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Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas are quite probably the best known Lesbian couple in history, most likely because they wrote about themselves and that made them celebrities of a sort. We'll investigate their significance by situating the narratives concerning their lives as historically-framed legend, and then by analyzing that legend to determine what it reveals about how we think about historically significant LGBT figures.

In other words, even though this is R&BL, this diary is more biography and literary history than literary analysis, because Stein's work, with one major exception, is notoriously difficult to read. Here's a sample from Tender Buttons (1914), from the Food section:


Apple plum, carpet steak, seed clam, colored wine, calm seen, cold cream, best shake, potato, potato and no no gold work with pet, a green seen is called bake and change sweet is bready, a little piece a little piece please.

A little piece please. Cane again to the presupposed and ready eucalyptus tree, count out sherry and ripe plates and little corners of a kind of ham. This is use.

You get the picture. With Lesbian writers in the first half of the century, you sometimes have to look at biography to get the gay significance of the literary opus, and that's exactly what happens here.

Gertrude Stein

The details of Gertrude Stein’s early life are fairly well-known. She was born into a well-educated German Jewish family in Pittsburgh in 1874 as the youngest of five children, and she grew up in Oakland, California, and in Baltimore.  In 1892 her brother Leo enrolled at Harvard, and the following year Stein enrolled at the Harvard Annex (it became Radcliffe College in 1894), where she studied with George Santayana and William James.

Stein returned to Baltimore in 1898, where she enrolled in the Johns Hopkins medical school at the advice of William James (she never graduated), and where she became friends with a number of women who had become familiar with same-sex relationships at Smith and at Bryn Mawr. It was among these women that Stein became aware of her own lesbian orientation, as she began an apparently one-sided relation with Mary Abletta (May) Bookstaver; this became the basis of Stein’s first novel, Q.E.D. (1903), which remained unpublished until after her death.  Stein’s relationship with Bookstaver was also heterosexualized in “Melanctha,” one of the stories in Three Lives (1910).

Stein Meets Toklas

In 1904, Stein joined her brother Leo in Paris, where their brother Michael was already living. Within the next ten years, the Steins had become known as important art collectors and patrons (they were among the first to purchase the works of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso),
Picasso Stein
(Pablo Picasso, 1905-6, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Gertrude Stein, 1946)

and Gertrude and Leo became the hosts of a weekly salon at their residence, 27 Rue de Fleurus, as well as a destination for friends of the family in the United States.  One of their visitors was Alice Babette Toklas, who was born into a middle-class Jewish family in San Francisco in 1877. Alice’s friend Annette Rosenshine wrote often to Alice while she was visiting the Steins in Paris. At the time, Gertrude was arranging the people she knew by personality traits as part of her writing, and she asked to read Alice’s letters to Annette, who gave her permission to do so.

Toklas arrived in Paris on September 8, 1907 and met Stein the same day. The following summer, Gertrude openly courted Alice to the discomfort of her family and their friends, and by 1910, Gertrude and Alice began to vacation separately from the rest of the Stein family. That autumn, Alice moved into the apartment at 27 Rue de Fleurus, which made her brother Leo increasingly uncomfortable. Leo finally moved out in 1914.

Toklas and Stein in Paris

Alice became Stein’s secretary and took over the running of the household, while Gertrude’s writing increasingly dealt with her relationship with Alice.  It is well known that Stein’s writing is difficult to penetrate for the average reader, and this has been attributed to the idea that if she wrote clearly about homosexuality she would lose her ability to be published. In life, however, they made no effort to deceive anyone about the nature of their relationship.

When World War I started, Gertrude and Alice acquired a Ford that they named “Auntie,” and Gertrude learned to drive it. They supported the war effort by delivering supplies to French hospitals. In March 1917, the two were sent, at their request, to Perpignan in the foothills of the Pyrenees to set up a supply depot, and they both solicited funds and supplies from their relatives in the United States. When the war ended, they opened a center for civilian relief in Alsace, which had been devastated by the fighting. The wartime experience confirmed Alice as an effective organizer, while Gertrude, already famous, became the American woman who had been closest to battle in her war service.

During the 1920s, their home at 27 Rue de Fleurus became a salon, attracting a great number of American expatriates and made Gertrude even more famous as she began to mentor some of the younger writers. This was one of three such salons run by American expatriate Lesbian women in postwar Paris – Natalie Barney, the poet and novelist and Sylvia Beach, the bookseller and publisher  -- hosted the other two, and the three shared many of the American visitors who had come to Paris to experience modernism. While the 27 Rue de Fleurus salon has been most associated with the career of Ernest Hemingway, with whom Gertrude had a spectacular falling-out in 1925, the salon attracted many young gay men and women like the writers Thornton Wilder, Janet Flanner, Paul Bowles, Hart Crane, and Samuel Steward, and the composers Aaron Copland and Virgil Thompson.

Stein becomes Famous

Because of this salon, Gertrude and Alice were well known within the intellectual milieu of expatriates in Paris, but the difficulty of Gertrude’s writing kept her from becoming even more well-known, until Gertrude published, in part to soothe Alice’s residual jealousy of May Bookstaver, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, in 1933. The book, which told the story of their life together, was offered as a Book of the Month selection in the United States (this is the book that isn't difficult to read), and became such a bestseller that Gertrude and Alice returned to the United States for a lecture tour in October 1934. During the tour, they cemented a lifelong friendship with the writer, art patron and photographer Carl Van Vechten, a somewhat closeted gay man who is credited with providing major funding for the writers of the Harlem Renaissance.  

Stein and Toklas returned to Paris in May 1935 with the assurance that Random House would publish anything she wrote subsequently. In 1929, Gertrude and Alice had rented a summer home in Bilignin, in the foothills of the French Alps, to which they returned through 1943; they summered in Bilignin and wintered in Paris. Here, in 1935, Gertrude began to write her own autobiography, Everybody’s Autobiography, which was published in 1937, although not with the success of Alice B. Toklas. Wary of world events, Gertrude sent all her manuscripts to Carl van Vechten in New York for safekeeping. Stein and Toklas were in danger because both of them were Jewish, but they believed they would be safe outside Paris.  

The Later Years

As the war approached, their landlord at 27 Rue de Fleurus appropriated their apartment for his son. Toklas and Stein moved to an apartment on Rue Christine, but soon relocated to Bilignin full-time. A French member of their Paris salon, Bernard Faÿ, who had obtained a position as the head of the Bibiothèque Nationale as a member of the Vichy government, promised to protect the art in the Rue Christine apartment, and it seems that their status as the world’s most famous Lesbians did not follow them into the French countryside. They were advised to leave France on several occasions, but they preferred not to move, although they did relocate from Bilignin to Culoz, nearby, in 1943.

Perhaps remarkably, they survived the War, as did Stein’s increasingly valuable art collection, and whether Stein actively collaborated with the Vichy government is currently a matter of some contention. Stein, now “everybody’s grandmother,” traveled around France to visit with the American troops, but fell ill on a trip to Brussels and died of stomach cancer in July 1946.  Her will left her assets to her nephew Allan, but Alice was given lifetime use of all Gertrude’s possession, and the Stein family ignored these instructions to the extent that they could.  Alice began to write as a way of supporting herself, and produced The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook in 1954.  She became the keeper of Gertrude’s memory, and, late in her life, converted to Catholicism in hope that this would assure her being reunited with Gertrude after her death. Alice died in March 1967, and she was buried beside Gertrude in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

Popular Memory

A year after Alice died, Peter Sellers starred in a movie called I Love You, Alice B. Toklas, whose plot revolved around a recipe for “Haschich Fudge” (later “cannabis brownies”) found in The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook; the title song began “I love you, Alice B. Toklas, and so did Gertrude Stein.” Here's the trailer:

Three years after that, in 1971, the first LGBT Democratic club in the United States (In San Francisco) named itself after Alice. Stein, perhaps because of her position in the modern literary canon as a representative of High Modernism, has not become the namesake of organizations nor a platform for humorous representation. Go figure.

Here are a few books that helped me with this:

Benstock, Shari. Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900-1940.  Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986.
Malcolm, Janet. Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.
Wagner-Martin, Linda.  ”Favored Strangers:” Gertrude Stein and her family.  New Brunswick, N.J.:  Rutgers University Press, 1985.

If you've read Stein, how have you enjoyed her work?

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Tue Jul 10, 2012 at 05:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by Remembering LGBT History.

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