Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
Gertrude Stein
Published 1933

I had never heard of Alice B. Toklas or Gertrude Stein in my life; so when this biography came up on my WEM reading list, I imagined I was going to read about a woman who had a life changing story and a major contribution to the world.  Not even.  Well, not by my standards.

In fact, I was thoroughly confused for the first few chapters because I thought it was an autobiography about Alice Toklas, but her image is the tiny one on the cover, while the author was Gertrude Stein, and she sports the giant headshot.  And even more confusing was that the narrator, Gertrude, spoke about Gertrude.  It took awhile, but I finally figured out that it was Stein's words, in which she wrote mostly about herself.  I do not know why she just did not call it her autobiography.

Both Alice and Gertrude were Americans who lived in Paris, France, and all over Europe. Alice met Gertrude on the first day she arrived in Paris, and they remained together for the rest of their lives. They were polar opposites in every way, and maybe that is why they were perfectly compatible.

Gertrude and her brother collected art, such as works by Picasso, Matisse, C├ęzanne, Renoir, Gauguin, Guis, and more.  Eventually, their interests in art led to Salons, which were held at the apartment they shared (with Alice - don't forget poor Alice).  Visitors came to view their collection and discuss art, literature, and music.  The Stein's and Alice became close friends with Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.  Even authors and poets attended the Salons, like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and Sinclair Lewis.  Gertrude made long-lasting, intimate, and influential relationships with most people she met, and they, including these painters, authors, poets, and even composers, often sought her opinions.

She was amazingly popular.  Apparently, everyone wanted to paint her portrait and take her picture. Here is one of the most famous portraits done of Stein, by Picasso.  Now I know whom this woman is!

Gertrude Stein by Pablo Picasso, 1905-6
Gertrude Stein posing for Joe Davidson 
bronze sculpture, Paris, 1923

And poor little Alice had her portrait done, too, by an artist I do not know.  She looks so meek, small, and quiet.  I certainly think she was.

Alice B. Toklas by Pavel Tchelitchew, 1927 

Here is probably the most important piece of information: Gertrude Stein was an author.  Who knew? She wrote a lot of books - novels and poetry - but none I have ever heard of.   And after reading this autobiography, I do not understand how or why she receives to this day such praise for her writing ability or style.  It is not the worst, but it reminds me of the decline of art.  Art declined, music declined, and writing also declined.  It just has, and there is no defense of it.  I suppose she was the product of her time, as all art forms were being influenced by the social philosophy of the day.  

However, because of her writing style, the reader may know Stein very clearly.  I imagine that she was strong, opinionated, and assertive (with a mild manner), as well as unemotional and well-grounded.  I think she also may have been a little arrogant and conceited. Imagine: she wrote this autobiography, as if her life partner, Alice, wrote it; but it was mainly about her own life.  

The story of their connections with artists and authors was enticing to me, and their involvement during World War I in Europe was definitely intriguing, as I appreciated the story of their experience. Stein was also a controversial figure, especially with her opinions about black Americans particularly:
Gertrude Stein concluded that negroes were not suffering from persecution, they were suffering from nothingness.  She always contends that the african is not primitive, he has a very ancient but a very narrow culture and there it remains.  Consequently nothing does or can happen.
By the way, that is how the passage appears in the book.  Insert your own mental grammatical corrections, if you must. 

In the end, I never understood why I had to read about Gertrude Stein or Alice Toklas, when I did not find anything that they did very important.  In all fairness, I am sure she or they are more widely known in Europe, especially Paris (where Stein's busty bronze sits), and also within art and literary circles where Stein accordingly influenced her contemporaries.  

Finally, to close this post about this odd couple and biography, if I can think of anything memorable at all, it is this old photo.  It features Alice and Gertrude hanging out in their abode, and I thought it summed up everything very nicely.  That's how I shall remember this.  

Alice and Gertrude, 1922

Following is an audio of Stein reading a poem she wrote for Picasso.  It's terrible - the poem is.  It's really awful.  It's just not good art.  But you be the judge.

Read or listen to Gertrude Stein's poem "If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso".


  1. Drat! I thought I might beat you on this one, but I had to get my Ovid posts up so Stein was in a backlog. :-Z You're too organized for your own good. ;-)

    While I liked reading about her time in Paris, I too wondered why her autobiography would be popular. It's still mostly a mystery to me.

    With regard to the poem, I did notice the rhythmical quality that Mildred Aldrich claimed Stein had, but it's achieved by a simple repetition of words, not due to an actual aptitude with them.

    1. Well, you're off reading the Ancients, so you've got some pretty intense reviews occupying your mind right now. This was a purely reactionary post. I didn't even bother going back over the notes in my margins to look for interesting facts.

      The poem is just silly and simplistic, but I see what you are saying. It's not great poetry, by any means.

    2. I really hope this book is not indicative of some of the upcoming biographies. Merton and Lewis are great ones, as I'm sure is Solzhenitsyn, Colson should be at least good, but I'm worried about the others. I've had to jump hoops even to find some of them and I know that I'm going to have to bully my librarian to keep some of the ILL's for WAY longer than is "legal". But I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. I just hope I don't feel like batting myself over the head with the books, which is ALMOST the way I felt with this one. :-Z

    3. Cleo, I have hope. I'm really excited about digging into the rest of these.

  2. Great review and enjoy following your discussion with Cleo about the book. As you mentioned...why is this book on the WEM list? There are so many people who were influential in Paris 1903 - 1918 who were great thinkers, writers and artists. It seems GS does not really fall into any of these catagories! I applaud you AND Cleo for sticking to the list and look forward to more reviews of books I will never read!

    1. Thanks!

      I just read from TWEM, according to Bauer, Stein turns the autobiography on its head. She takes snippets of other lives and puts it together like a collage - like the cubism of her day. It's interesting, if you have to think about it.

  3. I read this book back in the days when it was hip to read such a book and I also had just seen the movie "I Love You Alice B. Toklas! (and so does Gertrude Stein)"- a 1960's movie starring Peter Sellers and actually very good.
    The book was basically valuable for all the famous artists and writers that Gertrude Stein, who was stinking rich, financially supported and associated with. Even calling it Alice's autobiography when Stein is the one who wrote is simply, in my opinion, a silly attempt at being clever.

    1. I would have never imagined that I would have ever known anyone else in the world who chose to read this book; I had no idea there was a film version. I'd be interested in seeing it, I think.
      I think of her as a socialite. Must be nice to just hang out with artists in Europe.

  4. I think it's essential to know about Gertrude Stein as the center of expatriate American culture in Paris at the time. She hugely influenced Hemingway. Two fun allusions: the Disney animated film the Aristocats has two geese named Gerturde and Alice as s nod, also you should watch, if you haven't already, the Romantic Comedy with Owen Wilson "Midnight in Paris" —the Hemingway character alone is fantastic, but the Gertrude Stein one is good, too. Excited to explore your blog further. cheers!

    1. So sorry for all the typographical errors. I'm using an unfamiliar tablet :(

    2. Actually, I think that is really interesting that G & A are featured in films. I never saw Aristocats or "Midnight in Paris," but I may have to look into the latter. I'm glad I was able to read the autobiography, and it has grown on me since. Because I am reading through TWEM list, I can see how the books build on each other; so this next biography had a similar feel - an American who traveled through Europe around the same period as G & A. Thanks for commenting!