Max Ewing’s Closet and Queer Architectural History (Part 2)
This essay is the second of a two-part series. Follow the link to read part one.
Installed in the walk-in closet of his elegant bachelor apartment in Manhattan, Max Ewing’s “Gallery of Extraordinary Portraits” offers a fascinating glimpse of a queer fan’s inner world: the celebrities he worshipped, the entertainers he met through his work in musical theater, and the friends he spent his time with or sought out as a gay “man about town” in New York’s Bohemia of the 1920s.
In addition to a number of portraits of Ewing himself (mostly from his travels in Europe), early installations focused on divas and movie stars like Mary Garden, Marguerite Namara, and Tallulah Bankhead, and on images of scantily-clad body builders, boxers, male dancers and athletes, many of whom Ewing had met in person. The display also included photos of writers and artists including Radclyffe Hall, Oscar Wilde, and Marcel Proust. Contemporary gay and lesbian figures like Jean Cocteau, Glenway Wescott, Margaret Anderson, Princesse Murat, Jane Heap, Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein—all of whom Ewing had met —were shown in photographs taken by Ewing’s friends Berenice Abbott and George Platt Lynes, or in Kodak snapshots by Ewing himself. Photographer Carl Van Vecthen and society hostess and writer Muriel Draper also appeared on the wall in multiple images.
Later installations in Ewing’s closet, recorded in photos of the space, reveal a slightly different set of interests: by the early 1930s, he had added a large publicity photo of Gary Cooper—the object of Ewing’s particular fascination in these years—and a portrait of entertainer Paul Meeres by Van Vechten dating from April 1932 (figures 1-3). That the famous and beautiful Meeres was himself a visitor to Ewing’s apartment is borne out by a snapshot in Ewing’s photo album, and his visits on more than one occasion are described in Ewing’s letters to his parents (figure 4). Many other African-American celebrities—from Adelaide Hall and Bessie Smith to Paul Robeson, Taylor Gordon, and the boxer known as “Kid Chocolate”—appear on these walls, mostly in personally inscribed photographs.
Although they would drift apart in the early 1930s, by 1932 both Van Vechten and Ewing had become fixated on creating photographic portraits of their own: in Van Vechten’s case, his well-documented immersion in the medium resulted in the production of over nine thousand images. Many of his subjects were African-American writers and entertainers known for their participation in the so-called Harlem Renaissance. Preserved at the Beinecke Library at Yale and available online, Van Vechten’s portraits suggest a number of distinctive qualities he shared with Max Ewing.
First among these is an ambivalent infatuation with African-American culture and individuals that has long challenged historians of race and American culture. Ewing’s far smaller 1932 portrait series, which he titled “The Carnival of Venice” because he posed his subjects in front of a painted backdrop showing the Piazza San Marco from the water, reveals a similar mindset, including voyeuristic and sexualized fantasies about African-American men. Van Vechten’s 1926 novel about Harlem and its nightlife, defiantly titled with a word that, as W.E.B. Dubois put it, “no white man should use,” provides further evidence of these conflicted views. Also of note is the obsessive effort to preserve, collect, and absorb people and images through a process that has been compared to lepidoptery—indeed, the metaphor perfectly captures the fetishistic intensity that both men brought to their portrait projects.
Tragically, Van Vechten would have to eventually turn his curiosity and collecting zeal to Max Ewing himself, and not just through the many photos he took of him: after Ewing died by suicide in 1934, Van Vechten dedicated himself to creating an archive of Ewing’s letters, diaries, and photographs, including explicitly queer material that was closed to researchers for a generation, donating the collection to Yale in hopes that Ewing would be rediscovered and recreated by a later generation.
There is no doubt that this makes for a fascinating story, but many would argue that it isn’t architectural history. This narrow view should change. Ewing’s queer closet “gallery” is significant because it locates and spatializes his private, interior experience, offering a glimpse of his aspirations and emotions and thereby adding a new narrative to the history of the city. As his letters make clear, he was a consummate fan who documented his relationships, both real and imagined, in his “gallery,” and he used it as both an autobiography and enhancement of his social life.
Although the Carrère and Hastings Life Building where Ewing lived, with its handsome exterior facade and unusual hybrid program of bachelor flats and offices for Life magazine, is noteworthy, it isn’t the main event in this case study: indeed, Ewing’s apartment and his closet could be located anywhere in the city. What makes them significant is that Ewing shaped them into a queer, interracial enclave and moved from one such island of acceptance and engagement to another, thereby creating a sort of queer archipelago in an alternative urban geography. Interestingly, we can identify and study this process of queer place-making elsewhere, notably in the so-called “lesbian Paris” created by American ex-pats and their friends in the 1920s.
Two further points are worth considering here. First, the interior space that Ewing created as his “Gallery of Extraordinary Portraits” was hidden inside his apartment in a building that turned an anonymous “poker face”—a respectable mask and a screen—to the city, confronting an increasingly homophobic and surveillant society with a handsome but opaque Beaux-Arts façade. While Ewing loved the city for its bright lights and constant motion, he knew that the anonymity it offered him was a protection against the very real threat of exposure. For him, as for many other queer men and women, modern life was best experienced through interiors like his top-floor “bachelor flat” and his closet “gallery.”
Second, Ewing’s collection reminds us to look beyond both the architecture and the archive that we know best: as Saidiya Hartman made clear in her recent book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, we won’t find the real stories of the lives and aspiration of marginalized people—queer, black, female—in the official narratives of the vice squad, the social reformers, or the prison wardens. Yet fragments of text and image, and small, overlooked interiors, can be reimagined into a poetic history. This is why Ewing’s closet is so precious, and why for architectural historians, so skilled at reading built form, this ephemeral interior ought to be seen not simply as a curiosity, but prized as a gap or fissure through which we can view other lives, meanings, and urban connections.
 Max Ewing Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, Max Ewing Papers, YCAL MSS 656. Materials related to the “Gallery of Extraordinary Portraits” are in Boxes 13-14.
 Historians and critics have long grappled with Van Vechten’s complex beliefs and motivations: see, for example, Darryl Pinckney, “Looking Harlem in the Eye,” New York Review of Books, February 19, 2015.
 From 1930 on, Ewing took full-length nude portraits of both white and black men which he cropped for inclusion in the “Carnival of Venice” albums. Many of Ewing’s uncropped images, including nude portraits of Paul Meeres and the (white) Ritter brothers eventually made their way into Van Vechten’s secret “homorerotic scrapbooks” at Yale: YCAL 1050, Boxes 213—223. I tell that story in my book-in-progress, All That Glamour and Loneliness: Max Ewing’s Queer New York, 1923-34; see also Jonathan Weinberg, “Boy Crazy: Carl Van Vechten’s Queer Collecting,” The Yale Journal of Criticism 7 (2) (January, 1994): 25-49, and James Smalls, The Homoerotic Photography of Carl Van Vechten: Public Face, Private Thoughts (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2015).
 Cary D. Wintz and Paul Finkelman, eds. Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance: K-Y (New York: Taylor and Francis 2004), 916.
 Alice T. Friedman, “Queer Old Things,” Places, placesjournal.org, February 2015.