Monday, June 06, 2011

The Summer of Gertrude Stein 1: Useful Knowledge

The short introductory chapter "Before I Came to Paris" at the beginning of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas concludes with this statement:

"I may say that only three times in my life have I met a genius and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken, and I may say in each case it was before there was any general recognition of the quality of genius in them. The three geniuses of whom I wish to speak are Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and Alfred Whitehead. I have met many important people, I have met several great people but I have only known three first class geniuses and in each case on sight within me something rang. In no one of the three cases have I been mistaken. In this way my new full life began."

Man Ray, Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein, 1922, gelatin silver print. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Isabel Wilder, ©2010 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

The punchline, of course, is that the writer of those words is not Alice B. Toklas but her lesbian partner of 25 years, Gertrude Stein, extolling her own genius. A further joke is that she may even be right, as the book itself aptly demonstrates. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was published in 1933 and became a huge, Book-of-the-Month Club best-seller, marking the first time Stein's work had earned her any money, at the ripe old age of 60 after having written on a daily basis for close to 40 years.

This is the Summer of Gertrude Stein in downtown San Francisco, with major exhibits devoted to her family's art collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and her life at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Four Saints in Three Acts, Stein's surprisingly successful 1934 operatic collaboration with Virgil Thomson, will also be performed in a newly configured production by Ensemble Parallele in late August at Yerba Buena Center.

George Platt Lynes, Gertrude Stein, Bilignin, 1931, toned gelatin silver print. Courtesy of the Baltimore Museum of Art, The Cone Collection, Gift of Adelyn D. Breeskin BMA 1985.3, © Estate of George Platt Lynes

Until recently, all I knew about Gertrude Stein was that she was an iconic stout lesbian who had once lived in Oakland, and then lived in Paris with her partner Alice B. Toklas. I also vaguely knew that she was acquainted with every famous painter and writer in Paris during the first half of the 20th century since she pops up in historical anecdotes continually, even making a cameo in the latest Woody Allen movie in the person of Kathy Bates. After seeing her two Thomson operas with their nonsensical librettos, I had a vague sense that her writing was simple words used repetitively in a singsong fashion that was essentially incomprehensible.

"How do you feel about Gertrude Stein?" I asked my extremely erudite friend Patrick Vaz, shown above eyeing his favorite painting in the SFMOMA permanent collection, Matisse's 1905 Woman with a Hat. "I love Gertrude Stein," he replied, "and I've read quite a bit of her work, including the major pieces."

"You mean to tell me that you've read the entire, thousand-page-plus The Making of Americans?" I asked. "Every word, and with pleasure" was his answer. "Did you ever skim through sections?" "And what would be the point of that?" Patrick countered.

Asking where I should start with Stein's work, he suggested The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas since it is so accessibly written. Patrick didn't let on just how funny, gossipy, and plain brilliant the book is, with stories of a young Picasso and Matisse and a huge cast of eccentric, legendary characters in turn-of-the-century Paris. There is an amazing section recounting World War One, where Gertrude became a truck driver with Alice at her side, delivering relief supplies throughout France. In the 1920s, even though major publishers wouldn't touch her work, she was a cult figure among young American writers who would visit her in Paris. This is when she became guru and godmother to Ernest Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Thornton Wilder and F. Scott Fitzgerald, all of whom are profiled.

The book is so perfect in its own way that I was worried whether Stein could sustain it up to the end, but she does, confessing in the last paragraph her elaborate joke:
"About six weeks ago Gertrude Stein said, it does not look to me as if you were ever going to write that autobiography. You know what I am going to do. I am going to write it for you. I am going to write it as simply as Defoe did the autobiography of Robinson Crusoe. And she has and this it."

I had heard that a number of the stories in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas were not exactly reliable, so I read a pair of biographies on Gertrude. The 1975 Everybody Who Was Anybody by Janet Hobhouse clears up many of the distortions from Stein's own autobiographies and features a huge number of wonderful illustrations. The 1995 "Favored Strangers" Gertrude Stein and Her Family is a Jewish, feminist academic look by Linda Wagner-Martin at Gertrude and Alice and the entire Stein clan. The writing's not particularly graceful, but the research is superb.

There is more to come on the Stein family, their years in the Bay Area and Paris, and how Gertrude manifested her "genius."


pjwv said...

Thanks for the compliments, but I have to scale back my Gertrude-immersion -- I couldn't have said I'd read almost every word she's ever written -- I would more modestly and accurately have said I've read quite a bit -- but yes, I have read every word of The Making of Americans, so good for me.

sfmike said...

Dear Patrick: I'll edit your Gertrude-immersion fabulousness in the text in the interests of perfect accuracy.

namastenancy said...

This is certainly a summer of literary and artistic riches with Gertrude at the CJM, the Stein collection at SFMOMA and the upcoming Picasso show at the de Young.I'm trying to come to grips with all of it and suffering from a surfeit of riches. I found a website which has sound files of Gertrude reading her own works. She has a lovely voice and when she reads a piece, some of them almost make sense.
Gertrude reading:

janinsanfran said...

I actually spent an afternoon at the SFMOMA show -- and just maybe learned a thing or two -- predominantly how prolific early 20th century painters had to be to survive.

Fun. Looking forward to your commentary on Stein summer.

momo said...

I'm quite fond of both Stein and Toklas. Have you seen the Alice B.Toklas cookbook?

sfmike said...

Dear momo: I've known about the Alice B. Toklas cookbook since that 1960s Peter Sellers hippie comedy, "I Love You Alice B. Toklas" used her recipe for hash brownies as a major plot point. But I've never read it or anything by Gertrude Stein until recently. It's been a real kick getting to know them through their own work.