Could Nella Larsen pass? Looking at a photograph of her by Carl Van Vechten, I doubt she could. Her skin was described by one interviewer as the colour of ‘brown honey’, by another as ‘maple syrup’, but the darkness of her complexion was never enough to quash rumours that she was passing in Harlem. The heroines of her novels are loners, alienated from both Black and white communities, but forced to masquerade as belonging to one or the other. In Quicksand (1928), Helga Crane, the daughter of a white working-class mother and a West Indian father, must pass as Black to enter Harlem society. In Passing (1929), Clare Kendry, also the product of an interracial relationship, passes as white to marry well. What sets Larsen’s novels apart from other such narratives – James Weldon-Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912), for example – is their resistance to moral didacticism. For one character, passing is merely a question of convenience: ‘restaurants, theatre tickets’.
Larsen was born in Chicago in 1891. Her father, Peter Walker, was Black and came from the Danish West Indies; her mother, Marie, was a white Danish immigrant. Walker disappeared soon after Nella’s birth. Her mother then married a fellow Danish immigrant who never accepted his mixed-race stepdaughter. Nella and her white half-sister, Anna, were sent to different schools so people wouldn’t know they were related. Before her death, Larsen made a last attempt to visit Anna, from whom she’d been estranged for more than thirty years, and returned in a deep depression. On learning that she had been left $35,000 in Larsen’s will, Anna exclaimed: ‘Why, I didn’t know I had a half-sister!’
Larsen was five when the Jim Crow laws passed. In the South, she wouldn’t have been able to sit in the same train carriage as her mother (under the ‘one-drop’ rule anyone with 1/32 ‘Negro blood’ was considered Black). In 1907, Marie used her seamstress’s wage to send Nella to Fisk University in Nashville, a Black institution founded just after the Civil War, in the hope that it would guarantee her daughter entry into Black high society. But Fisk cultivated its own notions of racial purity, and it was steeped in the religiosity and customs of the South. Without any known Black relatives, Larsen was doubly alienated: she had no connection to the collective trauma of slavery and no ‘ancestral home’. Fisk’s ethos was strict; Larsen was kicked out for not following the dress code. In 1915 she graduated as a nurse from Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx and travelled south again to work at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. It was even worse than Fisk. The mandatory three-quarter-length dark blue coat was hardly her style.
Did Larsen take clothes too seriously? She added a purple cape to her nurse’s uniform, and wore antique necklaces and jade earrings on the hospital ward. According to Mary McCarthy, her stories always contained the sentence: ‘And there I was in the fullest of full evening dress.’ She gravitated towards people who stood out, like Audrey in her ‘shivering apricot frock’ in Quicksand (the character was based on the Black actress and model Anita Thompson, who was so beautiful that Coco Chanel gave her dresses). When Larsen was found dead in her apartment in 1964, she was wearing a black sweater over a plain blue dress and black socks. The socks, in particular, would have appalled her younger self.
What was Nella wearing when she met Dr Elmer S. Imes, the man who would become her husband? I wish I knew. It was the summer of 1918. Larsen had worked at Lincoln Hospital throughout the Spanish flu epidemic, protected only by a gauze mask. Elmer was eight years older than her, a flirt, and the second Black person in the US to get a PhD in physics. As a member of the professional class, he had everything Larsen didn’t. His parents were missionaries who had studied at Oberlin College. He had graduated from Fisk, then taught there. He belonged to several fraternities, including the exclusive Boulé.
In 1921, the pair, now married, moved to New York. In 1923, Larsen became the first professionally trained Black librarian, but she remained ambivalent about the Black elite. The National Association of Coloured Women’s Clubs (NACW) was run by Fisk mean girls. She called them ‘dicty’. The NACW’s motto was ‘lifting as we climb’. Larsen wasn’t interested in slogans like that, or in ‘good Negroes’. Her books weren’t ‘of the propaganda type,’ she told Alfred Knopf, who published both of them. She wrote about the class she married into, and her novels struggle with what it means to belong. ‘For they are touchy and proud these Jazz Age heroines,’ Margo Jefferson wrote.
They read widely, wear soigné frocks, give smart parties and make clever remarks. They have keen minds, keen features and fair skin, and can be suitably ironic about ‘what called itself Negro society’. They cultivate the advantage of being New Negroes and New Women; sometimes they even indulge in being Negroes who can pass for white … Their sexual allure trips them up; their sexual reserve holds them back. They are timid when they should be bold, reckless when diplomacy is needed. Secretly, they feel contempt for their own failure to imagine anything more for themselves. Each one finds death of some kind: a lethal marriage, a fatal accident. But their longing for death, the drive towards it, is never quite acknowledged. Larsen’s women stumble into suicide by misadventure or miscalculation. They avoid premeditation, just as they avoid stringent self-reflection.
The men in the novels aren’t very interesting. They seem mysterious, but only because they don’t talk as fast as Larsen’s heroines think. Brian, Irene’s husband in Passing, is probably the closest fit for Elmer. He’s a doctor with a derisive smile, who cloaks his irritation with maddening politeness. Their relationship displays the tension that might exist between a female writer and a man who believes everything can be explained in a ‘general biological phrase’. (‘Passing’, according to Brian, is the ‘instinct of the race to survive and expand’.)
In 1925, Larsen reduced her hours at the library to focus on her writing. Her husband wasn’t pleased. His research position was precarious (‘Elmer says I’m a selfish little beast. Etc. Etc.’). At an after-party that same year, she met Van Vechten, the Harlem impresario who would have the greatest influence on her career. She knew all about him. Who didn’t? Literary hustler, voyeur, alcoholic, writer for Vanity Fair. His novel Peter Whiffle (1922) was one of her husband’s favourites. Van Vechten was now writing a ‘Negro novel’ and was spending the winter ‘getting into’ the right sets in Harlem and peddling Langston Hughes’s first collection, The Weary Blues, to Knopf. He had a penchant for outlandish costumes and, although married, for pretty boys in drag.
Van Vechten’s ‘Negro novel’, Nigger Heaven, was published in 1926. A footnote explained that ‘the word “nigger” is freely used by Negroes among themselves,’ but admitted that ‘its employment by a white person is always fiercely resented’. Van Vechten seemed to think himself exempt from such resentment (you can imagine him going in for a fist-bump). It’s not clear what Larsen made of Nigger Heaven. She told Van Vechten she’d read it in a Houbigant-scented bath, and when wearing green crêpe de chine pyjamas, but not much else. ‘I don’t think that, just now, I can tell you all that I feel about the book,’ she wrote. ‘You see, it’s too close, too true, as if you had undressed the lot of us and turned on a strong light.’
Some people were disgusted by Van Vechten’s depiction of Harlem (cabaret-slumming, orgies) and W.E.B. Du Bois called the novel ‘an affront to the hospitality of Black folk and to the intelligence of white’. Larsen seems to have enjoyed that review, signing a letter to Van Vechten, ‘Yours, for further violation of hospitality, or as George Gershwin (wasn’t it) put it Do it again.’ The ethnography of Harlem in Van Vechten’s daybooks is more valuable than the fiction he produced. Recording feuds, trysts and hangovers, they also provide the most detailed account we have of Larsen’s life in Harlem. He was her entrée to the 133rd Street glitterati. On the third anniversary of their meeting he sent her flowers from Goldfarbs (she didn’t know that he sent all of his closest friends gifts on the date he’d first met them). ‘You are a dear to think of me,’ she wrote.
Nigger Heaven’s protagonist, Mary Love, a librarian torn between her ‘black side’ and her ‘white side’ seems to be partially based on Larsen. Van Vechten has a cameo in both of her novels as Hugh Wentworth, novelist and partygoer. He encouraged Larsen to write, particularly about her experiences as a Black woman. In October 1925, when she quit her job entirely, it was partly in response to his attention. He advised her to capitalise on what Hughes called the ‘Negro Vogue’. She wrote two short stories for pap magazines under a pseudonym and, in 1927, sent Quicksand to Van Vechten, who prompted Knopf to accept it. (The title was his idea. She wanted to call it ‘Cloudy Amber’.)
Quicksand is an odd, bitter novel about someone trying to figure out how Black they really are. It follows Helga from the South to Chicago, to Harlem, and to Denmark, where she visits her white relatives. Ideas about American blackness have already arrived in Europe. She doesn’t recognise herself in Axel Olsen’s assertion that she has ‘the warm impulsive nature of an African but the soul of a prostitute’. The maid, who has never seen Black people outside of picture-books, reassures Helga that those figures bear no resemblance to her. Later, watching a minstrel show, she is filled with shame. Yet she keeps going back. She would have been thinking of Josephine Baker; everyone was. In the Revue Nègre on the Champs-Elysées, Baker dancing her way into French colonial fantasies, wearing a skirt of bananas.
Larsen’s original title for Passing was ‘Nig’, but Knopf wasn’t keen. (They wanted to avoid recalling the uproar caused by Nigger Heaven.) The novel begins when Clare and Irene, old schoolfriends, meet by chance in Chicago in August 1925, on the roof of the Drayton Hotel where they’re both trying to escape the heat, and where they can go only if they pass as white. After Clare’s father died, she lived with white aunts who ‘couldn’t forgive the tar-brush’, and effectively forced her to pass. She doesn’t want to be white, only to have ‘nice things’. She sells herself to the highest bidder: the banker Jack Bellew. Seen through Irene’s admiring, critical, hungry eyes, Clare’s life seems enviable, until her husband walks in and says: ‘Hello Nig.’ She’s drinking tea with Irene and another woman, Gertrude, who is also passing. Clare’s response is cool and jeering.
‘Did you hear what Jack called me?’
‘Yes,’ Gertrude answered, laughing with a dutiful eagerness.
Irene didn’t speak. Her gaze remained level on Clare’s smiling face.
The black eyes fluttered down. ‘Tell them, dear, why you call me that.’
The man chuckled … ‘Well, you see, it’s like this. When we were first married, she was as white as – as – well, as white as a lily. But I declare she’s gettin’ darker and darker. I tell her if she don’t look out she’ll wake up one of these days and find she’s turned into a nigger.’ He roared with laughter. Clare’s ringing bell-like laugh joined his. Gertrude, after another uneasy shift in her seat, added her shrill one. Irene, who had been sitting with lips tightly compressed, cried out, ‘That’s good!’ and gave way to gales of laughter … Tears ran down her cheeks. Her sides ached.
Larsen’s dialogue is so tight, and the emotional undertow so forceful, that the prose becomes almost dissociative. Trapped within earshot, we hear the way racists talk when they don’t know there’s a Black person in the room. The three women don’t reveal anything of themselves beyond how much they are hiding. Clare makes the others complicit. Irene asks with the kind of brightness that sounds like rage, whether Jack knows any Negroes. No, they’re ‘black scrimy devils’. But he reads the newspapers, so he knows what’s what.
In 1927, two years after ‘that time in Chicago’, Clare turns up in Harlem. When Brian warns Irene off seeing her, Irene, in a rare loss of self-control, snaps: ‘I’m really not such an idiot that I don’t realise that if a man calls me a nigger it’s his fault the first time, but mine if he has the opportunity to do it again.’ She sounds like Larsen, who could seem flippant, but knew the lynching statistics of individual states by heart. The self-parody and light treatment of heavy subjects characteristic of her letters can make it hard to tell what actually bothered her (a nursing colleague described her as an ‘actress … someone who knew how to strike a pose’). In one letter, she told Van Vechten about a lunch during which it transpired that the company ‘would have been keenly disappointed had they discovered that I was not born in the jungle of the Virgin Isles, so I entertained them with quaint stories of my childhood in the bush, and my reaction to the tom-tom undertones in jazz. It was a swell luncheon.’
In Harlem, Clare, with a ‘hankering after Negroes’, inveigles her way into Irene’s circle. When Irene mentions that some white people attend Negro Welfare League (NWL) dances ‘to see Negros’, Clare begs to go. ‘You mean because so many other white people go?’ Irene says. Clare blushes; Blackness will always be a spectacle to her. She turns up repeatedly when she isn’t invited, flirts, and shows no respect for the stability of Irene’s carefully constructed (if dull) world. Like Nella, Irene is always late getting dressed, and Brian, like Elmer, is always waiting. If we suspected before that Clare isn’t the sort of woman you introduce to your husband, we are now sure of it: she’s ‘exquisite, golden, fragrant, flaunting, in a stately gown of shining black taffeta, whose long, full skirt lay in graceful folds’. Soon, Irene becomes convinced that her husband and Clare are having an affair. We’re never sure whether her anxiety is justified. We live through the suspicion with her: it’s an iterative terror, compounded from moment to moment. There’s Brian, turning around to reassure Clare of the validity of her feelings, while driving the same car in which we’ve seen him quarrel with his wife. After the NWL ball, he offers to drop Clare home. Irene feels as if he has stepped beyond her reach, somewhere ‘strange and walled, where she could not get at him’. To rule out the affair, I’d have to ignore details which sometimes seem flimsy and insubstantial and, on another reading, like a blow to the heart. You can decide either way: that’s the point. There’s no lipstick on Brian’s collar. But the prose is wrapped up in Irene and scrubbed of outside referents. Moments like the one when she knows, by a slight motion of Brian’s shoulders, like a man bracing himself, that he’s keen on Clare aren’t to do with rational assessment.
At the ball, there is a foreshadowing of the power of the feelings Irene tries to damp down. ‘There was a slight crash. On the floor at her feet lay the shattered cup. Dark stains dotted the bright rug. Spread. The chatter stopped. Went on. Before her, Zulena gathered up the white fragments.’ ‘Must have pushed you. Clumsy of me,’ Wentworth bluffs. Irene allows him to take the blame. The cup belonged to Brian’s great-great-grand-uncle, a Confederate, and five minutes ago she had realised ‘I had only to break it, and I was rid of it forever.’ There’s another foreshadowing at the end of the book when Irene throws her cigarette out of a high window; we watch the ‘tiny spark drop slowly’ to the snow. Then Jack turns up at the party and accuses Clare, who is standing next to the window: ‘So, you’re a nigger, a damned dirty nigger!’ Irene ‘ran across the room, her terror tinged with ferocity, and laid a hand on Clare’s bare arm’.
What happened next, Irene Redfield never afterwards allowed herself to remember. Never clearly.
One moment Clare had been there, a vital glowing thing, like a flame of red and gold. The next she was gone.
There was a gasp of horror, and above it a sound not quite human, like a beast in agony. ‘Nig! My God! Nig!’
Even if you can’t be sure exactly what happened, the impact of Irene’s emotions and the brute force with which she represses them leave a mark, like a burn. Even critics who admired Passing had a problem with the ending. One reviewer complained that ‘Larsen didn’t solve the problem [of passing]. Knocking a character out of a scene doesn’t settle a matter.’ Did Irene push Clare? Did Clare fuck Brian? There’s something radical about writing with such ambiguity.
By the time Larsen’s first novel was published, in 1928, her marriage was on the rocks. Money was tight. Imes took a job at Fisk, and a place in the bed of Ethel Gilbert, a white woman who worked there. Worse than the cheating, Imes locked Larsen out of the house for a day and a half when she was trying to finish Passing. She found writing excruciating, which Imes knew (often, leaving town, he asked Van Vechten ‘to look after her’). It takes a particular cruelty not to unlock the door, hour after hour. I think he was jealous. Until Quicksand, she was Nella Imes. Then she became Nella Larsen. That summer, she spent most weekends alone in New York. She learned to swim (there was a beach craze popularised by Josephine Baker). ‘On Fifth Avenue one can’t tell the fays from the niggers these days,’ she wrote.
Around this time, she wrote a short story called ‘Sanctuary’, which is nearly identical to ‘Mrs Adis’ by Sheila Kaye-Smith, with race swapped for class. Larsen claimed she’d been told the story by a Lincoln patient, but nobody was buying it. Her new identity was shattered. Then she found out about Gilbert. That she was white. Like Irene, Larsen decided not to confront her husband. ‘In that second, she saw that she could bear anything, but only if no one knew she had anything to bear.’
In 1930 Larsen became the first Black woman to win a Guggenheim fellowship. I want this to have provided some consolation when she went to Nashville and had to face her husband’s mistress and the professors who had voted to expel her from Fisk. I doubt it did. In a letter to the Van Vechtens, she can’t mask her bitterness, though she tries to absorb it by patronising her race: ‘Carl would adore the Negro streets … And the Negroes themselves! I’ve never seen anything quite so true to what’s expected. Mostly black and good humoured and apparently quite shiftless, frightfully clean and decked out in the most appalling colours, but somehow just right.’
Van Vechten was drying out, in part to save his marriage; his wife was auditioning for the talkies in LA. Only a few people knew, but Nella didn’t reciprocate the confidence, isolating herself further. Eventually, she confronted Imes. He admitted to being in love with Gilbert, but didn’t want to end the marriage. So, they opened it up. He stayed at Fisk; she spent two years travelling around Europe, often ill, working patchily on what she called her ‘white novel’, starring a philandering husband and a jealous wife. She had a few affairs, one in Deia on Mallorca with a young Scotsman who turned up at her door with a gold and green enamel lighter, claiming she’d left it in the American Bar. Another with a polo player. After riding, Larsen wrote gleefully, she was too sore to sit at the typewriter. When she finally sent off her novel, Knopf rejected it, as a ‘lurid narrative of interlocking love triangles in which all of the characters are pathetic, unsympathetic, or worse’.
In 1932, she returned to New York. The Depression meant that there were no more balls or parties. Larsen drove down to Nashville with Tom Mabry, an aspiring writer from Tennessee. According to him, she passed at every hotel even though she was ‘rather dark for success at that’. Gilbert was living in the Woodstock Hotel in New York, going to parties with Larsen’s friends. Nella could imagine the gossip: Elmer chose a white woman who wasn’t even there over Nella, who had gone down to Fisk like a ‘dutiful little wife’. To rub salt in the wound, even though the administrators wanted the Imeses installed at Fisk, the Black students preferred Gilbert, who ‘belonged’ there, to Larsen, who never had. She was extremely popular on campus, often loaning money to those in need and lobbying for student self-governance to combat the power of the predominantly white administrators at the university.
Larsen’s only friends in Nashville were white men. She took a trip to Muscle Shoals, Alabama with Edward Donahue in his mother’s ‘majestic old Lincoln. Nella brought some sandwiches. I brought a quart of liquor and the set-ups for high-balls. At Columbia, Tennessee I had to “pass” at a Negro restaurant.’ On another occasion, the police started following Donahue. Larsen was hysterical and hid on the floor of the car. Cruising around Nashville in a white man’s car could have ruined her. Her letters to Imes, demanding money and silk stockings, disgusted his secretary, Frankie Lea Houchins, who told biographers that Larsen had faked suicide by cutting herself and smearing blood on the walls. Official reports of the incident say she broke her leg falling downstairs. Rumour had it that she threw herself out of the window. Imes and Larsen’s open marriage was clearly no longer tenable. Under Tennessee law, Larsen had to give the grounds for divorce. Official admission of adultery would have destroyed Imes’s career, and his ability to pay alimony. She chose cruelty.
How do you tell the story of an erasure? By the rate at which someone’s name stops being mentioned in letters? Gradually, Larsen cut herself off, dropping one friendship, then another. The invitations dwindled. Her Harlem friends – apart from the Van Vechtens and Dorothy Peterson (a writer and actress who, like Larsen, enjoyed throwing ‘mixed parties’) – had always been closer to Imes. Larsen was pursued by both Donahue and Mabry for a while, but by 1934 both relationships were over. In 1936, she fell in with the actress Edna Thomas and her lover Olivia Wyndham, hopping between Midtown galleries, dancing at the Savoy. Soon, she meddled in a lovers’ spat, and that was over too. Peterson seemed to be replacing her in Van Vechten’s affections and Larsen cut them both off. The correspondence simply stops. Without telling anyone, she moved to a new apartment. Even Imes didn’t have her address. He sent alimony to the bank.
When he died in 1941, the alimony cheques stopped coming. In 1944, Larsen got a job at Gouverneur Hospital on the Lower East Side. She made two friends. Wary, she kept them at a distance, though she gave them copies of her novels and told them about meeting Eugene O’Neill. Eventually, she cut them off too. In 1961, Larsen turned seventy. Instead of retiring, she got a job at the Metropolitan Hospital on East 97th Street. In 1963, the hospital found out her age and Larsen was forced into retirement. Within a year, she was dead. In Passing, Clare writes to Irene out of loneliness, which she describes as a physical pain. Irene thinks Clare wants to have her cake and eat it, to live as white yet be the belle of every NWL ball. Really, she just wants to be invited to parties.
A few months after Elmer’s death in 1941, Peterson and Anita Thompson spotted Nella at the First Avenue Market. It was Christmas Eve. She looked ‘at least eighty years old and a little mad’. Peterson asked if she had any clothes, as they had once exchanged them. Larsen said she was ‘lousy with clothes’, promised Peterson a fur coat, and disappeared. Over the following years, Peterson and Van Vechten set about compiling archives of the Harlem Renaissance, reliving their glory days, but found no trace of Larsen. Her life remained a mystery: no family records, no love letters. In 1944, Peterson struggled to write a biographical placard for an exhibition. ‘I have put very little information on it,’ she told Van Vechten, ‘because there is so little about her that I’m sure of.’