The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein
It was hard to read this book with a straight face. Gertrude Stein wrote her beloved lifelong companion’s autobiography for her. But guess what? It is not about Alice B. Toklas’s life at all. It is all about Gertrude, how smart and clever Gertrude was, how Gertrude gave great advice to everyone, how gracious a hostess Gertrude was, what an adventurous traveler Gertrude was, and what a successful writer Gertrude was. In fact, life theoretically didn’t even start for Alice until she met Gertrude!
And no matter how many times Gertrude mentions her own name – sometimes as many as three or four times in one paragraph – she make it clear that her full name is Gertrude Stein.
This so-called autobiography covers approximately 20 years, mostly taking place in Paris, France with short trips to Spain, Great Britain, and Italy.
Gertrude was a spoiled well-to-do Jewish American adventurist. She just happened to settle at the right place at the right time. She was intelligent and had a good eye for art. She became a patron for upcoming artists and bought their work, often taking in and feeding the starving artists food and encouragement. Picasso, literally unknown at the time, was a Spanish expatriate and Gertrude provided a comfortable refuge. At best she was a self-proclaimed muse. At worst – a self-glorified groupie. In the forward (written by an anonymous writer… probably Gertrude herself) it says, “There she sat like a great Jewish Buddha surrounded by the paintings of Matisse, Picasso, and Braque while the artists themselves settled at her feet.”
Eventually Gertrude included writers in her clique, among them Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway. But after only a few years of friendship, she had a falling out with Hemingway which isn’t surprising because she had a falling out with many of her earlier acquaintances. She has some scathing remarks about Hemingway. In stark contrast to Gertrude always referring to herself as Gertrude Stein, she refers to Ernest as “Hem”. And she takes credit for his success as an author. The one valuable piece of advise she gave “Hem” was to quit his journalist job so he could concentrate on writing full time.
Gertrude talks a lot about her own writing, and was constantly trying to get published. She finally succeeded though this was the only book that achieved significant fame. At the height of her writing career Gertrude spoke at Oxford and Cambridge where she was heckled, and later did a series of lectures at various colleges. She is vague about this in the autobiography, but it was often reported that she was impossible to understand. Psychologists tossed around the idea that perhaps she had a speech disorder called palilalia which causes a person to repetitively repeat words and phrases… again and again, beyond their control. Thus, came out phrases like “a rose is a rose is a rose.”
Coincidentally, our of curiosity, I just also read Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast – which also takes place in Paris in the 1920s. He discusses his relationship with Gertrude Stein. In his words she was an opportunist and a frustrated artist. He says, “I cannot remember Gertrude Stein ever speaking well of any writer who had not written favorably about her work or done something to advance her career….” She thought James Joyce – also in Paris at the time – was a loser, and she said Aldous Huxley’s work was “dead”, scolding Hemingway for his taste in authors.
But lets get back to Alice B. Toklas. Alice herself is still a woman of mystery. She remained the silent partner throughout Gertrude’s life, and throughout the autobiography. She was relegated to sitting with the women (as opposed to the artists and writers) making small talk and quietly doing needlepoint.
The book is worth reading if you love the arts and have a curiosity about life in Paris in the 1920s. At times it gets tiresome having Gertrude continuously pat herself on the back, but there are some amusing observations, and witty remarks. In Gertrude’s opening introduction to who Alice is, describing her interests and likes, she quotes Alice saying “I like a view but I like to sit with my back turned to it.” Now that’s funny!
Rated 3 Stars June 2014
All contents © 2014 Lois Weisberg. All rights reserved.