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.

 

 

 

Advertisements

In Tiffin, Ohio, 145 years ago, on April 24, 1870…

…John Quinn was born, the first son of two Irish immigrants. He grew up in middle-class Fostoria, Ohio, and went to the University of Michigan. While working full-time in a government job in Washington, DC, he went to Georgetown University law school at night. After receiving his law degree, he earned an advanced degree in international relations from Harvard. Not bad for the son of a shanty-Irish baker.

Quinn then moved to New York City, which was to be his home for the rest of his life, so he was there when the Algonquin Round Table wits were in the newspapers every day. He predictably landed a job with a major New York law firm and worked on high profile corporate cases. During a two-year period there were quite a few deaths in his family—parents, sisters, etc.—and he began to explore his Irish roots by going back to ‘the old sod.’ While attending a Gaelic language festival in the west of Ireland, he met Lady Augusta Gregory and other friends of W B Yeats involved in the Irish Literary Renaissance. While helping them found the Abbey Theatre, he started his own law firm in 1906.

John Quinn, 1870-1924

John Quinn, 1870-1924

Quinn became involved in New York’s Tammany Hall politics, but when his candidate didn’t get the nomination at the 1912 Democratic Party convention, he became disgusted with the whole system (go figure). After that he turned his considerable energies to art and literature.

During the first two decades of the 20th century he managed to:

  • Help organize the Armory Show, securing paintings from Roger Fry’s Second Post-Impressionist Exhibit in London, and Leo and Gertrude Stein’s collection at 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris,
  • Fight Congress to have the tariff on contemporary art changed,
  • Bail out the Abbey Theatre after they were arrested for performing The Playboy of the Western World in Philadelphia,
  • Have an affair with Lady Gregory and a number of other much younger women,
  • Support Yeats’ father in New York City by buying his paintings,
  • Argue the original case to have excerpts of Ulysses published in the United States,
  • Support James Joyce in Paris by buying his manuscripts of Ulysses as he wrote them,
  • Fund the transatlantic review where Ernest Hemingway worked when he first came to Paris, and
  • Amass an incredible collection of modern art, stashed around his Manhattan apartment, focused primarily on European painters and sculptors.

During that time he kept up a detailed correspondence with all of the above as well as Ezra Pound, Joseph Conrad, Augustus John and other cultural luminaries of the early 20th century. When I did my research, Quinn kept popping up, Zelig-like, in photos such as this one:

James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, and John Quinn in Paris

James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, and John Quinn in Paris

Quite a guy. I get tired just thinking about all he accomplished.

Quinn died of intestinal cancer at the age of 54, and, having no heirs, willed that his art collection be sold off and dispersed among museums and collectors around the world. And it was.

This summer I’m planning to visit the States—including Ohio, where he grew up, and New York City, where his papers are. And [you read it here first], on this date, five years from now, 2020, his 150th birthday, I plan to publish an autobiography of this amazing man.

So happy birthday, John Quinn!

Manager as Muse: A Case Study of Maxwell Perkins’ Work with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway & Thomas Wolfe

My interest in early 20th century writers started with my thesis for my MBA from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA, Manager as Muse. My research, from a business standpoint, into legendary Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins’ work with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe, led me to study all four groups of writers’ salons from a communications standpoint for my Ph.D, ‘Such Friends.’

The thesis was completed in 1983 on my birthday [don’t ask which one], and has languished on the shelves on the Duquesne University library since then.

One of the regular participants in my ‘Such Friends’ seminars here in Birmingham, UK, recently passed on to me an article about an upcoming film called Genius, based on the excellent A. Scott Berg biography, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius which I used as a basis for my research. Apparently it is currently being filmed starring Sean Penn.

That was all the motivation I needed. I contacted Duquesne, got an electronic copy of my thesis, and have spent the past few months re-formatting it to look professional and up to date in the 21st century.

And now it is available, thanks to 21st century technology, at http://www.lulu.com/suchfriends.

All 466 pages of it. So I highly recommend that you purchase it as a download for only £3. Soon it will also be available through Amazon.com, thanks to Lulu’s distribution system.

Even if you are not interested in buying it, if you have the chance, go to the site above and tell me what you think. I have had a fairly good experience with Lulu in the past [www.lulu.com/gypsyteacher], but not many sales.

My future plans are to take the information in Manager as Muse, get rid of all the boring academic stuff, and hopefully find a publisher for a shorter, more interesting version that focuses on the relationships, both business and personal, between Perkins and his writers, who were indeed ‘such friends.’

In the meantime, if you are interested in what all the writers on this site are doing today, follow them on Twitter @SuchFriends. Or check out any of the articles on the pages to the right.