The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
I had never heard of Alice B. Toklas or Gertrude Stein in my life; so when this biography came up on my WEM reading list, I imagined I was going to read about a woman who had a life changing story and a major contribution to the world. Not even. Well, not by my standards.
In fact, I was thoroughly confused for the first few chapters because I thought it was an autobiography about Alice Toklas, but her image is the tiny one on the cover, while the author was Gertrude Stein, and she sports the giant headshot. And even more confusing was that the narrator, Gertrude, spoke about Gertrude. It took awhile, but I finally figured out that it was Stein's words, in which she wrote mostly about herself. I do not know why she just did not call it her autobiography.
Both Alice and Gertrude were Americans who lived in Paris, France, and all over Europe. Alice met Gertrude on the first day she arrived in Paris, and they remained together for the rest of their lives. They were polar opposites in every way, and maybe that is why they were perfectly compatible.
Gertrude and her brother collected art, such as works by Picasso, Matisse, Cézanne, Renoir, Gauguin, Guis, and more. Eventually, their interests in art led to Salons, which were held at the apartment they shared (with Alice - don't forget poor Alice). Visitors came to view their collection and discuss art, literature, and music. The Stein's and Alice became close friends with Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Even authors and poets attended the Salons, like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and Sinclair Lewis. Gertrude made long-lasting, intimate, and influential relationships with most people she met, and they, including these painters, authors, poets, and even composers, often sought her opinions.
She was amazingly popular. Apparently, everyone wanted to paint her portrait and take her picture. Here is one of the most famous portraits done of Stein, by Picasso. Now I know whom this woman is!
|Gertrude Stein by Pablo Picasso, 1905-6|
|Gertrude Stein posing for Joe Davidson |
bronze sculpture, Paris, 1923
And poor little Alice had her portrait done, too, by an artist I do not know. She looks so meek, small, and quiet. I certainly think she was.
|Alice B. Toklas by Pavel Tchelitchew, 1927|
Here is probably the most important piece of information: Gertrude Stein was an author. Who knew? She wrote a lot of books - novels and poetry - but none I have ever heard of. And after reading this autobiography, I do not understand how or why she receives to this day such praise for her writing ability or style. It is not the worst, but it reminds me of the decline of art. Art declined, music declined, and writing also declined. It just has, and there is no defense of it. I suppose she was the product of her time, as all art forms were being influenced by the social philosophy of the day.
However, because of her writing style, the reader may know Stein very clearly. I imagine that she was strong, opinionated, and assertive (with a mild manner), as well as unemotional and well-grounded. I think she also may have been a little arrogant and conceited. Imagine: she wrote this autobiography, as if her life partner, Alice, wrote it; but it was mainly about her own life.
The story of their connections with artists and authors was enticing to me, and their involvement during World War I in Europe was definitely intriguing, as I appreciated the story of their experience. Stein was also a controversial figure, especially with her opinions about black Americans particularly:
Gertrude Stein concluded that negroes were not suffering from persecution, they were suffering from nothingness. She always contends that the african is not primitive, he has a very ancient but a very narrow culture and there it remains. Consequently nothing does or can happen.
By the way, that is how the passage appears in the book. Insert your own mental grammatical corrections, if you must.
In the end, I never understood why I had to read about Gertrude Stein or Alice Toklas, when I did not find anything that they did very important. In all fairness, I am sure she or they are more widely known in Europe, especially Paris (where Stein's busty bronze sits), and also within art and literary circles where Stein accordingly influenced her contemporaries.
Finally, to close this post about this odd couple and biography, if I can think of anything memorable at all, it is this old photo. It features Alice and Gertrude hanging out in their abode, and I thought it summed up everything very nicely. That's how I shall remember this.
|Alice and Gertrude, 1922|
Following is an audio of Stein reading a poem she wrote for Picasso. It's terrible - the poem is. It's really awful. It's just not good art. But you be the judge.