The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

by Gertrude Stein

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Alice is born in San Francisco, California. It is quite by accident that, shortly after the great San Francisco earthquake (April 18, 1906), Alice meets Michael and Sarah Stein, Gertrude’s older brother and his wife. They have just returned from Paris to tend to their real estate holdings damaged by the earthquake. Sarah brings with her three small paintings by Henri Matisse. She shows them to Alice and her friends, tells them about her exciting life in France, and invites them all to visit her in Paris. In less than a year Alice goes to Paris and meets Gertrude Stein.

Alice makes her first visit to the already-famous Saturday-evening dinners at 27 rue de Fleurus, home of Gertrude. Of great significance to Alice is what she sees and whom she meets. She gives an account of the apartment and the extensive art collection, including paintings by Paul Cézanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Matisse, and Pablo Picasso, with special attention given to Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein (which now hangs in New York’s Metropolitan Museum). The list of the people in attendance on that and the many other Saturday evenings makes up a veritable who’s who of European art and American literature during the early decades of the twentieth century. The most important person Alice meets that first evening is Pablo Picasso, the artist for whom Gertrude Stein has the greatest affinity.

Alice’s experiences continue on the next day and include her first vernissage—a preview of an art exhibition—where she is further introduced to the art and artists of Paris. The third instance of Alice’s introduction is a walk with Gertrude through various artists’ studios in Montmartre, then the artists’ quarter of Paris.

In the following chapter, “Gertrude Stein in Paris: 1903-1907,” Gertrude details her formative years as a writer and one involved in the development of modern art, with specific reference to Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso. In 1903, Gertrude begins writing The Making of Americans, an immense work that she regards as her major literary accomplishment at that time. It is finished in 1911 but is not published until 1925. During these years she also writes Three Lives (1909), her first published book.

In these years Gertrude and her brother Leo start buying the paintings that make up their vast and valuable art collection, and, in this way, they meet the major artists working in Paris. Of greatest consequence to Gertrude’s writing are Matisse and Picasso, whose paintings are in many ways the visual counterparts of her literary style.

In the next chapter, “Gertrude Stein Before She Came to Paris,” a few high points of her early life are recounted, such as her travels with her parents and brother, studying psychology with William James at Radcliffe, and studying medicine at Johns Hopkins University. When she eventually loses interest in her medical studies she travels with Leo in Europe and settles in London for a winter, spending most days reading English literature at the British Museum. Gertrude returns to America for a brief stay and writes her first short novel (Quod Erat Demonstrandum, written 1903, “rediscovered” 1932, published as Things as They Are, 1950).

In “1907-1914,” the story of Gertrude’s and Alice’s lives together begins again. The Saturday evenings at home continue on a regular basis, allowing further discussion about the famous artists, or those who are well known at the time. There are, however, also many minor figures, such as the maidservant Hélène, their Moroccan guide Mohammed, and a host of unnamed people. Virtually all these visitors become subjects of the portraits Gertrude writes during these years. One...

(This entire section contains 969 words.)

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visitor is Carl Van Vechten, author and music critic forThe New York Times. His early essay on Gertrude included the quotation from her portrait “Sacred Emily” that was to become her most famous motto: “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”

Two important events in Gertrude’s life occur during these years. In 1909, Alice moves to 27 rue de Fleurus and becomes Gertrude’s lifelong companion. In 1913, Gertrude’s brother Leo, who was such an important influence on her early life, moves to Florence, Italy. They divide their art collection: She keeps the Cézannes and Picassos and he takes the Matisses and Renoirs.

“The War” reports the events that engage Gertrude and Alice during World War I (1914-1918). In addition to continued writing, the two women perform volunteer work, driving a supply truck for the American Fund for the French Wounded.

The final chapter, “After the War: 1919-1932,” describes a very different life. The exciting crowd from before the war, by and large, disappeared from the Saturday-evening gatherings. It is, however, replaced by a new group that Gertrude labels “the lost generation” of American writers. Among the best known are Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Gertrude provides an extensive discussion of her relationship with Hemingway, suggesting that she not only influenced him to become a writer but also taught him how he should write.

The composer Virgil Thomson encourages Stein to write the libretto for the opera Four Saints in Three Acts (written 1927-1928; first performed 1934). It includes another famous Stein motto with Saint Ignatius and a chorus of saints singing “Pigeons on the grass alas.”

Personally most satisfying for Gertrude is the public recognition she receives for her work in these years. The literary societies of Cambridge and Oxford universities invite her in 1926 to present her lecture “Composition as Explanation” to great acclaim. She realizes then that she has become a writer of distinction.

The last page of the book answers the question of its authorship. It begins with Gertrude’s effort to persuade Alice to write the book, but Gertrude finally admits that the only way the autobiography will ever be written will be if she writes it.