Gertrude and Alice- “The Mama of Dada”

Becca Anderson, author of The Book of Awesome Women, has written a new blog post on the life and career of Gertrude Stein, including her deep connection with Alice B. Toklas.


Gertrude Stein was a writer who seems to have been eminently comfortable in her own skin and well aware of her fame. Her wholly original writing style shocked and fascinated readers, prompting some wags to dub her “the mama of Dada” and “the Mother Goose of Montparnasse,” but she had her own distinct view: “Einstein was the creative philosophic mind of the century, and I have been the creative literary mind of the century.” Her influence is still felt in our culture, and of the modernists, she still seems the most starkly modern.

An American whose German-Jewish family moved to Baltimore from Bavaria, Gertrude Stein’s father founded a successful clothing business and moved around a good bit with his wife and young children. The brood lived in Austria and Paris before settling in 1879, when Gertrude was four, in Oakland, California, the home about which she made the famously misunderstood comment, “There’s no there there.” (She meant that her home as she remembered it wasn’t there, but the sentence was bandied about as a put-down of the Northern California city for decades.) The brilliant girl spoke German and French, but quickly made English her first language by voraciously reading England’s history, poetry, fiction, and, an odd choice for a young girl, congressional records. Gertrude’s mother passed away in 1888 when Gertrude was fourteen, followed by her father in 1891, bonding her and her brother Leo very closely together under the care of their maternal aunt Fannie Bachrach in Baltimore.

Leo Stein was at Harvard; when it came time to go to college, Gertrude studied under special dispensation at Radcliffe College to be near Leo. Among her teachers there were William James, a pioneer in psychology, and philosopher George Santayana. James took Gertrude under his wing and supported her in her desire to study medicine at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. She did obstetrical work in addition to her medical training, and she received support from two wealthy friends, Etta and Claribal Cone.

By 1899, she sank into a severe melancholy and abandoned her study of medicine. Her depression was believed by biographers to be a result of the breakup of a love triangle with May Bookstaver and Mabel Haynes, fictionalized in Q.E.D., OR Things as They Are (published in 1950, after Stein’s death). In 1902 she joined Leo in Italy, where he was pursuing a career in art under the tutelage of Bernard Berenson, and ultimately followed him to Paris. Their flat in the house at 27 rue de Fleurus soon became a famous address in avant-garde circles, with the duo holding regular to which all the art and literature “glitterati” flocked, including Picasso, Juan Gris, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Here Gertrude was exposed to the modern art she so loved and began to acquire it at a rapid pace. A story she loved to tell was the memory of seeing Matisse’s La Femme au Chapeau at a Petit Palais show where enraged patrons heckled the painter and tried to destroy the painting by scraping the paint off the surface. Gertrude acquired a stunning collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, including works by Renoir, Matisse, Picasso, Rousseau, Braque, and Cézanne. She claimed her attraction to this art was its method of clarification by deformation, an approach some would say she applied to her writing, which was an attempt at a verbal counterpart to Cubism. She eschewed normal punctuation and grammar, and used words associatively and for their sound rather than for meaning. Her goal was to present impressions and states of mind rather than a story.

However, she also undertook The Making of Americans, an attempt to record a history of every type of human. Her early work of 1909, Three Lives, was written while she sat for Picasso’s portrait of her. As usual, modesty was not her strong suit; she proclaimed Three Lives to be “the first definite step away from the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century in literature.” She asked a new acquaintance, Alice B. Toklas, to proofread the manuscript when she at long last found a publisher. They soon became fast friends and lovers, Alice moving into the atelier once inhabited by Leo Stein. Gertrude’s tie to her brother seemed to matter much less with the arrival of San Francisco native Toklas; Gertrude wrote, “It was I who was the genius, there was no reason for it but I was and he was not.”

The union of the two women seemed to be the mating of souls. Toklas founded Plain Edition Press to publish Stein’s many unpublished manuscripts, and Stein’s writing took on new strength, rhythm, and feeling, with her erotic writings based on their relationship. Popular success evaded Stein, however, until she wrote, in Toklas’ voice, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in 1933. This charming “autobiography” tells of the salon they hosted—the young writers Stein mentored, Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway—and discloses delicious gossip about the bevy of artists in their circle. This was less amusing to the artists themselves, prompting The Testimony Against Gertrude Stein, a refutation of her comments, wherein Braque accused her of not understanding Cubism, Matisse railed against her lack of taste, and Tristan Tzara decried her “megalomania” and her egotism as evidenced by such statements of Stein’s as, “Think of the Bible and Homer, think of Shakespeare and think of me.” Among the most fascinating episodes in the Autobiography is the ambulance service the two women ran in World War I, which they seemed to regard as high adventure.

Gertrude Stein’s reputation as a major influence on new forms in literature was growing. She began to write novels and plays, including Four Saints in Three Acts, and she was invited to do lecture tours at the most prestigious venues: Oxford, Cambridge, and in America, with the operatic staging of her play. The Second World War forced Stein and Toklas to leave Paris and set up a more permanent home in the country near Bilignin, France, where they entertained many American soldiers. In 1946, she was diagnosed with an abdominal tumor and was hospitalized at the American Hospital at Neuilly-sur-Seine. Her last words are part of her legacy. She regained consciousness for a few moments after stomach surgery and asked, “What is the answer?” No one responded, and Gertrude Stein answered herself with, “Well, in that case, what is the question?” and immediately lost consciousness and died. Alice B. Toklas died twenty-one years later and lies buried beside her in the cemetery at Père Lachaise in Paris.

Ernest Hemingway once famously said Gertrude Stein looked like a Roman emperor, and indeed, in the portraits by Pavel Tchelitchew and Jacques Lipchitz, she does rather resemble an ancient noble. Other friends marked her resemblance to a “Jewish Buddha.” Partially because she was an amazing looking person and partially because her friends were mostly artists and other writers, she is a very well-documented individual. There are a multitude of portraits of her and many exceptional photographs by the likes of Cecil Beaton and Carl Van Vechten.

During her life, Gertrude Stein authored six hundred novels, poems, essays, plays, opera librettos, and biographies. She influenced generations of writers after her; among those who claim her as inspiration are Edith Sitwell, Samuel Beckett, John Cage, and John Ashbery.

Why We Love Pirates

The Hunt for Captain Kidd and How He Changed Piracy Forever

Crime and punishment. During his life and even after his death, Captain William Kidd’s name was well known in England and the American colonies. He was infamous for the very crime for which he was hanged, piracy. Rebecca Simon dives into the details of the two-year manhunt for Captain Kidd and the events that ensued. Captain Kidd was hanged in 1701, followed by a massive British-led hunt for all pirates during a period known as the Golden Age of Piracy. Ironically, public executions only increased the popularity of pirates. And, because the American colonies relied on pirates for smuggled goods such as spices, wines, and silks; pirates tended to be protected from capture.

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