Sunday, June 26, 2016

Pride Month Profile: The incomparable, immeasurable Gertrude.

“We are always the same age inside.”

Gertrude Stein (1874-1946)
Author, art collector

In Paris in those years distinguished salons were maintained by two celebrated American woman writers: Edith Wharton and Gertrude Stein. But the two women never met, and their salons did not overlap in the slightest. Gertrude Stein’s favorite artists, such as Picasso, Matisse, and Braque—in short, the modernists—Mrs. Wharton apparently considered riffraff, while her own favorite painters have long since been forgotten. Mrs. Wharton despised T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and she had a very low opinion of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which she thought “unformed & unimportant drivel.” Among American writers, she manifested no interest whatsoever in Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, or John Dos Passos; she once had F. Scott Fitzgerald to tea and pronounced him, in her diary, “awful.” As for Gertrude Stein herself, Edith Wharton did not like lesbians, nor, with a few carefully chosen exceptions (Bernard Berenson), was she inordinately fond of Jews.
Richard Grenier, Mrs Wharton and Society, Commentary (1993)

What a collision of worlds tea with Miss Stein and Mrs Wharton would have been! They flourished over the same three decades, and each only went back to America once. Both have lasted in the great raffle of literary fame. Roughly contemporaries, Wharton (1862-1937) and Stein (1874-1946) ended up the opposite poles of American expatriate literary life in Paris, despite having more in common than one might think (Stein quarreled with Eliot after her called some of her work “inappropriate”).
Stein was born in Pittsburgh, of much newer money than Wharton’s. Her parents were cultivated people; they took the entire family to Europe in 1877-78, living in Vienna and Paris. Returning to America, they removed to Oakland, California, where her father ran a streetcar company and invested wisely in real estate. By the time she was sixteen, both of Stein’s parents had died; she entered Radcliffe and became one of William James’ most outstanding students. He thought her turn of mind ideal for medicine; she spent two bored years at John Hopkins, and left without a degree. Her interests lay in the arts, and- like Wharton, utterly unschooled in sex- was finding her way out of the norms of the time.
She followed her brother, Leo, to London, then to Paris, arriving in 1903. They took a flat at 27, rue de Fleurus, where Leo pursued a career in art dealing- the first of many dilettantish callings; and Gertrude, in writing and collecting interesting friends. The most interesting, it turned out, was a mousy tourist from San Francisco, Alice Babette Toklas.
They met at her brother Michael’s apartment on September 8, 1907, the day Toklas arrived in France. They were almost inseparable for the next thirty-nine years. After some toing and froing with living arrangements, Alice moved to 27, rue de Fleurus in 1910; Gertrude and Leo had an acrimonious parting in 1911 (he loathed the relationship with Alice, and Alice herself, calling her “an abnormal vampire”). When Leo moved to Florence in 1914, they divided the extraordinary art collection they had accumulated. He took the Renoirs and Cezannes; she kept the Picassos and Rousseaus.
Alice ran the household and managed life to maximize Gertrude's freedom to be Gertrude. At their Saturday evening salons, Gertrude held court over the likes of Picasso, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Ezra Pound, Thornton Wilder, Max Jacob, Henri Matisse and Rousseau, while Alice entertained the wives and girlfriends in the drawing room.
Beginning in 1903, Stein published a steady stream of books, stories and poetry, always striving to open up her readers’ concepts of language and meaning. Reduced to paper, her most experimental works were easy to ridicule. Henry James called her an idiot; Ayn Rand, whose literary hatreds were volcanic and endless, slagged her repeatedly in her diaries and mocked Stein as the character Lois Cook in The Fountainhead. She also wrote keenly insightful studies of people; one, of the black woman Melanctha, in Three Lives, was one of the few non-stereotypic portrayals of its era, and the first of Stein I ever read. Forty years on, I remember that story with respect and amazement.
Stein’s answer to Joyce’s Ulysses and Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past was The Making of Americans (1925). Where Proust buried himself in Jamesian complexity and Joyce opted for an extraordinary lexicon that included 30,000 words in a text of 265,000, Stein employed a limited vocabulary, repeating herself in recurrent sentences and phrases, slightly altered with each appearance, added layers of detail and meaning to the narrative. In fact, Stein simply stylized the way ordinary people talk, with their digressions and repetitions and stock phrases inserted at intervals, like, you know what I’m saying?
Drawn from her own family’s history, The Making of Americans infuriated Leo, who called it “a farrago of lies”.
The effect of her writing was, and remains, remarkable, conveying a feeling of rhythm and motion, propelling the story forward. In Tender Buttons (1912) she aimed for a hyper-realism:
Stein insisted that this work was completely "realistic" in the tradition of Gustave Flaubert, stating the following: "I used to take objects on a table, like a tumbler or any kind of object and try to get the picture of it clear and separate in my mind and create a word relationship between the word and the things seen." Commentators have indicated that what she meant was that the reference of objects remained central to her work, although the representation of them had not. Scholar Marjorie Perloff had said of Stein that "[u]nlike her contemporaries (Eliot, Pound, Moore), she does not give us an image, however fractured, of a carafe on a table; rather, she forces us to reconsider how language actually constructs the world we know."
An example: Stein’s comment about her hometown, Oakland, California- “there is no there there”, is popularly thought a put down of drab provincialism. In fact, when it appeared in Everybody’s Autobiography (1937), it expressed the wistfulness of a changed childhood neighborhood, the sense Thomas Wolfe’s “You can’t go home again” evokes:
She took us to see her granddaughter who was teaching in the Dominican convent in San Raphael, we went across the bay on a ferry, that had not changed but Goat Island might just as well not have been there, anyway what was the use of my having come from Oakland it was not natural to have come from there yes write about it if I like or anything if I like but not there, there there. 
...but not there, there is no there there. ... Ah Thirteenth Avenue was the same it was shabby and overgrown. ... Not of course the house, the house the big house and the big garden and the eucalyptus trees and the rose hedge naturally were not there any longer existing, what was the use ... 
It is a funny thing about addresses where you live. When you live there you know it so well that it is like an identity a thing that is so much a thing that it could not ever be any other thing and then you live somewhere else and years later, the address that was so much an address that it was like your name and you said it as if it was not an address but something that was living and then years after you do not know what the address was and when you say it it is not a name anymore but something you cannot remember. That is what makes your identity not a thing that exists but something you do or do not remember.
By 1933 had Getrude become famous as much, if not more, as a character in other authors’ lives than for her own work. Hemingway asked her to be his son Jack’s godmother (later, when famous, he mocked and ridiculed the couple endlessly, and told one friend he was sure he could “cure” Gertrude; Alice explained, decades later, that it was Hemingway’s sexual hints that made her lean on Gertrude to banish him).
In the American media, writers like Carl van Vechten and Thornton Wilder constantly sang her praises. She dubbed the American writers of Paris in the Twenties, “The Lost Generation,” and acted as a career counselor for many. She told Paul Bowles she didn’t think there was a poet in him, but there might be a novelist, and to go to Tangier to find out. Bowles and his wife, Jane, did just that, and it made all the difference.
Pressed for funds, Stein turned out The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in 1933. It was her own story, of course, but told through Alice’s eyes: the composer Virgil Thomson, who set Stein’s work to music in the opera Four Saints in Three Acts, said,
The book is in every way except actual authorship Alice Toklas' book; it reflects her mind, her language, her private view of Gertrude, also her unique narrative powers. Every story in it is told as Alice herself had always told it.... Every story that ever came into the house eventually got told in Alice's way, and this was its definitive version.
The book was a hit, and in 1934, Gertrude and Alice did a barnstorming American book tour to promote it. Gertrude spoke in 37 cities, in 23 states, over a 191-day trip, giving readings (always limited to audiences of five hundred, with a question and answer period at the end. ““Now listen! I’m no fool,” Stein once said in reply to a student’s question about her line “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” “I know that in daily life we don’t go around saying ‘is a . . . is a . . . is a . . .’ Yes, I’m no fool; but I think that in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years” ).
At sixty, Stein was financially secure, and independent. By telling her story in Alice’s voice, Stein was able to build a striking- and strikingly egomaniacal, to some- monument to her own genius, and on her own terms. Always the center of attention, Stein assumed it, obliquely, through Alice’s eyes, writing- as Alice- “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.”
When World War II came, Gertrude and Alice moved south to a cottage they’d rented for many summers. She had a vague confidence it would all work out, and no harm would come to a famous Jewish-American writer and her lover. But Gertrude was a cannier operator than most appreciated: among her closest friends in Paris was a French Jew, Bernard Fay, whose fascist tendencies overlapped with Stein’s strong disapproval of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal America. They shared a distaste for most Jews as well.
When the Vichy government came to power, Fay (who was also widely thought a Gestapo agent) was named director of the French National Library, and steered Stein a contract to translate a collection of Marshal Petain’s speeches- ugly, anti-Semitic screeds, the lot- into English. Stein did so without a blink, and added a preface in which she called Petain the George Washington of France. In the odd calculus of war, P.G. Wodehouse was pilloried for less odious literary offenses, while Ezra Pound was charged with treason and declared insane for more. Gertrude and Alice lived on quietly, protected, apparently, by Fay’s influence and her complaisance with the collaborationist regime.
While undisturbed, Alice and Gertrude's life in Vichy was straightened. Money was tight, and rationing was harsh. Gertrude's royalties piled up in America, untouchable. A silk manufacturer from Lyon who had a house nearby supported them financially for half a year. She was able to quietly sell another painting and resume keeping up house and home herself. She wrote of the experience,
Life is funny that way. It always is funny that way, the ones that naturally should offer do not, and those who have no reason to offer it, do, you never know you never do know where your good-fortune is to come from.
In June 1946, Gertrude was diagnosed with stomach cancer, and after a pointless surgical procedure, lingered on until July, 1947. Leo died of cancer, a year and two days later, in Florence.
Stein thought she had provided for Alice in her will, but their relationship had no legal standing whatever. As legally single women, they had few rights on their own, anyway. Women in same-sex relationships in the twentieth century often made their estate plans as exercises in magical thinking. Fifty years later, I nearly left the practice of law after failing to break the will of a widow who spent the last 35 years of her life with another woman. Her lawyer gave her the will of a widow, with everything to her three children, who smiled and made nice to mom’s partner all those years. The beach house, promised the partner for the rest of her life, was not included as a bequest; the kids turned out to have had their fingers crossed when they said, over and over, of course you can stay, and as soon as mom was buried they started the eviction proceedings. My client died a year and a half later, almost penniless.
Gertrude left her estate to her nephew Allan, whom she disliked, but he was the next living heir. She made provisions for distributions of funds to Alice as needed and, if needed, for the sale of art works to make her life comfortable.
But Allen died before Alice, and his second wife, Roubina, had an eagle’s eye on the art, which, after the war, became both celebrated and extremely valuable. While Allen and Carl van Vechten were named two of three executors, the work fell to the third, the eponymous great-nephew of Edgar Allen Poe.
Poe didn’t care for Alice, or the relationship she’d had with Gertrude, and was parsimonious, at best, with his support for the aging Alice.  She supplemented her income with several books, but in the late 1950s was so hard up she surreptitiously sold forty Picasso drawings without telling Poe.
Word got out, and Roubina sued. She waited until Alice was on vacation in 1961, then struck, obtaining a court order allowing her to enter Alice’s apartment and haul all the paintings away to the vaults of the Chase Manhattan Bank. Alice returned to find only their outlines on the walls. In 1964 the owners of her apartment evicted her for being away too long in the warmer weather of the south of France. Friends supported her over the last few years of her life; she died in 1967, just shy of her ninetieth birthday, and the sixtieth anniversary of meeting Gertrude.
Gertrude’s collaborationism was decades becoming known. Bernard Fay, imprisoned for life after the war for his (Gertrude wrote the court in his defense), escaped to Switzerland, dressed as a priest in 1951, aided by money from Alice. Pardoned by the President of France in 1959, he resumed a university teaching career and died in Tours in 1978.
In 2012 the Metropolitan Museum of Art painstakingly reassembled the collections of Gertrude, Leo and their brother Michael in a huge show called “The Steins Collect.”
Stein was buried at Pere Lachaise after she died; Alice- whose 1963 memoir ended when Gertrude died, was buried beside her, but- at her direction- with her name engraved on the back of the headstone.
gertrude and alice.jpg
In 1998, like many before and since, I left a small stone atop their marker at Pere Lachaise.
stones for Gertrude.jpg

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