How Could Gertrude Stein Write The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and What’s with Those Brownies?

[A Secret Sisterhood:  The Hidden Friendships of Austen, Bronte, Eliot and Woolf, by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney [Aurum Press, 2017], is now out in paperback. Midorikawa and Sweeney run the blog, Something Rhymed, about female literary friendships, so it seemed this would be a good time to post a piece I wrote a few years ago about the famous duo, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Although they were much more than friends.]

If an autobiography is someone’s own life story, how can one person write an autobiography of someone else? Did Gertrude Stein goof in her title?

If you want to read it yourself—and it’s a great, fun read—skip the ending of this blog which gives away Gertrude’s ending.

And besides, Gertrude could do anything she wanted. She was a genius. And Alice knew it.

Gertrude Stein was an American writer who spent almost her entire adult life living in Paris with her partner—Yes, they were gay!—Alice B. Toklas, also an American. They were so close that their joint biographer Diana Souhami [Gertrude and Alice, I. B. Tauris, 2009] says that from the day they met,

“They were together until Gertrude’s death. They never traveled without each other or entertained separately, or worked on independent projects.”

Like me, Gertrude was born in Pittsburgh, PA, although Alice said she should have been born in Oakland, CA. Her family moved west to the Bay area when Gertrude was only a baby. Dad made a bunch of money on the San Francisco trolley car system and then died. Her oldest brother Michael was such a good money manager that she and her other brother, Leo, were able to move to Paris right after the turn of the last century, live pretty well and collect art. They were known around town as the crazy Americans who wore sandals and bought weird paintings by unknown artists—Picasso, Braque, Matisse.

Stein family

The Stein family

Leo and Gert are the first two on the left.

Alice also grew up in San Francisco, although the two did not meet until she came to visit friends in Paris in 1907, soon after the San Francisco earthquake. When she was introduced to Gertrude, she says she heard bells ring. She always heard bells ring when she met a genius, and Gertrude was her first genius. The second was Picasso, whom Gertrude introduced Alice to the next day.

After Alice moved in, Leo felt it was getting a bit crowded in their apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus on the Left Bank of Paris, so he moved out soon after.

Gertrude would sit up late at night at her writing table, under a Cezanne, trying to do in written portraits what Cezanne had done on canvas. Alice would get up early, type up the copy, note some changes in the margin, plan the meals and chores for the day, and dust the paintings. She said she learned all about the paintings by dusting them. In the evenings they would host salons and invite the artists to come see their paintings, hanging two deep on the walls.

Gert and Alice with the paintings

Gertrude and Alice at home with the paintings

During World War I Gert and Alice ordered a car from the States—they called her Godiva—and volunteered for the Red Cross ambulance service. They were both honored for their work by the French government after the war.

When the war ended in 1918, the GIs came back to the States with tales of the beauties of France and were slapped in the face with Prohibition. What better plan than to go right back to Paris where it was really cheap to live and you could drink? As a result, Americans flooded Paris in the 1920s. They sat around drinking in cafes, got into brawls in the street, and were the subject of nasty letters to the editors by the French. No wonder they hate us now.

Some of Gertrude’s avant-garde writings were being published back home in the States, so the American writers came to her house to listen to her expound on her theories of modernistic writing and eat Alice’s little cakes.

Novelists Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, the photographer/painter Man Ray, and the composer Virgil Thomson were among the creative people who would come to the Saturday night salons. Alice would answer the door, ask who had sent you, and, if she let you in, she might allow you to sit within the charmed circle around Gertrude. But your wife would be ushered into a separate corner of the large room to chat with Alice.

“I had often said that I would write, The wives of geniuses I have sat with,”

says Alice in the Autobiography.

The line

“A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”

appeared in one of Stein’s poems written in the early twenties, “Sacred Emily.” Ever on the lookout for ways to promote Stein’s brand, Alice took the phrase and arranged it in a circle to appear on Gertrude’s stationery, creating a logo for her work.

Gertrude's letterhead

Gertrude’s letterhead, designed by Alice

At the end of the 1920s, Alice got tired of cleaning up after the messy writers. Some of them, like Thomson, received Gertrude’s personal engraved cards with a note from Alice:

“Miss Stein declines further acquaintance with Mr. Thomson.”

That was that.

Virgil and Gert working together

Gert and Virgil working together on the opera Four Saints in Three Acts

Gert kept badgering Alice to write the story of her life, because she had had the privilege of spending most of it with geniuses, but Alice was too busy taking care of Gertrude. So in 1932, at their summer home in the French countryside, in six weeks Gertrude sat down and wrote her most popular book.

Friends of hers in the States arranged to have it published by Harcourt Brace and, at the age of 58, Gertrude Stein was a huge hit. Her friends convinced her and Alice to come on a triumphant tour of the country they had both left behind almost 30 years before. When they arrived in New York, Gertrude’s name was up in lights in Times Square and the newspaper headlines read:

Gerty Gerty Stein Stein Is Back Home Home Back.”

She introduced Alice as “my secretary” everywhere they went, although Alice ran all the details of the tour like the control freak she really was.

Back in Paris during World War II, they invited American soldiers to come to their salon.  They got to know a lot of writers and painters who turned out to not be as talented or famous as the ones who had come earlier.

After World War II, the US government sent Gert and Alice on a tour of American bases in Europe but towards the end, Gertrude became really ill. Rushed to the American Hospital in Paris, she was operated on but they found that her cancer was too far along.  Before she died, she turned to Alice and said,

“What is the answer?”

Alice didn’t say anything.

“In that case, what is the question?”

Alice was devastated but devoted the rest of her life to guarding Gertrude’s memory. In her old age Alice began doing some writing herself, mostly memoirs. Neither she nor Gertrude had ever been devout Jews, and Alice started practicing Catholicism with the rationale that she would be reunited with Gertrude in heaven. When she checked in for a retreat at a convent, at the age of 83 still chain-smoking Pall Malls, a copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita fell out of her suitcase.

Alice finally died at the ripe old age of ninety and is buried in Pere Lechaise cemetery.  She’s not anywhere near Jimi Hendrix; she’s right where she always was—directly behind Gertrude, for eternity.

gertrude stein grave

Gertrude’s grave

What’s with those brownies?

 

The writers and artists all remembered Alice’s cooking fondly and in the 1950s convinced her to put together a cookbook of her own recipes as well as others from the people who came to the salons.

Painter Brian Gysin, who was just a passing acquaintance, sent along the recipe:

“Haschich Fudge

(which anyone could whip up on a rainy day)

This is the food of Paradise…it might provide an entertaining refreshment for a Ladies’ Bridge Club or a chapter meeting of the DAR…”

Alice was in a hurry to get her manuscript to the publisher, and hadn’t tested any of the recipes, so she just slipped this one in.

Right before publication, someone at the American publishing house pointed out that hashish was a controlled substance, and Alice was mortified. It was taken out of the American edition, but her British publisher left it in. Some clever reviewers felt that this explained a lot about Gertrude’s writings.

There was a Peter Sellers movie in the 60s based on this myth—We Love You Alice B. Toklas. But neither Gert nor Alice ever needed drugs to alter their view of reality.

 

The ending of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas:

 

“I am a pretty good housekeeper and a pretty good gardener and a pretty good needlewoman and pretty good secretary and a pretty good editor, and a pretty good vet for dogs and I have to do them all at once and I find it difficult to add being a pretty good author. About six weeks ago Gertrude Stein said, it does not look to me as if you were ever going to write that autobiography. You know what I am going to do. I am going to write it for you. I am going to write it as simply as Defoe did the autobiography of Robinson Crusoe. And she has and this is it.”

me-at-stein-house

Gertrude Stein’s house, on the North Side of Pittsburgh, and me

To read more about American writers, Manager as Muse explores Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins’ work with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe and is available on Amazon in both print and Kindle versions.

To walk with me and the ‘Such Friends’ through Bloomsbury, download the Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group audio walking tour from VoiceMap.

 

 

 

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On the Left Bank of Paris, in June, 1927…

…ex-patriate American composer Virgil Thomson, 30, is excited to begin his next project. He has commissioned fellow American Gertrude Stein, 53, to write a libretto for an opera. And now he has received her text.

Gertrude has been working on this since March and, as he expected, having already set some of her shorter works to music, it’s not exactly traditional.

Virgil and Gert working together

Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein working together

Stein and Thomson had decided that the subject would be saints. Maybe four.

Gertrude has written a story about 20 of them, although focusing on two, St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Teresa of Avila. Virgil is thinking that he may have to write parts for two St. Teresas. And maybe a master and a mistress of ceremonies could actually sing Stein’s stage directions.

Overall, he likes it. Virgil can see in Gertrude’s characters the creative people they all know on the Left Bank, who come to Stein’s salon on rue de Fleurus.

From Four Saints in Three Acts by Gertrude Stein

Pigeons on the grass alas.
Pigeons on the grass alas.
Short longer grass short longer longer shorter yellow grass. Pigeons
large pigeons on the shorter longer yellow grass alas pigeons on the
grass.
If they were not pigeons what were they.
If they were not pigeons on the grass alas what were they. He had
heard of a third and he asked about it it was a magpie in the sky.
If a magpie in the sky on the sky can not cry if the pigeon on the
grass alas can alas and to pass the pigeon on the grass alas and the
magpie in the sky on the sky and to try and to try alas on the
grass alas the pigeon on the grass the pigeon on the grass and alas.
They might be very well they might be very well very well they might
be.
Let Lucy Lily Lily Lucy Lucy let Lucy Lucy Lily Lily Lily Lily
Lily let Lily Lucy Lucy let Lily. Let Lucy Lily.

Beagles on the grass

In the late 1970s I was privileged to meet Virgil Thomson and shake his hand. Thank you, David Stock. RIP.

This year, we’ll be telling stories about these groups of ‘such friends,’ before, during and after their times together.

Manager as Muse explores Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins’ work with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe and is available on Amazon in both print and Kindle versions.

To walk with me and the ‘Such Friends’ through Bloomsbury, download the Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group audio walking tour from VoiceMap. Look for our upcoming walking tour about the Paris ‘such friends.’

In Cambridge, Massachusetts, at Harvard University, in 1924…

…recent composition graduate, Virgil Thomson, 27, is fondly remembering his time spent in Paris. He’d had the opportunity to study with Nadia Boulanger, 36, although he didn’t go along with all of her teaching methods, the way the other American ‘Boulangeries,’ as he called them, did.

And Virgil had also met one of his heroes, composer Erik Satie, 58. He’d hung out with fellow composer Darius Milhaud, 31, at a funky bistro near Place Vendome, Le boeuf sur la toit, named after one of Milhaud’s recent pieces.

Having returned to the States two years ago, Virgil is earning a little bit of money by writing music criticism for magazines like Vanity Fair, and working as an organist near Boston. He’d even spent a year in New York, playing and conducting. Both places seem cold and sterile to him.

And now, here he is, back at Harvard. As a teaching assistant.

But Virgil has had offers. He’s considering becoming the director of the music program at the University of South Carolina. Or taking a major organist post back home in Kansas.

No. He won’t. The time has come. Back to Paris.

“I said to my friends that if I was going to starve, I might as well starve where the food is good”

Virgil Thomson, composer and music critic, in 1921

Virgil Thomson, composer and music critic, in 1921

This year, we’ll be telling stories about these groups of ‘such friends,’ before, during and after their times together.

100 years ago this month, June 1914…

In England…

…in Sussex, Leonard Woolf, 33, is going on a speaking trip to Birmingham on behalf of the socialist Fabian Society. He is particularly worried about leaving his wife, Virginia, 32, on her own at their home, Asham. They’ve been married less than two years, and she has been quite ill for a lot of that time. Before he leaves they negotiate a strict schedule for her to follow in his absence.

In London, publisher Grant Richards brings out the first edition of Dubliners by James Joyce, 32. The same publisher had turned down the collection of 15 short stories a decade earlier, but this time is persuaded by American poet Ezra Pound, 28, who is serializing Joyce’s novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in his magazine The Egoist.

First edition of James Joyce's Dubliners

First edition of James Joyce’s Dubliners

The United Kingdom is debating the pros and cons of switching to daylight saving time. The Manchester Guardian says yes!

By the end of the month, Alexander Woollcott, 27, whose employer, the New York Times, appointed him as drama critic and then sent him off to Europe to learn about theatre, is soaking up all he can and getting ready to head over to Paris.

In France…

…in Paris, Woollcott meets with the legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt, 69, before she embarks on her triumphant tour of America. He later writes, ‘She was a ravaged and desiccated old woman with one leg. And the foot of that one was already in the grave.’

American ex-pat Gertrude Stein, 40, has just bought the first of many paintings by Juan Gris, 27, from one of her favourite art dealers, Daniel Kahnweiler, just turning 30. But she is most excited that she has finally seen one of her first works, Tender Buttons, published in the States. So far, reviews are mixed.

On 28th June, all of Paris cheers on the start of the twelfth Tour de France.

Tour de France, 1914, Paris

Tour de France, 1914, Paris

 

In America…

…in Chicago, novelist Sherwood Anderson, 37, is impressed by Stein’s Tender Buttons. He has read about her cubist approach to literature in a new magazine, The Little Review, published by Margaret Anderson, 27, which has asked him for contributions.

In Kansas City, MO, Virgil Thomson, 17, graduates from Central High School and is heading off to the new Kansas City Polytechnic Institute, practicing the organ in his spare time.

In St Paul, MN, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, also 17, is lamenting to his journal that he has failed algebra, trigonometry, coordinate geometry, and most humiliating, hygiene.

In Pittsburgh, the Pirates’ Honus Wagner, 40, becomes the first baseball player in the 20th century to have 3000 hits.

Honus Wagner, Pittsburgh Pirates record breaker

Honus Wagner, Pittsburgh Pirates record breaker

In New York City, Dorothy Rothschild, 20, is putting her convent school lessons to work by teaching dancing classes, and sending light verses off to the city’s many newspaper columnists. She doesn’t think of these as real writing. Her father, who died a few months before, used to toss them off as jokes, so, obviously, anyone can write like that.

Dorothy dreams of having one of her poems published in the most important column in the city, the New York Tribune’s ‘Conning Tower,’ written by FPA [Franklin Pierce Adams], 32. Adams has been lured to the Trib from the Evening Mail, bringing his substantial readership with him.

On June 28th, the front page of the Tribune reports that former president Theodore Roosevelt, recently returned from his South American expedition, is cancelling a speaking engagement in Pittsburgh on doctor’s orders; John D. Rockefeller is donating $2.55 million to the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research; and Mrs. A. H. Miller, 28, has drowned in a reservoir when the horse pulling her wagon is scared by a goose.

Front page of the New York Tribune, June 28, 1914

Front page of the New York Tribune, June 28, 1914