Left Bank, Paris, July 2005 and 1910

2005, July, Left Bank, Paris

Friends from the study abroad program that I am teaching on have joined my informal walking tour, and I’m pointing out where the American writers in the 1920s hung out.

Starting at Café Deux Magots, I’ve lead my group through the rain past the original site of Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare & Co. bookshop, past Le Dingo where Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald first met. We’ve cut through the Luxembourg Gardens, and stand in front of 27 rue de Fleurus where Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas held their legendary salons.

As I finish my spiel, a well-dressed businessman walks up with a key, lets himself in the gate, and turns to us:

‘Would you like to come in?’

Would I! I’ve never been invited inside before.

As described in all the books, there is a small passageway, leading to an open courtyard, surrounded by rooms. Not wishing to play the pushy American I don’t poke around to find the chamber where the Picassos, Matisses and Cezannes dripped off the Steins’ walls. I’m thrilled to be standing in the middle. One of the apartments is occupied by a painter’s studio, with the window wide open and his paints strewn around a desk. Gertrude would be proud.

A friend takes my picture in the shade of the tree in the center, but doesn’t remember to send it to me.

1910, July, Left Bank, Paris

Alice B. Toklas, 33, has officially moved in with her partner, Gertrude Stein, 36, and Gertrude’s brother Leo, 38, at 27 rue de Fleurus.

The Steins have been living here for the past seven years, hosting salons with the painters whose work they admire and collect such as Pablo Picasso, 28, and Henri Matisse, 40. Gertrude’s unique writing style was inspired by the paintings; last year her work Three Lives was published, which she wrote late at night sitting under the Cezanne.

For the past three years, since she came from San Francisco for just a short visit, Alice has spent most of her days at rue de Fleurus, typing up Gertrude’s writings from the night before, shopping for groceries, cooking meals, and dusting the paintings. This month Leo has been generous, giving up his studio so Alice can have her own room, but he begins to feel marginalized in his own house. He has started an affair with one of the artists’ models and will soon move out, taking the Renoirs and Matisses, leaving Gertrude all but one Cezanne and the Picassos.

After the Great War, Gertrude and Alice will welcome the American ex-patriate writers to their salon, making 27 rue de Fleurus one of the centers of the cultural life of Paris, until they move out in 1938.

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