Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in Paris– just around the corner.
American author Gertrude Stein lived in Paris. She followed her brother Leo to London in 1902 when she was twenty-eight years old. She had lived in Paris before, but only as a three- and four-year-old with her parents, before the family returned to America. Her mother died when Gertrude was fourteen, and her father died when she was seventeen. She was the youngest of five children: Michael, Leo, Bertha, and another sister. But she was closest to her brother Leo, and she later followed him to London where he wanted to be an artist.
Gertrude Stein arrived in Paris in 1903, following Leo again, but while he left to go to Italy in 1914, she stayed in Paris throughout her life.
Gertrude (1874-1946) and Leo Stein (1872-1947) lived around the corner from my current apartment near the Luxembourg Garden in the 6th arrondissement. They lived in an apartment and had their art studio next door at 27 rue de Fleurus.
Leo Stein continued his artwork and Gertrude Stein continued her writing. She wrote her autobiography there, but disguised it as the autobiography of her lover and fellow avant-garde American Alice Babette Toklas (1877-1967).
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) has a new edition this year (2020) which is beautifully illustrated by Maira Kalman.
This autobiography tells of Stein before she arrived in Paris, when she arrived in Paris, the First World War, and after the war. The war years are interesting, when Stein and Toklas volunteered for the American Fund for the French Wounded to help the war effort by driving around France, cranking up the car to get it to start.
It is predominantly though about Stein’s interest in art and artists, books and authors, and her long walks. She thinks Ernest Hemingway was ‘an extraordinarily good-looking’ 23-year-old with a ‘very good instinct for finding apartments in strange but pleasing localities.’ Giving him advice on his writing, she tells Hemingway to ‘begin again and concentrate.’
But who did Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas know? Ernest Hemingway, Paul Cezanne, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Sylvia Beach, Guillaume Apollinaire, Isadora Duncan, Ford Madox Ford … EVERYBODY. Their apartment was a social hub for creatives.
The focus of this autobiography is on Stein, through the voice of Alice B. Toklas. Although, as the book states, ‘don’t be deceived by Alice always in the background. Nothing would have happened without Alice. NO THING.’
Gertrude Stein’s own writing was originally criticized by her friends and acquaintances because they didn’t like the way they were mentioned in her book – just as Hemingway was criticized for his 1964 memoir set in Paris, A Moveable Feast.
Poet and publisher T.S. Eliot famously said:
‘the work of Gertrude Stein was very fine but not for us.’
I think the work of Gertrude Stein is very fine and quite the autobiography for us (for us living in Paris, anyway).
I like this style of autobiography: ‘This is a singular story embedded in a singular time.’ It is semi-colloquial, taking a few steps forward, then going back to add another point, then moving forward again. It is interesting for its descriptions, not only of people, but also of the artworks in their apartment, and for its depictions of artists before they were famous.