We Still Love You, Alice B Toklas

We Still Love You, Alice B Toklas

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Gertrude and Leo, discussed in the last episode, did not stay together for long. There are many reasons, including Gertrude’s association with cubism, an ongoing competition with Leo, and the arrival on the scene of Alice Babette Toklas. Alice was, from the time they met, Gertrude’s constant companion. When someone came to visit, it was Alice who answered the door with “De la part de qui venez vous?” (On whose part do you come?) Alice was always there, often in the background seeing to it that nobody should disturb Gertrude or overstay their welcome. Someone once called her “The Executioner”. But she was hardly a servant. She typed Gertrude’s manuscripts and supported her with affection and caring. Alice protected Gertrude’s wounded vanity by telling her that as a writer she was even greater than Picasso was an artist. From the outset she spent every day in Gertrude’s company. They were lovers, they were friends, and as someone once said, they were collaborators. 

Alice was brought up in San Francisco and Seattle and was a friend of Gertrude’s brother Michael, and his wife Sarah. She was asked to come to Paris and since she was living a rather dull spinster life as cook and housekeeper for her relatives, she and her journalist friend Harriet Levy arrived Paris in September 1907, not long after the San Francisco earthquake. On the day she arrived in Paris, she met Gertrude, whom she called “a golden brown presence”. They began spending time together and Alice began offering Gertrude encouragement for her work. Having been through a break up with Leo, Gertrude needed a replacement and Alice immediately filled that role. Within a year, it was full blown love relationship that would last a lifetime. Gertrude called herself “husband” and Alice “wife”.

Alice became a housekeeper, secretary, cook, typist, proofreader, critic, publisher, lover and muse. They were together every day for the next forty years. The twenty-nine year old would-be pianist became Gertrude’s alter ego. She sat with the wives of the great writers and artists while Gertrude talked to people like Picasso, Hemingway, Virgil Thompson (the composer), Ezra Pound (the poet), Thornton Wilder, Francis Rose, (the artist), Braque, Matisse, George Antheil and Man Ray. But she sized people up too and was usually right about them.
She had a great affection for Sherwood Anderson, who was “always a gentleman” and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who had written the “definitive portrait of his generation”. She said once that Fitzgerald “had become a legend and the epoch he created was history”. She thought John Dos Passos had a great “Latin charm”.

In 1921, a young Ernest Hemingway came to Paris. Alice was immediately suspicious of him and tried to convince Gertrude that Hemingway was using her. After some urging he was told that he was no longer welcome at 27 rue de Fleurus. Gertrude’s excuse was that Hemingway had arrived drunk one night. She put him out and he never came back. Was Alice right about the macho Hemingway? Probably. He later said he wanted to go to bed with the older, corpulent Gertrude.

During the days when Gertrude and Hemingway were still talking together, Hem invited Gertrude and Alice to be the godmothers of his first child John, who the parents called Bumby. The two ladies accepted instantly but called the baby Goddy since he was their Godson. John grew up to be the father of the actresses Margot and Mariel.

Alice sat quietly and knitted or did petit-point. Few of the guests ever realized that they were being evaluated or scrutinized. She had the talent for forgetting but she would never forgive. To Gertrude, she became an indispensable. She was a well read, artistic woman who knew about fashion and politics. She predicted De Gaulle’s rise to power. She was always fashionably dressed and sought out the best food to serve and eat. At the end of her life she ordered food from Fauchon. The bills were paid by friends.

Although she had a biography written of her life, she was also the subject of an “autobiography”, What is Remembered, and a book based on her letters (see Edward Burns). She put together a cookbook with recipes sent to her by famous writers, painters and friends. Simply called, The Alice B Toklas Cookbook, it contained a recipe that included a dash of hashish. I doubt if Alice included it knowingly but during the fifties, among “users”, it became well read. A new generation of young people knew her name when Peter Sellers starred in the movie, I Love You Alice B Toklas.

Alice would read Gertrude’s manuscripts and make suggestions.  Gertrude thought that Alice should write her autobiography. When it became obvious that Alice would never do it, Gertrude said she would do it for her. “I am going to write it as simply as Defoe did the Autobiography of Robinson Crusoe”

….and she did.

Written in Alice’s voice and conversational style, it was Gertrude’s chance to have Alice say what she wanted her to say. She wrote,

…only three times in my life have I met a genius and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken. The three geniuses of whom I speak are Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and Alfred Whitehead.

The book was a bestseller and the two friends were invited to go on a lecture tour to the United States. Gertrude would talk and Alice would take care of her. They traveled across the country and were in the audience when Gertrude’s opera, The Saints in Four Acts, played to rave reviews on Broadway. The book, the play and the publicity for the lecture tour put their names on the front pages. In New York, on Times Square, the revolving lighted sign flashed,

Gerty Gerty Stein Stein is back back back.

Gertrude always said, “Repeating is what I am loving.” Alice would have agreed and added, “Gertrude is who I am loving.”

During the war, the money began to disappear and they were forced to sell some of the paintings. After Gertrude died, her family came to the apartment on rue Christine and took the collection. Her portrait by Picasso hangs in the New York Metropolitan Museum.

Alice converted to Catholicism as it strengthened her chances to be with Gertrude again in heaven. Forced to move again, she lived out her final days as an invalid on rue de la Convention and died at 1:30 AM March 7, 1967. She was ninety.

Books of Interest:

Linda Simon, The Biography of Alice B Toklas, Garden City: Doubleday, 1977

Staying On Alone: Letters of Alice B. Toklas, ed. Edward Burns, New York: Liveright, 1973

Addresses: 27 rue de Fleurus
5  rue Christine

rue de la Convention  (1964-1967)

Arnie Greenberg

Gertrude and Leo
Alice  NUMBER 3

Double Deception is work of fiction recently published in serialization on the web. It is a story through the memories of Dr Robert Bartlett Haas, a close friend of Gertrude’s,about the portrait of Gertrude Stein that had been done by Picasso before WWI. This portrait is now on view in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The story unfolds when Gertrude decides that she would like a copy of the painting done so she can keep a similar image in her summer home in Bilignin, near Belley not far from Aix Les Bains. She engages the copyist Morevna Vorobiev to do the job and when it is delivered even Picasso cannot tell the paintings apart since he sees them in a gas lit room.
After Gertrude dies, the painting is sent to New York where it is deemed a copy. Has the wrong painting been delivered? Through the work of two master art detectives it is determined that Miss Vorobiev, the lover of Diego Rivera, has copied the painting twice and has kept the original. The remainder of the story deals with the uncovering of the original, the solution of the mystery and the final hanging of the right painting at the Met.
It is, as Gertrude might have said, “a mystery with an ending”.