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Gertrude Stein once wrote, “We all went to Paris. It was where we had to be.” Those who were there were great influences on each other. A list of the creative writers, sculptors, poets and painters who were in Paris during and after World War I would be lengthy indeed. A glimpse at the group gathered at Gertrude’s Saturday night Soiree. They gathered at Nathalie Barney’s or at Sara and Michael Stein’s or at Moise Kisling’s. Here they exchanged ideas and began to influence from each other. The list is long but some of the relationships gave fruit to creative masterpieces.
The Irish writer James Joyce was born in Dublin in 1882. A few years later Samuel Beckett was born. Their paths would cross when they both ended up in Paris in 1926. By then Joyce was a well known writer. Beckett arrived to teach. Their lives were mingled for some time.
Joyce had published Ulysses through Sylvia Beach the owner of Shakespeare and Co. Beckett, at 23 years, wrote a defense of Joyce’s work at a time when he was being rejected. Beckett began writing Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake manuscript for Joyce whose eyes were failing him. Considering the cost and effort to publish Ulysses, Sylvia Beach, received none of the proceeds from the book.
The two were driven by their work but they were very different. Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is a struggle with life. It is without plot and difficult to understand. Yet, it is Beckett’s magnum opus as Ulysses that is considered Joyce’s most important work.
As for Gertrude, she said, Joyce is an incomprehensible who anyone can understand. She had no time for him, nor did she admire Ezra Pound who had helped collected money to get Ulysses published. She called Pound a “village explainer”.
Sylvia Beach introduced Gertrude to Sherwood Anderson, the American writer from Winesberg, Ohio.
Of Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude wrote:
“Very fine is my valentine
Very fine and very mine
Very mine is my valentine very mine and very fine
Very fine is my valentine and mine, very fine very mine and mine is my valentine”
1922 A Primer for the Gradual understanding of Gertrude Stein
In turn, Anderson introduced Gertrude to Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway drank distilled liqueurs and sat at her feet and listened.
“Begin over again and concentrate,” she told him.
He replied, “Gosh, writing was such an easy job until I met you”.
Sometime later they had a falling out. He left her rue de Fleurus home saying, “A rose is a rose is an onion.”
Yet in A Moveable Feast, published after his death, he wrote, “In my lifetime I had two teachers, Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. Ezra was occasionally right and Gertrude was always right.”
Of course, when you mention Gertrude you must think of Alice Toklas. These two ‘friends’ were totally devoted to each other. Gertrude talked to the artists and writers while Alice baked and served drinks to their wives. But scholars insist that Alice, who typed Gertrude’s most unpredictable writings, may have done some editing.
Gertrude was ill and while it was probably useless, Gertrude’s doctor agreed to operate. Alice was at her side as they wheeled her into the operating room at the American Hospital. Gertrude looked up and asked Alice, “What is the answer?” When no answer was forthcoming, Gertrude added, “In that case, what is the question?”
Both are now buried at Pere Lachaise.
Influence was the notion that motivated the group. Hemingway influenced Scott Fitzgerald and Morley Callaghan. Marcel Proust influenced Beckett but only through his writing. The wealthy Crosbys, Harry and Caresse influenced many including Joyce and Kay Boyle through their publishing company. Gertrude influenced Picasso through her writing method and discussions while he painted her portrait around the time he and Braque created Cubism.
The list goes on. Enter into Gertrude’s “Charmed Circle” names like Cezanne, Renoir and Degas, who became more famous when Gertrude added their work to her collection. Gertrude even agreed with Picasso that it all started with Cezanne. “Cezanne was our father,” Picasso said.
There are very few painters, writers or patrons of the arts who were not involved in the world of Stein, Picasso, Joyce, Beckett or Hemingway. Add Miro, Modigliani, Kisling, Jules Pascin or Jacques Lipchitz. They were all there at the same time, walking the streets of The City of Light.
By 1929 Chagall, Man Ray, Eric Satie, Leger, Breton, Virgil Thomson, Braque and Coco Chanel became the central figures in the ‘flowering’ that was Paris before the depression.
And why did they go to Paris? Paris was a flowering, a place to be yourself.
Gertrude said, “It’s not what Paris gave you that was important. It was what Paris didn’t take away… that mattered”.