German prince. Her eyes are riveted to David and Midnight Blue’s exit. She pulls herself more fervently to the prince and closes her eyes. Maybe you are more in love with Rilda or is that just because David left the room?

You see Noma and Hamish sitting together so you work your way over to that table and arrive in tandem with the waiter and grab another Sidecar. You must have snagged Noma’s because she gives you a look, but her mind is luckily on other things.

”Love is like picnicking, Noma went on. It’s all right when one is very young to eat one’s lunch lying about on the damp grass, but later in life we are likely to be more comfortable at the Ritz. It’s more convenient in the long run to substitute affection or passion for the grand emotion. Nevertheless, against my will, I’ve fallen in love with David, and I want to explain why. Nobody else, after all, can be as interesting about herself as I can, don’t you think so Hamish?
Hamish shook his head without much conviction.
When you think of me you think of a charnel-house of dead lovers, don’t you?
I hadn’t said so. I don’t think of you often.
Now, Hamish, don’t be beastly. You can be so incredibly nasty when you want to be.”

You want to pay attention to this conversation because it is about David, and Hamish is David’s best friend, but suddenly you feel this stabbing pain that feels like your liver just exploded followed by Kaiser bomb level pain in your head.

You wake to the sound of David’s voice. You ascertain that someone must have carried you back to David and Rilda’s apartment.

”We are really too shy to be natural when we are alone together, he responded. We become self-conscious and talk the way they do in books--I mean in good books, of course! Running his fingers through his black curls, he inquired casually: Rilda, what do you see in that Siegfried person? I suspect it’s his name, he added.
What do you see in Rosalie? Why do you spend all your time in Harlem with dope-addicts and bootleggers? I’ll quit it you quit.
I don’t want to quit, David replied grimly.”

You move or groan or something and suddenly they are aware of your presence. They leave the room and through the wall you can hear the sound of a mixer being shaken. You manage to slide to the edge of the bed. The room whirls around your head. You fall back on the bed and squeeze your eyes shut and decide that if you have to choose you will choose David.

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Carl Van Vechten self-portrait.

Carl Van Vechten wrote 19 books from 1915 until 1932. He was also a well respected photographer and took photographs of all the major figures of “the lost generation” and beyond. Among the many individuals he photographed were Judith Anderson, Marian Anderson, Pearl Bailey, Josephine Baker, James Baldwin, Tallulah Bankhead, Barbara Bel Geddes, Thomas Hart Benton, Jane Bowles, Marlon Brando, Paul Cadmus, Erskine Caldwell, Truman Capote, Bennett Cerf,Marc Chagall, Salvador Dalí, Ruby Dee, Jacob Epstein, Ella Fitzgerald, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lynn Fontanne, John Hersey, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Horst P. Horst, Mahalia Jackson, Philip Johnson, Frida Kahlo, Gaston Lachaise, Sidney Lumet, Alfred Lunt, Norman Mailer, Alicia Markova, Henri Matisse, W. Somerset Maugham, Henry Miller, Joan Miró, Ramon Novarro, Georgia O'Keeffe, Laurence Olivier, Christopher Plummer, Leontyne Price, Diego Rivera, Jerome Robbins, Paul Robeson, Cesar Romero, George Schuyler,Beverly Sills, Gertrude Stein, James Stewart, Alfred Stieglitz, Ada "Bricktop" Smith, Bessie Smith, Alice B. Toklas, Prentiss Taylor, Gore Vidal, Evelyn Waugh, Orson Welles,Thornton Wilder, and Anna May Wong.

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Photograph of Evelyn Waugh by Carl Van Vechten

This book is a satire of the upper class drinking to excess; and yet, despite having the world at their feet, after all they were ushering in the modern age, they were incredibly bored. It was fashionable to be bored. They drink. They get bored. They drink some more. I certainly felt like I was reading an Evelyn Waugh, but with a distinctive American New York flair. The characters that populate this novel were people that were known by the reading public or they knew someone like them or they might even have seen themselves in one or more of the characters. The book plunks the reader down in the middle of an ongoing story. There are no resolutions, no plot per say, no ending just a slice of the Jazz decade encapsulated in the pages of a book. Witty dialogue mixed with bootleggers and German royalty, a stabbing, rampant attempts at fornication, and epic drinking bouts that would make Russians cross-eyed keep the pages moving. I will certainly be reading more Carl Van Vechten if I think my liver can handle it.