I’m looking forward to checking out the Stein exhibits at both SFMOMA and The Contemporary Jewish Museum. Gertrude Stein and her siblings accumulated a remarkable collection of modern art during their life as expats in turn-of-the-century Paris.
These shows prompted me to find this lovely article on Salon about Gertrude Stein’s marriage to Alice B. Toklas. It sounded like they had a truly idyllic and quirky relationship.
First off, both Gertrude and Alice were ex-patriots from the Bay Area living in France — Alice was a San Francisco native and Gertrude was from Oakland, and the two met on Alice’s first day in Paris. Talk about fate!
Here is the stand-out part of the story that I felt really summed up these two remarkable women and their relationship with each other and the thriving avant-garde community that they nurtured:
As for children, Gertrude and Alice adopted many. They took in impressionable young modernist writers — like Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson and Paul Bowles (Gertrude suggested that “Freddy” was a better name for him and refused to address him by any other name).
They also had dogs, who mostly sat on the lap of Mount Gertrude. (Gertrude claimed that the rhythm of her dog Basket’s breathing taught her the difference between sentences and paragraphs.) The menagerie of canines, little and large, included Polype, a hound who enjoyed eating his own excrement nearly as much as he enjoyed smelling flowers; Byron, named for his sexual interest in his mother and sisters; Pepe; and Basket the First, whom Gertrude insisted be bathed in sulfur water each day. (She also insisted that Paul Bowles put on a pair of lederhosen and run the dog dry while Gertrude called out the third-story bathroom window, “Faster, Freddy, faster!”) They also had a cat with a mustache, named Hitler.
With their closest friends, Gertrude and Alice created small nuclear families, at least through the terms which they chose to address them. With Carl Van Vechten, the famous photographer and not-so-famous writer, they formed the Woojums family: Carl was Papa Woojums, Alice was Mama Woojums, and Gertrude, the child savant, was Baby Woojums. During World War I, they adopted a young American G.I., whom they called Kiddie, and who remained in close contact with both women throughout their lives.
I think The Gay Groom summed up the women’s relationship well:
Acting as Stein’s confidante, lover, cook, secretary, muse, editor, critic, and general organizer, Toklas remained a background figure, chiefly living in the shadow of Stein, until Stein published her memoirs in 1933 under the teasing title The Autobiography of Alice. B Toklas. It became Stein’s bestselling book. The two were a couple until Gertrude Stein’s death in 1946.
I am definitely putting The Autobiography of Alice. B Toklas on my to-read list.