Gertrude Stein and her afterlife

Posted: July 27, 2011

By Seymour I. "Spence" Toll

Born in 1874 in what is now part of Pittsburgh, Gertrude Stein was one of five children raised by middle-class Jewish parents in Oakland, Calif. She did not practice her faith after childhood, and her view of the afterlife was, "When a Jew dies, he's dead." Physiologically speaking, she's been dead for 65 years as of today, but she remains a distinct and lively presence in our culture.

This summer, for example, Stein (as played by Kathy Bates) figures prominently in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. In it, a screenwriter (Owen Wilson) is struggling to write his first novel, set in the fabled Paris of the 1920s. After strolling away from his family one midnight, he is magically transported to that Paris and introduced to Stein, who raises such an important question about one of his characters that it changes his life in 2010.

An intriguing current exhibition at San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum presents Stein's life from the end of World War I through World War II. By the 1920s, Stein was "the high priestess of the Left Bank" and a major influence on American literature, art, music, and theater through a blend of art collecting, experimental writing, salon-keeping, and personality.

Stein moved to Paris in 1903 to join her art-oriented older brother Leo in his Left Bank apartment. They quickly became known as brilliant collectors of modern art, notably Renoir, C├ęzanne, Matisse, and Picasso. Their brother Michael and his wife, Sarah, were also in Paris and equally serious about acquiring such art. What became the family's famous collections are currently the subject of another San Francisco exhibition, at the Museum of Modern Art.

Soon after the Steins began assembling their collections, Alice B. Toklas appeared. She had a background similar to Stein's and had left San Francisco for Paris in 1907. On her first day there, she met Gertrude at the home of Michael and Sarah. The next year, Stein, then 34, and Toklas, then 31, were secretly "married" during a summer holiday in Fiesole, Italy. They lived together for the rest of their lives, with Toklas acting as Stein's social secretary, amanuensis, chef, apartment manager, and indispensable aide-de-camp at the legendary salons.

Soon after she moved to Paris, Stein began a writing career that would produce several hundred published titles, 26 of them books. With rare exceptions, they are absolutely unreadable.

Stein was trying to do in words what Picasso did in paint. She trashed the rules of grammar and syntax, telling a reporter that "punctuation is necessary only for the feebleminded." In any case, much of her writing readily qualifies as gibberish. Tender Buttons (1914), for example, includes this unabridged entry: "ORANGES. Build is all right."

On the jacket of one of her books, her publisher Bennett Cerf wrote, "I do not know what Miss Stein is talking about. I do not even understand the title. I admire Miss Stein tremendously, and I like to publish her books, although most of the time I do not know what she is driving at. That, Miss Stein tells me, is because I am dumb."

Cerf also said that "all the incomprehensible mishmash appeared only in her writing." When speaking to reporters, Stein came across as "a very direct, brilliant woman."

Stein had three life-changing experiences in the mid-'30s. First, the Atlantic Monthly serialized her book The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Characteristically, the title gave no clue that it was not only an autobiography of Stein, but that it was also an eminently readable collection of several decades of delicious gossip about avant-garde Paris.

It was a smashing commercial success. "I had never made any money before in my life, and I was most excited," Stein remarked. "I love being rich. ... It makes me all cheery inside."

Six months later came the premiere of an opera by Stein and another Paris-based American, Virgil Thomson. Four Saints in Three Acts went on to run for a remarkable six weeks on Broadway. Supposedly about the religious life of Spanish saints, it had an infantile text and no real plot or scenes, and its most radical feature was an all-black cast. It generated as much publicity about Stein's personality as about the unorthodox work itself.

The clincher for Stein's becoming America's oddball darling was her 1934-35 lecture tour. She appeared on 30 college campuses and in a number of American cities. (Locally, she lectured at Bryn Mawr College and at an Art Alliance meeting at the Barclay Hotel ballroom.) Though she was a Republican, she even had tea with Eleanor Roosevelt.

In Cerf's judgment, Stein was "the publicity hound of the world" and "could have been a tremendous hit in show business." Like her writing, her lectures were, for the most part, unintelligible. But she disarmed and delighted packed audiences with confessional conclusions such as, "I wonder if you know what I mean. I do not quite know whether I do myself."

It's no wonder she continues to be with us in movies, museums, theaters, and academia. Sixty-five years may be the traditional age for retirement, but Gertrude Stein's afterlife is not ready for that.


Seymour I. "Spence" Toll is a Philadelphia lawyer and author. He can be reached at spentoll@aol.com.

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