Fania Marinoff spent much of her life in the shadow of her husband, Carl Van Vechten. Though she had an extraordinary sense of drama and a great deal of flair, she was sometimes eclipsed by Van Vechten’s larger-than-life personality, so that even during her lifetime Marinoff was known to many mainly as “Carlo’s wife.” In spite of this, Marinoff was a woman of achievement in her own right.
An actress from the time she was a child, Marinoff began her stage career when she was eight. She enjoyed considerable success during the 1910s and the 1920s, performing in New York City and on nation-wide tours. She appeared in a variety of shows, from classical plays to theatrical experiments. Though she preferred more challenging roles, she occasionally appeared in light, popular productions as well.
Fania Marinoff, called Fanny as a child, was born in Odessa to Russian Jews, the thirteenth child in her family. Her mother died when she was a child. Soon after, her father remarried and moved his family to Boston. As a girl, Fanny Marinoff was spirited and wild. When her older brother decided to move west to join another Marinoff brother and his wife in Denver, the aging father encouraged him to take his sister along, hoping the young couple would be better able to care for her.
By the time she was twelve, Marinoff had joined a small traveling theatrical company. When the company folded, leaving her stranded in Nebraska, Marinoff had the good fortune to find a part in a show being performed by a well-known actress named Blanche Walsh. When Walsh went on to New York, she took the young actress with her. In New York, Marinoff earned increasingly important roles with notable theater companies. She soon changed her first name to the more Russian-sounding, Fania.
It was in New York that Marinoff met a young theater critic named Carl Van Vechten. Their attraction was mutual and immediate. After a passionate courtship that included a trip to Europe, they married in 1914. Fania Marinoff continued to perform on stage and screen. In the years just after her marriage, she performed some of the roles she felt were her best, including an appearance as Ariel in a very successful production of The Tempest in 1916. Her next show was a controversial, sexually explicit play by Frank Wedekind, entitled Spring’s Awakening. The cast performed just once before the police closed the show.
Fania Marinoff and Carl Van Vechten shared a singular partnership; though Van Vechten had a number of male lovers throughout his life, husband and wife remained emotionally committed to one another for more than forty years. Each drew considerable strength from the love and devotion of the other. In spite of this, “no one would ever refer to the Marinoff-Van Vechten alliance as serene.”1 Van Vechten and Marinoff were prone to public scenes and volatile discussions, though often these would dissolve into affectionate exchanges of pet names.
Because they were apart periodically during their marriage while Marinoff toured or traveled, they exchanged a great many letters; “the list of their private nicknames and terms of endearment in letters to each other was as long as it was ridiculous.”2 When Marinoff was traveling with a production of Call the Doctor in 1921, her husband wrote “Dearest Baby Marinoff, I was so blue yesterday that I nearly died; it seems so silly to be here and you there; I missed you so much and everything went wrong.”3 Many of Van Vechten’s letters to his wife read like the letters of a newlywed who can’t bear to be separated from his bride, even those written after decades of marriage.