First line: “I was born in San Francisco, California.” Now, we don’t know
if that means that Alice B. Toklas was, or if the author, Gertrude Stein was.
(it was Alice) That first line is just about the only information we get on
Alice! The rest of the book is about Gertrude Stein!
I guess stranger things have happened, but generally speaking an
autobiography is written by the subject. Still, with Gertrude doing the
writing, it gave her a good chance to toot her own horn. She uses Alice to
proclaim that she (Gertrude) is a genius. “Alice” says that in her life she
has known three geniuses: Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and (you don’t
care about the other one.)
This book is a runaway lark of the goings-on at 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris
from 1903 to 1932. Name an artist from that time, name a poet, name a
writer, name almost anyone! and yes, that person came (and brought
friends!) at one time or another or often to 27 rue de Fleurus to visit
Gertrude and Alice.
G collected art–she and her brother actually–and she liked what she saw
when she looked at early examples of Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, Gris,
Braque–fill in the blanks with a hundred other names. And she accepted
visitors, provided the salon, served food and drink, made the introductions
and was a one-woman hostess with the mostess.
Gertrude was born in Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, but moved to California
at an early age. She went to school, then Radcliffe and three years of
med school at Johns Hopkins in the US, but spent almost her
entire life in France. She couldn’t/didn’t want to speak or read French–
spoke only English.
In reading this book we get a pretty darned good review of the art stages
in the early 1900s—from Impressionism and Luminism to Fauvism,
Cubism, Dada, Surrealism and Art Deco. We join starving artists waiting
for a break and toast the ones who make it into the big Paris exhibitions.
During this time, Stein was also finding her way as a writer. She prided
herself on her writing style. “Alice” says that ‘Sentences not only words
but sentences and always sentences have been Gertrude Stein’s lifelong
passion.” Many critics found her writing difficult to follow or understand.
( Hey! she didn’t use commas!) In Stein’s obituary in the New York
Times in 1946, reviewer Clifton Fadiman dismissed her work: “Miss Stein
is ‘the Mamma of Dada.'”
Let me quote a typical sentence from this very book on page 223: “We
now in Bilignin are enjoying using the furniture from the house of
Brillat-Savarin which house belongs to the owner of this house.”
Occasionally you just have to drift over these examples.
I liked the part of the book describing Gertrude and Alice’s
volunteer work during World War II–driving around to hospitals
visiting wounded soldiers. This part put some dimension in their
otherwise rather selfish lives.
The final fourth of the book became a little flat with similar
stories of who they met and where, etc, but overall it was an
I like the title of one of Stein’s poems: “Before the Flowers of
Friendship Faded Friendship Faded”. I’ll have to look that one up.
And I plan to read my Christmas gift copy of Tender Buttons by
Gertrude very soon. About things. We’ll see.
So, anyway, if you feel like hobnobbing with Apollonaire, and Gauguin,
Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson, give this book a whirl.
You can hardly go wrong reading about Paris.