There are few people who haven’t heard the name: Gertrude Stein, the American writer who lived in France from before WWI until she died in Paris in 1946. She made 27 rue de Fleurus, near the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, famous. Everybody who was anybody met there on Saturday nights to discuss art and literature. But there are other places to see here effigy or walk the paths of her French homes.
How many people in the world have a statue of them selves in parks or museums or even private homes? Not many when you consider how many famous people there have been. So you can imagine my surprise when I discovered that a sculpture of the American writer who lived in France was still in New York’s Bryant Park, named after the poet William Cullen Bryant.
Located next to the library in a well developed and popular square, the statue of Gertrude Stein sits peacefully in view of the library between two Sycamore trees. Although she sat for the sculptor Jo Davidson in 1923, the statue wasn’t placed in New York until 1992. It was the first public statue of an American to be installed in New York City. It stands seven feet tall and it does, indeed, look like her. I saw it then and I recently saw it again. She’s in good company with Goethe and Juarez.
There she was with people taking pictures from every angle. It surprised me to see Japanese tourists posing with this rugged statue on a simple granite plinth.
It reminded me that the Lithuanian sculptor Jacques Lipshitz also did a bust of Gertrude. Both statues capture the fine figure that was Gertrude Stain. She often wore her hair in a bun and was once said to look like a Roman Caesar (with more warmth, of course).
Jacque’s sculpture was smaller and easy to lift. “I think she liked it,” he said. Then he added, “She looked like a Buddha.” As he worked, he tried to get Gertrude interested in sculpture. It was a fruitless task. “Sculpture takes the trouble of having to walk all around it to appreciate it,” she said. “Some people like to eat, some liked to make money. I like to look at painted pictures.”
In the early nineties, I had the opportunity to address the Gertrude Stein Conference in Culoz France. For some of the WWII years she lived in Culoz at the base of The Grand Colombier. The house was known as The Clos Poncet and it is said that there were times when Nazi officers were billeted in that house. Of course, Gertrude never showed herself when the officers were around.
The mountain nearby had been the hideaway of some of the French Maquis and it is said that they got information from Gertrude. When I arrived in Culoz I saw the beautiful statue donated by the sculptor only a year before. Apparently, the statue was unveiled and dedicated by Prime Minister Mitterand who arrived in Culoz by helicopter. He praised her for the work she had done during the war.
In Culoz, I discovered that German University students had become interested in her work and her influence. I visited various schools in Stuttgart where my brief lecture was attended by an interested audience. Later that day I lectured at America House in downtown Stuttgart. The large audience included some of the students I had met that day. The audience showed great interest and questions went on and on. Later, I had the honor of giving a radio interview after my play (GODDY) about Gertrude Stein was staged at the Wilhelma Theatre.
That event was so far from reality to me when I first wrote about Gertrude.
Now, years later, I stand in front of Gertrude’s statue in New York and think of all the times I have stood at the foot of her grave where I obviously noticed the many roses freshly deposited. As is my tradition, I placed a small stone on the grave-stone as a token for other’s to know that over 60 years from her death, people still care.
For visitors to the area, I suggest a view of her house and a very short trip to Belley, where Gertrude lived, close by in the community of Bilignin. You will recognize it by the plaque at the road entrance. But it is privately owned so respect the family. The owner’s father was the man who had rented the house to Gertrude in the 1930’s.
I also suggest, about half way between Culoz and Belley, the tiny church at Lucy. It might remind one of her poem, “Lucy Church Amiably.”
For those who wish to travel to the area I suggest that you reserve a hotel in nearby Annecy. This beautiful resort town borders a fresh water lake and offers visitors a chance to shop, walk through the old town and see some of the most beautiful vistas in France. Take a drive around the lake. There are lakefront hotels to welcome you. This is a favorite resort of the Swiss as it is so close to Switzerland. But there’s room for all unless you are there at the height of the season. From here it is only an hour into the French Alps.