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’: John Quinn in 1904

New York City, October 1904

Ohio-born John Quinn, 34, a junior partner in a major law firm, has recently moved out of a comfortable boarding house to his own lodgings on West 87th Street.

His apartment is already cluttered with hundreds of his books and paintings he has begun collecting. He is doing well enough in the law practice to employ a valet.

But what Quinn is most excited about is his upcoming three-week vacation to Europe.

Two years ago, he made his first trip to Ireland, to connect with his Irish roots. Quinn quickly was accepted in to a circle of friends including the poet William Butler Yeats, now 39; the playwright Lady Augusta Gregory, 52; the novelist George Moore, also 52; the poet and painter, ‘AE’ [George Russell], 37; the playwright John Millington Synge, 33; and the founder of the Gaelic League, Douglas Hyde, 44. He’s been helping them with the legalities of their American tours, the American copyright of their works, and the Irish theatre company they are establishing.

On this trip, Quinn plans just a short stop in France, some time in England on the way to Ireland and on the way back, and almost two full weeks in Dublin. This will be the third year in a row that he has visited Ireland, and he hopes to continue to make it an annual occasion.

Over at the New York Evening Mail, on Broadway and Fulton Streets, a new columnist from Chicago is settling in. Franklin Pierce Adams, 23, always writing as FPA, has transferred his new wife and his column about a little bit of everything, now called ‘Always in Good Humour,’ to midtown Manhattan.

mail_and_express_building_01

Mail and Express Building, New York City

Up on West 44th Street, the two-year-old Algonquin Hotel has bought the carriage stables next door to expand its residential services. However, the real revenue is from short term guests.

 

Paris, October 1904

John Quinn is disappointed that he can’t spend more time in France. This morning he managed to see the Chartres cathedral, but he is back in Paris just for the afternoon before leaving for Folkestone.

Two other Americans, siblings Leo, 32, and Gertrude Stein, 30, who moved to 27 rue de Fleurus on the Left Bank the year before, from the Bloomsbury area of London, are enjoying learning about and buying paintings from the dealer Ambroise Vollard, 38. He has managed to get a room full of works by Paul Cezanne, 65, into the second salon d’automne at the Grand Palais. Leo is studying art at Academie Julian, and Gertrude has joined him on his buying trips to Vollard’s gallery on rue Lafitte. They find Cezanne particularly intriguing, but Gertrude is more focused on the writing she is doing late at night.

27-rue-de-fleurus

27 rue de Fleurus, Left Bank, Paris

Across town in Montmartre, Spanish painter Pablo Picasso, 23, is settling in to his new studio and his new life with Fernande Olivier, also 23. After several visits, he has decided to make Paris his home, and his dealer Vollard is finding new buyers for his work.

 

London, October 1904

Arriving late Sunday night, John Quinn checks in to the Carlton Hotel, at the corner of the Haymarket and Pall Mall. He spends the whole day Monday visiting bookstores with a stop at the Leicester Galleries in Leicester Square.

carlton-hotel-1905

Carlton Hotel, London

Up in the Bohemian Bloomsbury section of London, the move is on. Painter Vanessa Stephen, 25, has shipped her nervous sister Virginia, 22, off to their aunt’s while she moves her and their brothers into a three-story walk up in Gordon Square. Their widowed father, editor of The Dictionary of National Biography, Leslie Stephen, 72, died in February. Vanessa feels liberated.

Her aunts and uncles are scandalized that these young people would live on their own in such a neighbourhood.

Vanessa doesn’t care. This past spring, on their way back from Italy, she and Virginia had visited Paris with friends. They smoked cigarettes and talked about art into the wee hours at the Café de Versailles. That’s what they are going to do now in London, in their own home.

 

Dublin, October 1904

After a miserable train trip across England to the port of Holyhead—he had paid for first class, but was put in a bunk bed—John Quinn is thrilled to be back in Ireland. He checks in to the Shelbourne Hotel in St. Stephen’s Green at 6:30 Tuesday morning, and finds a welcoming telegram from AE already waiting for him.

shelbourne-and-lake

Shelbourne hotel and the Stephen’s Green lake, Dublin

After a much-needed two-hour nap, Quinn is visited by his friend Yeats, and they walk over to the nearby studio of painter John Butler Yeats, 65, the poet’s father. Following a leisurely lunch at the Empire Restaurant, the men are joined by Lady Gregory who has brought fresh food from her western Ireland home, Coole Park, on the train with her. Augusta surprises Quinn by announcing that he is going to be the special guest at a reception with the actors of their young theatre company that evening, in gratitude for his generous donations in the past two years.

The Irish National Theatre Society, with its co-directors Yeats, Gregory and Synge, is becoming more stable. Having premiered Synge’s emotional one-act play, Riders to the Sea, this spring, they are getting ready to move in to their own building on Abbey Street. They should be able to start performing there by Christmas.

In addition to starting a national theatre, Lady Gregory has helped other Irish writers and artists as well. Earlier this year, she sent some money to a young writer AE had recommended, James Joyce, 22, so he could take off for Switzerland with his new love, Nora Barnacle, 20, where he had been offered a job teaching English. Lady Gregory wished him well.

For the next two weeks, Quinn’s holiday in Dublin falls in to a pleasing pattern. Breakfast with Willie and a visit to his father’s studio in the morning, lunches with fascinating writers and artists each afternoon, dinner and late night conversation about theatre with Yeats and Lady Gregory, usually at her rooms in the Nassau Hotel. What a life! This is how he would prefer to spend all his days.

 

London, November 1904

W B Yeats has come with John Quinn to London for his last week of vacation. Visiting Yeats’ rooms in the Woburn Buildings in Bloomsbury, Willie introduces Quinn into British culture, and the American appreciates the writers and painters he meets.

wobrun-buildings

Yeats’ rooms in the Woburn Buildings, Bloomsbury, London

Nearby in Gordon Square, the doctor says Virginia is well enough to visit her brothers and sister in their new home for ten days. Before she goes back to their aunt’s, they have dinner with one of their brother’s Cambridge University friends, Leonard Woolf, 23, who is back home on leave from his government job in Ceylon.

Yeats has one last breakfast with Quinn in the Carlton hotel, and then drives him to Waterloo station to see him off on the boat train to Southampton for the trip home to New York City aboard the St. Paul.

 

New York City, November 1904

While John Quinn was away, the New York City subway, under construction for the past four years, has finally opened. Theodore Roosevelt, just turned 46, has been elected to a full term as President, having first taken office three years ago when the sitting President William McKinley, aged 58, had been assassinated. With Roosevelt assured in office for four more years, there is a ‘progressive’ feel in the air.

Roger Fry, 37, editor of England’s Burlington magazine, and recently turned down for the post of Professor of Art at the Slade School, has made a special trip to the States to raise money for his magazine. Friends introduce him to J P Morgan, 67, of the board of trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 5th Avenue at 87th Street, an inveterate collector of art, books, clocks and various objets d’art. Morgan is more impressed with Fry than the Slade School was.

metrop-museum-of-art

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Back home, Quinn misses the cultural life of Europe that he has enjoyed for the past three weeks. Now he is back to the old grind of his law practice. His main client, the National Bank of Commerce, has supreme confidence in his abilities. He is working with and meeting important people. There is work to do.

But his heart is with his friends in Ireland…

johnquinn

John Quinn (1870-1924)

This year I’ll be piecing together my planned biography of John Quinn. Read more about him on the link to your right: ‘I want to tell you about an amazing man.’

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.