Tuesday, 12 October 2010


Gertrude Stein
Who was Gertrude Stein? Everybody's heard of her. She's the most famous lesbian in the world. Gertude Stein and Alice B. Toklas are the most famous lesbian couple ever, well, until maybe Ellen and Anne. Everyone knows Gertrude Stein was a writer; she wrote "a rose is a rose is a rose". But has anyone ever read anything else she ever wrote?
Gertrude Stein

Paris, in the Roaring '20s --
Gertrude Stein

The apartment of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas was the most famous artistic and literary hangout in Europe. Gertrude Stein was THE arbiter of artistic taste whose offhand remark could make or break an artist's reputation.
Geniuses like Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemmingway would come to talk with Gertrude Stein, while their wives sat with Alice B. Toklas.

Gertrude & Alice, 1920's fashion victims.
"Before I decided to write this book My Twenty-Five Years With Gertrude Stein, I had often said that I would write, The Wives of Geniuses I Have Sat With. I have sat with so many. I have sat with wives that were not wives, of geniuses who were real geniuses. I have sat with real wives of geniuses who were not real geniuses. I have sat with wives of geniuses, of near-geniuses, of would-be geniuses, in short I have sat very often and very long with many wives and wives of many geniuses.
Fernande, who was then living with Picasso and had been with him a long time that is to say they were all twenty-four years old at that time but they had been together a long time, Fernande was the first wife of a genius I sat with and she was - not the least amusing. We talked hats. Fernande had two subjects hats and perfumes. This first day we talked hats. She liked hats, she had the true french feeling about a hat, if a hat did not provoke some witticism from a man on the street the hat was not a success. Later on once in Montmartre she and I were walking together. She had on a large yellow hat and I had on a much smaller blue one. As we were walking along a workman stopped and called out, there go the sun and the moon shining together. Ah, said Fernande to me with a radiant smile, you see our hats are a success."
from The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
by Gertrude Stein

That was from "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas" which Stein wrote in 1933; the book that made her famous. It's not Alice B.'s biography at all, it's Stein's which she wrote using the voice of Alice B. as the narrator. The book was wildly popular in America, and Gertrude and Alice B. embarked on a triumphant lecture tour of the U.S., where she was, according to biographer John Malcolm Brinnin, a "celebrity of such proportions that her eminence on the American scene was for a time shared only by gangsters, baseball players and movie stars".
Gertrude gives it up for a young autograph hound
in 1935 after her wildly successful American tour.

Alice B. ToklasBorn in Allegheny, PA, her family lived in Vienna and Paris, and Oakland, CA. Gertrude studied psychology at Radcliffe and medicine at Johns Hopkins, but in 1903 she moved to Paris to be a writer.
Then, in 1907, she met a lady from San Francisco, Alice B. Toklas. >
Five years later, they moved in together. They lived together for over 30 years until Gertrude's death in 1946.
With her short cropped hair, Gertude definitely challenged the gender stereotypes of her time, and Alice B., with a bit of hair on her lip, raised a few eyebrows herself. Once after they had visited Gertrude's 3-year-old nephew, he said, "I liked the man alright, but why did the woman have a moustache?"


Picasso painted this pleasant portrait of his Parisian pal.


Back when nobody would ever dare talk about such things in public, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas were OUT -- they were out there on the public stage before the whole world as a couple. I'm sure they never announced publicly that they were lesbians or lovers or that they slept together, but everybody, especially the literate crowd, knew.
Gertrude and Alice in 1935... one commentator said they cruised through their American tour like a battleship and a destroyer....

Gertrude and Alice lived together in France for most of their adult lives. When World War I broke out, they drove an ambulance. During World War II they had to flee to the countryside when the Germans occupied Paris. They lived in a small town and kept a low profile, protected by their French neighbors; like them, Gertrude had to walk for miles to find bread, and foraged for nuts and mushrooms in the forest.
When France was liberated, Gertrude became the grandmatron of all the American GIs. But shortly after the war, she was felled by stomach cancer and died in surgery. Her beloved Alice B. outlived her by 21 years.

Gertrude as matronly icon...

as patriotic heroine...

and as a happy girl.

Sing out, Gertrude!

Although her famous autobiography was written in a breezy style, much of her work is beyond intelligible. On the jacket of one of her books, her publisher felt compelled to write: "I do not know what Miss Stein is talking about. I do not even understand the title. That, Miss Stein tells me, is because I am dumb."

It's true, a lot of her work is difficult. But here's a beautifully understandable poem by Gertrude Stein.

Gretrude Stein
Love Song of Alice B. (1921)
I caught sight of a splendid Misses. She had handkerchiefs and kisses. She had eyes and yellow shoes she had everything to choose and she chose me.
In passing through France she wore a Chinese hat and so did I.
In looking at the sun she read a map. And so did I.
In eating fish and pork she just grew fat. And so did I.
In loving a blue sea she had a pain. And so did I.
In loving me she of necessity thought first. And so did I.
How prettily we swim. Not in water. Not on land. But in love.
How often do we need trees and hills. Not often.
And how often do we need birds. Not often.
And how often do we need wishes. Not often.
And how often do we need glasses not often.
We drink wine and we make well we have not made it yet.
How often do we need a kiss. Very often and we add when tenderness overwhelms us we speedily eat veal.
And what else, ham and a little pork and raw artichokes and ripe olives and chester cheese and cakes and caramels and all the melon. We still have a great deal of it left. I wonder where it is. Conserved melon. Let me offer it to you.

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