The lives of creative geniuses have much we can learn from – which is why people read so many celebrity biographies, no doubt.
This is also why, in the early 1950s, the US publishing company Harper commissioned Alice B Toklas1, a lady best known as the first openly-ghostwritten autobiographee, to write a cookbook. The publishers were hoping that in-between the Artichokes Stravinsky and Breen Peas à la Goodwife, the diminutive2 septuagenarian would slip in a few tasty tidbits about her exciting life with her friend and lover, the late Gertrude Stein – writer, art critic, mentor of Ernest Hemingway, and stream-of-conciousness poet, whose matter-of-fact approach to a gay lifestyle spanned two world wars and made Paris a mecca for seekers after art, inspiration, and sexual freedom. Alice did not disappoint, but they got rather more than they bargained for.
The deadline loomed, as it has done for so many dilatory writers, and a frantic Alice canvassed her friends and neighbours for recipes. What needs to be kept in mind are the sort of neighbours the elderly Bohemian had... Her good friend, the artist Brion Gysin, helpfully contributed a particularly tasty recipe for fudge. This concoction contained a special ingredient, one that would be sure to enliven any party3...
The editors at Harper, having read the latest bulletins from J Edgar Hoover, removed the offensive dessert. The British publishers, whose intent can only be guessed at, did not. The result was that The Alice B Toklas Cookbook flew off the shelves, and that more than one hitherto-puzzled reader of such ground- and rule-breaking poems as Tender Buttons and Lifting Belly commented that Ms Stein's source of inspiration was now much clearer to them.
The publishers were delighted with their literary coup. Alice was aghast. How dare they think that her Gertrude relied on chemical sources for her great works of literature? To Alice B Toklas, Gertrude Stein was not only the love of her life, but a towering intellect and a writer of immense stature4.
Alice was right. Gertrude was a genius. Although she lived her life in blatant disregard for convention, grammar, and possibly reality, Gertrude Stein influenced the modern world in ways it is scarcely aware of. Whether popularising Picasso, giving us the word 'gay', or ignoring the conventional rules of syntax, Stein was shaping our cultural perception.
She did it with panache, conviction, and an artistic self-assurance that would astonish...well, most of us.
Travel Broadens the Mind, Sometimes
There is no there there.
— Gertrude Stein on the subject of Oakland, California.
Gertrude Stein was born in in 1874 in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, across the Ohio River from the city of Pittsburgh. This area, annexed by Pittsburgh in 1907, is now known as the North Side. At the time, it was generally known as 'Deutschtown' due to its German and German-Jewish population. Now a gentrified former slum, this tiny area has produced such luminaries as painter Mary Cassatt, choreographer Martha Graham, and Charles Taze Russell, founder of the Jehovah's Witnesses. Gertrude fits well in this pantheon.
The Steins were a large and prosperous Jewish family. The father, Daniel, provided well with his investments, and soon moved them all to Vienna, where Gertrude began her early education, and then to Paris. The family went from Europe to Oakland, California, in 1878. Gertrude apparently did not regard this as an improvement in their circumstances. When she was a teenager her parents died, and her brother sent her and her sister to live with relatives in Baltimore.
There, Gertrude met the Cone Sisters, Claribel and Etta, who collected French art and gave soirées in this less-than-glittering city5. It was here that Gertrude discovered her calling: she would become an art collector and soirée-giver. But first, she needed an education.
Swimming Against the Stream of Consciousness
The change of color is likely and a difference a very little difference is prepared. Sugar is not a vegetable.
— Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons.
At Radcliffe College – the Harvard experience for young ladies – Gertrude studied under the eminent psychologist William James, who had a theory for which Stein was the perfect guinea pig: called Normal Motor Automatism, it consisted of seeing what sort of writing a person could produce while doing something else which required intelligence, such as speaking. The result of this split-brain activity was what became known as stream-of-consciousness writing6. William James and his pupil were therefore, in a way, responsible for Joyce's Ulysses7. We assume Dr James slept well in spite of this.
Gertrude was later to regard her own works, such as The Making of Americans, as equal to those of other stream-of-consciousness writers such as Joyce and Proust. Critics would be less certain – but Gertrude would wave away such trivial creatures as critics.
After studying embryology at Wood's Hole, Massachusetts, and taking half a medical degree at Johns Hopkins University, Gertrude moved to Paris to live with her brother Leo, an art critic, and follow her true calling – writing, holding salons, and art collecting, more or less in that order.
It was in Paris that she met the love of her life – and wrote her autobiography. Not hers – Alice's.
Art, Love, (Un)Reality
Out of kindness comes redness and out of rudeness comes rapid same question, out of an eye comes research, out of selection comes painful cattle.
— Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons.
Between 1904 and 1913 Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo amassed an enviable collection of modern French artworks – notably Picasso and Matisse, who worked cheap back then, and who gladly hung around8 for the refreshments and conversation. Leo and Gertrude didn't always agree on the quality of their purchases – of one Picasso nude, Gertrude opined that the feet were flat.
Gertrude met Alice B Toklas in 1907, the day Alice arrived in Paris, and it was love at first sight for both of them – although it took Gertrude almost three years to separate Alice from her girlfriend Harriet Levy. They stayed together, through travel, moves, two world wars, the ups and downs of art, life, and love, until Gertrude's death in 1946.
The two salonned it with famous writers during the 1920s – especially with Ernest Hemingway. The prophet of macho appears to have regarded Gertrude as an honorary male – high praise, coming from him. During the 1930s, the pair became famous as a result of Gertrude's publication of The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, in which she described their lives from Alice's point of view – out of modesty, as might be supposed, although this device allows 'Alice' to refer to Gertrude as a great genius.
During the Second World War, the two Jewish women lived in the French Pyrenees, only returning to Paris afterwards, where they were fêted by American soldiers. Gertrude seems simply to have ignored the German invasion. Before the war, she had made a public statement to the effect that Adolf Hitler should be given the Nobel Peace Prize for making Germany boring. During the Occupation, she and Alice were protected by friends who collaborated with the Vichy government. Never choosing your friends by their political opinions appears to have paid off.
Near the end of her life, when she was about to undergo surgery, Gertrude looked at Alice and asked, 'What is the answer?'
When Alice didn't reply, she continued, 'In that case, what is the question?'
Sex and Gender, and How You Talk About it
A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.
— Gertrude Stein, 'Sacred Emily'.
As far as Gertrude Stein was concerned, Anthony Comstock had never been born. After all, she lived in Paris. And she lived in a gay community. In fact, she popularised the word 'gay' in the sense of 'pertaining to same-gender relationships'. She uses the word in this sense more than a hundred times in her coming-out story 'Miss Furr and Miss Skeene'.
Gertrude wrote what she liked, and if you didn't like it, you needed to work at liking it. She was unperturbed by her friends' reactions to her views of them in The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas.
From a feminist standpoint, she is unsatisfactory. She regarded herself as the 'male' in her marriage with Alice, and referred to Alice as her 'wife'. Ernest Hemingway appears to have found this situation completely in order – on their visits, his wife conversed with Alice, he with Gertrude. He remarked that the two broke the 'sex rules' but not the 'gender rules'.
Gertrude also appears to have had a view of same-sex relationships which we would regard as woefully politically incorrect. She remarked to Hemingway that gay men felt guilty because they were doing something disgusting, whereas gay women had nothing to be ashamed of and were quite happy. She never used the word lesbian in her writings9.
Her view of the times she lived in was no less idiosyncratic. Hemingway credits her with coining the phrase 'the Lost Generation' to describe the American expatriate writers. Gertrude herself said that she picked up the phrase from her car mechanic – who was talking about his incompetent Parisian apprentices, whose training had been interrupted by World War I.
A possible comparison seems not to have occurred to Mr Hemingway.
Now listen! I’m no fool. I know that in daily life we don’t go around saying 'is a … is a … is a …' Yes, I’m no fool; but I think that in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years.
— Gertrude Stein, Four in America.
What are we to make of Gertrude Stein?
Does it matter what we make of her? Perhaps not. She seems not to have cared.
Did she matter? Yes. She may have been the William McGonagall of the early 20th Century, but her work was taken very seriously – very seriously indeed – by all sorts of writers and scholars. In fact, her work is still taken seriously, as subject for study and as inspiration for aspiring young writers.
The (post)modern reader who has never heard of this multi-talented woman and her friends – and it is no shame to one's educational background if one hasn't – has still been influenced by her life and work. When we use the word 'gay' for a same-sex couple, when we admire the art of Picasso and Matisse, when we pore over For Whom the Bell Tolls, or wonder about the 1920s in Gay Paree, we are being affected in our thoughts by a woman who flouted conventioinal society and culture as if its values were never really there.
If we take nothing else away from Gertrude's life and work, we can take this: This indomitable, irrepressible, and utterly self-convinced woman shows how much one can accomplish if one is sure of one's own rightness about things.
It would perhaps be prudent to leave Gertrude the last word – she would probably take it, anyway:
A masterpiece... may be unwelcome but it is never dull.
Consider the following conversation:
Greek male 1: Hey, palikari, do you know Eirene?
Greek male 2: Yes, pretty girl.
GM1 (Punching friend in ribs): She's from Lesvos.
GM2: I thought she was from Samos. She said she was born in Pythagorio.
GM1 (More vigorous punching): Sure, sure, from Pythagorio, on Samos. But she's from Lesvos.
GM2: Aaah....I should warn my girlfriend...