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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‘Such Friends’:  Vanessa Bell’s Six Rooms of Her Own

Back in 2002, I went to see the fabulous Picasso Portraits exhibit at the Tate Modern. While eating the brownie with ice cream and fudge sauce in the café, I filled out the museum’s feedback card, which asked,

‘What other events would you like to see at the Tate?’

Always seizing the opportunity for shameless self-promotion, I wrote something to the effect:

‘Why don’t you have me give a talk about my early 20th century writers and artists?’

and

‘Why don’t you have an exhibit of Vanessa Bell’s fabulous paintings which are mostly locked away in a Tate Liverpool basement?!’

Still waiting for answer to the first, but the Dulwich Picture Gallery has answered the second. The third question is now, why did it take so long?!

My research into writers’ salons exposed me to creative people I had not been familiar with before, and one of my favorites is Virginia Woolf’s painter-sister, Vanessa Bell. Partly because of the excellent biography by Frances Spalding—Vanessa Bell:  Portrait of the Bloomsbury Artist—who discovered her while researching the art critic and Vanessa’s one-time lover, Roger Fry.

So finding my way from Birmingham to Dulwich to see this exhibit has been high on my to-do list this year. As part of our new-found freedom of semi-retirement, My Husband Tony and I set aside last Tuesday for a London jaunt. Road trip!

First, we had to figure out how to get to Dulwich. Not as difficult as we thought. Train to Euston, Victoria Line to Victoria station, train to West Dulwich, lovely well-marked walk from the station thanks to the glorious weather.

How posh! The Dulwich Gallery is one of the few museums which was actually built as an art gallery, to house a private collection back in the early 19th century. It’s not terribly big, but most rooms are fantastically well lit with the skylights built in.

My timed ticket to the exhibit was for 2:15, but we got there early to have lunch in the crowded but excellent café. The woman in the box office said that the ticket timings were ‘very strict.’ Tony planned to have a look at the museum and then head off to explore nearby Dulwich.

The building itself is well worth a look, but we also spent some time in the related free exhibit, Legacy: Photographs by Vanessa Bell and Patti Smith. Singer/artist/photographer Patti Smith, 71—who, I confess, I remember most from Gilda Radner’s impersonation of her on Saturday Night Live—is a big Virginia Woolf fan, and has recorded a video at Vanessa’s Sussex home, Charleston Farmhouse. [Also a must see. Trust me. Go.]

This exhibit juxtaposed Smith’s photos over quite a few years with Bell’s photo albums of her life—a very interesting idea. Smith’s were artistically small, mostly black and white Polaroids, and a bit dark. Unfortunately, the room itself was a bit dark, and we found ourselves squinting quite a bit.

I sent Tony off—What did you think of Dulwich, honey?

‘Beautiful. I want to live there’—

with a reminder to meet up at the Tate Modern so we could take in the exhibit of Sir Elton John’s photography collection, which includes quite a few by Man Ray, from my Paris group. A doubly deductible trip.

This gave me plenty of time to explore the six rooms at Dulwich devoted to Vanessa’s work. All on her own.

Vanessa bell dulwich poster

Poster for Vanessa Bell exhibit at the Dulwich Picture Gallery

The first room, ‘Among Friends’ [missed a trick there, didn’t they?!], showcases her portraits of those in and around the Bloomsbury Group, including her own self-portrait which is the poster for the exhibit. The room has the same attraction as London’s wonderful National Portrait Gallery—all eyes are looking at you.

Here is Vanessa’s take on her friend and lover of her husband Clive Bell, Mary Hutchinson:

bells por of mary hutchinson

Mrs. St. John Hutchinson (1915)

In the ‘Design and Experimentation’ room are some of Vanessa’s early attempts at abstraction, influenced by the Post-Impressionists Fry was championing around the same time. I got the feeling Vanessa wasn’t as comfortable with abstract painting as she was with recreating the feeling of the real world and people around her—her sister, her children, her lovers, her flowers.

This room also includes fantastic examples from the Omega Workshops which Fry and Vanessa directed from 1913 to 1919. As the exhibit’s wall explanation states, the Workshops represented the pre-World War II hopes that were ‘dashed’ on the battlefields of Europe.

Screen by bell and grant

Tents and Figures (1913), painted folding screen

The ‘Still Life’ room has one of my favorites, Iceland Poppies.

iceland poppies

Iceland Poppies (c. 1908-09)

Doesn’t it look like the pattern for a Norwegian ski sweater? [To those in charge of the gift shop—you can have that idea for free. You’re welcome.]

‘At Home’ demonstrates Vanessa at her best, photographing and painting her family in their natural environments.

Angelica reading

Interior with Artist’s Daughter (1935)

Although some of the playful photos of her two sons would probably get her arrested today.

The fifth room, ‘Landscape,’ shows an interesting juxtaposition of her first painting of the pond at Charleston, done in the fall of 1916, when she had first moved there,

pond at charleston 1916

The Pond at Charleston, East Sussex (1916)

and a more chaotic version of the same scene three years later when the communal life had developed its own complications.

view-of-the-pond-at-charleston-1919

Charleston Pond (1919)

The finale, the sixth room, ‘Pictures of Women,’ includes one of my other favorites, A Conversation, which I’ve always thought would make a nice cover for ‘Such Friends.’ Girls night!

A conversation

A Conversation (1913-1916)

And doesn’t this 1913 portrait look like Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in Star Wars?!

The model 1913

The Model (1913)

In addition to the paintings, one of the other highlights of this room is a letter Vanessa wrote to her daughter-in-law, Anne Olivier Bell, on the birth of her baby girl,

‘How clever of you to produce a daughter…’

After walking back and forth through the six rooms a few times, I headed back to Dulwich train station, back to Victoria, on to Blackfriars, to walk over the bridge to Tate Modern.

Along streets and through Tube stations that Vanessa, her sister and their ‘Such Friends’ would have used over 100 years ago. And probably, some days, the weather was just as good as well.

The exhibit, Vanessa Bell (1879-1961), is at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until June 4, 2017, and I would have no problem making the journey again if you would like to have your own personal tour guide. And my offer to give a talk is still open…

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

At 31 Rue Campagne Premiere, Montparnasse, Paris, mid-February, 1930…

…Ex-patriate photographer Man Ray, 39, is going through his mail.

He’s pleased to find a letter from a fellow American, writer Gertrude Stein, just turned 56. He had recently written to her,

Dear Gertrude Stein,

I am leaving in four days and need all the money I can get together for the south.

May I ask you to send me a cheque for 500 frs. for the last serie[s] of photographs?

With many thanks,

Yours

Man Ray’

When he opens the envelope, he is disappointed to find only his own note returned to him. Gertrude has written on the same piece of paper:

Kindly remember that you offered to take the last series of portraits the first time you saw my dog. Kindly remember that I have always refused to sit for anyone to photograph me in order to give you the exclusive rights. Kindly remember that you have never been asked to give me any return for your sale of my photographs. My dear Man Ray, we are all hard up but don’t be silly about it…’

Stein and basket by Man Ray

Gertrude Stein and her dog, Basket, by Man Ray

At the website for the Yale University Library, http://brbl-dl.library.yale.edu/vufind/Record/3477184, you can see photos of the actual letters between Stein and Ray, including the two quoted above on pages 30-31.

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.’