The Real Gertrude & Alice

The names Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas have been linked for more than one-hundred years. From the time that they met in Paris in 1907, Gertrude & Alice were inseparable. But who were these two Americans who lived together for almost forty years and how did they become so famous?

Gertrude_stein

Portrait of Gertrude Stein, 1934

By Carl Van Vechten, Source Wikipedia.

Gertrude was from a prominent Jewish family and spend much of her childhood in Oakland, California. She moved to Paris in 1903 with her brothers and soon the family began collecting the words of up-and-coming artists including Matisse, Picasso, Braque and Gris. They soon became well-known for their collection and began hosting weekly salons so guests could view the artworks.

Alice_B

Portrait of Alice B. Toklas, 1949

By Carl Van Vechten, Source Wikipedia.

Alice was also from a jewish family in San Francisco and knew Gertrude’s brother Michael. For a time she studied music, but in 1907, one year after the San Francisco earthquake, decided to visit Europe with a friend. It was on her first day in Paris that she was invited to tea at Michael’s home. It was there she met Gertrude.

Gertrude in addition to her interest in collecting art, was fascinated by writing. But not conventional writing — she wanted to do for writing what Picasso had done for art. She felt that the sounds of words, their repetition, and their place on the page, with or without punctuation, would create a new literature, appropriate for the 20th century. Her phrase “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”, is among the most famous and quoted phrases in the world.

 

Her first book Three Lives was self-published in 1909, as commercial; publishers found it too unconventional, though it is among her most accessible books. Finding publishers for subsequent books was even more difficult, so in the early 1930s, Alice created their own publishing company which published five of Gertrude’s works. Though Gertrude’s writing had a very limited audience, it influencers many of the young writers who visited Gertrude & Alice’s salon at 27 rue de Fleurus, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Paul Bowles, Ezra Pound, and Thornton Wilder. (Gertrude and Alice even became godmothers for Hemingway’s first son). Gertrude’s major work, The Making of Americans, is almost 1000 pages long. It was published in 1925 in al imbed edition almost 15 years after it was completed.

Stein in 1935 photographed by Carl Van Vechten

Gertrude Stein sitting on a sofa in her Paris studio, with a portrait of her by Pablo Picasso, and other modern art paintings hanging on the wall (before 1910)

In her lifetime, Alice was usually referred to as Gertrude’s “Companion” or “secretary”, but she was so much more. She was her love, muse, confidante, public relations director, publisher, editor, translator gardener, cook and veterinarian to their pets. It is also ironic that Gertrude’s most successful book, published in 1933, was the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, in which Gertrude writes in the voice of Alice. The success of the Autobiography brought Gertrude & Alice back to America for their only visit in 1934-35 for Gertrude’s triumphant, widely publicised lecture tour. They became the rock-stars of their day, their every move covered by newspapers and radio!

 

Gertrude and Alice also experience the two World Wars together. In WWI, they drove through France delivering medical supplies to hospitals for French and American soldiers. Alice proudly recounted 40 years later how she had hidden 5,000 thermometers which she would distribute as she saw fit! In WWII, Alice and Gertrude were fortunate to survive the Nazi occupation of France largely due to the kindness of the villagers in the rural towns where they lived.

 

Following Gertrude Stein’s death in 1946, Alice was confronted with new challenges both financial and person. *She did not die until 1967). For more than ten years, she devoted considerable time to getting Stein’s unpublished works published by Yale University. Letter writing was an integral part of their life together, thousands of letters survived, most are at Yale. Though it was not until after Gertrude’s death that Alice began writing books and articles in magazines primarily about cooking and fashion, two of her passions.

In 1954, The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook was published, which made her a celebrity in her own right and a cultural icon for the next 20 years partly because of the hashish fudge recipe, which had been given to her by a friend. (The recipe later morphed into the now famous Alice B. Toklas brownies”, which were popular with both the beatniks and the hippies). The cookbook which has never been out-of-print has been translated into more than 15 languages, is both a collection of recipes and reminiscences of Alice life with Gertrude. Another cookbook followed in 1958, and her memoir, WHAT IS REMEMBERED, was published in 1963).

 

Gertrude and Alice, because of their influences on modern art, writing and cooking continue to inspire and challenge readers, writers, scholars, actors, visual artists and cooks. They have accompanied us from the 20th century into the 21st with all of their accomplishments.