The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

by Gertrude Stein

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Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein, a real person and a fictional character in her book. Because the reader is to assume that the autobiography was written by Alice, much can be said about Gertrude that she could not very well say about herself. For example, at the beginning of the story the general tone of the book is set. Alice announces, “The three geniuses of whom I wish to speak are Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and Alfred Whitehead.” It is unfortunate that readers are never informed of the topics discussed by these geniuses. As a real and a fictional character, Gertrude can express her personal opinions on the work of other artists, if she is so inclined. She was fond of Sherwood Anderson, Thornton Wilder, and Virgil Thomson and expressed her admiration for them without reservation. With the young Ernest Hemingway, it was different. When he first arrived in Paris in 1922, he sought Gertrude’s help, and she gladly assisted him. When Hemingway became famous and failed to pay proper homage to his mentors, Gertrude and Sherwood Anderson in particular, she showed how bitter and vitriolic she could be toward this upstart whom she had to teach the fundamental concept that “remarks are not literature.” There are many stories so filled with humor that readers can only believe them to be fiction. For example, when Gertrude and Alice were performing volunteer work with the American Fund for the French Wounded, they had to supply their own car and driver. Because Gertrude did not know how to drive, she took lessons from a Paris taxi driver, who never taught her how to drive in reverse. Consequently, all her driving during the war, whether in the city or the countryside, was directed with this limitation in mind.

Alice B. Toklas

Alice B. Toklas, a real person and a fictional character. While Gertrude constantly stands at the center of the artistic and literary world, Alice stands at the periphery and glances in Gertrude’s direction, ensuring that no one can steal the spotlight from Gertrude. To be successful in this role, Alice devises a complicated scheme for an imaginary book, titledThe Wives of Geniuses I Have Sat With. This idea is elaborately developed to categorize all possible persons. For example, there are real wives of real geniuses or of nongeniuses, wives who are not wives of geniuses or only near geniuses or even would-be geniuses. This system of ordering made it possible to mention by name the many people who attended the Saturday evenings at 27, rue de Fleurus, showing the immensely important role Gertrude played in Paris at that time, but without letting Gertrude be overwhelmed by the crowd. Alice plays another important role: She must express Gertrude’s biased and negative views on many people. For example, Fernande Olivier, Picasso’s mistress, is dismissed as being “not the least amusing” because her conversations were limited to “talk about hats and perfume.” Alice’s voice provides the tone and cadence for the entire novel. Her narration, which might be described as rambling, does not suggest a forgetful mind but instead represents a character anxious to tell a story complete in all of its many details. At the same time, Alice is determined to provide prominence to Gertrude.


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Sherwood Anderson Anderson (1876–1941) is an American novelist who visits Stein and Toklas in Paris. Stein and Anderson joke about Hemingway, saying he ‘‘had been formed’’ by the two of them. Anderson is best known for his collection of connected stories, Winesburg, Ohio . Hemingway writes him a long letter at one point telling him that he...

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does not like Anderson’s work, but Anderson is not fazed by it.

Guillaume Apollinaire Apollinaire (1880–1918) is ‘‘very attractive and very interesting,’’ ‘‘extraordinarily brilliant,’’ and a friend of Stein’s. Born in Rome in 1880, Apollinaire was a key figure in the French avantgarde. He wrote essays on cubist painters and experimented with varying tones and registers in his poetry. Toklas notes that when he died, ‘‘everybody ceased to be friends.’’

Georges Braque Braque (1882–1963), is an occasional guest at Stein’s gatherings and, along with Picasso, developed cubism. Toklas relates a story in which Braque, a French war hero, punches an art dealer who deliberately keeps the prices of cubist paintings at a government auction low in order to ‘‘kill cubism.’’

Paul Cézanne Cézanne (1839–1906), often called the father of modern art, was a French painter, one of the first post-impressionists, known for his innovative use of color and perspective. He was a friend of Stein’s and was gaining popularity when Stein began buying his paintings from Vollard. Cézanne’s influence on Matisse and Picasso was immeasurable.

T. S. Eliot Eliot (1888–1965) and Stein have one conversation, ‘‘mostly about split infinitives and other grammatical solecisms and why Gertrude Stein uses them.’’ Eliot accepts a piece of Stein’s to publish in The New Criterion, which he edits.

Bernard Fay Fay, Professor of the College de France and director of the National Library, is one of Stein’s ‘‘four permanent friends’’ and the author of books such as Revolution and Freemasonry and Franklin.

Juan Gris Gris (1887–1927) was a friend of Stein’s and of Picasso’s. Gris moved to Paris in 1906 where he met Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Toklas describes him during this time as ‘‘a raw rather effusive youth.’’ A cubist, like Braque and Picasso, Gris also worked in many different media. Stein wrote a book about him, The Life and Death of Juan Gris.

Helene Helene is Stein’s maid at 27, rue de Fleurus. Toklas describes her as ‘‘one of those admirable bonnes in other words excellent maids of all work.’’ Helene also has opinions on Stein’s guests. For example, she does not like Henri Matisse, thinking that he is impolite for a Frenchman. She leaves the Stein household in 1914 after her husband is promoted and wants her to stay home.

Ernest Hemingway Hemingway (1899–1961) is an American writer who meets Stein after World War I. Toklas presents him as a very serious, driven person who idolizes writers such as Ford Madox Ford and Stein herself. Hemingway and Stein frequently discuss literature, and Stein advises him to quit journalism and become a full-time writer, which he does. At the time Hemingway met Stein, he was working on stories that would comprise In Our Time (1925).

Though Toklas is not convinced of the story she reports, she writes that Hemingway arranged for the serialization of The Making of Americans in Ford Madox Ford’s Transatlantic Review and persuaded Robert McAlmon’s Contact Editions to publish it in book form in 1925. Although Hemingway was initially a friend of American writer Sherwood Anderson and presents Stein a letter of introduction from Anderson, the two have a falling out. Stein herself is ambivalent about Hemingway. On the one hand, she has a ‘‘weakness’’ for him, yet on the other hand, she implies that he is somewhat self-

Henri Matisse Matisse (1869–1954) is a French painter whose work Stein and her brother Leo collect. Considered one of the formative figures in twentieth-century art, Matisse was a master in using color to convey emotion, render forms, and organize spatial planes. He was influenced early by the French painters Paul Gauguin and Paul Cézanne and the Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh and later by the pointillist painting of Henri Edmond Cross and Paul Signac. In 1905 he exhibited his work along with that of André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck. Using vivid colors and distorted shapes to express intense emotion, the three became known as les fauves (‘‘the wild beasts’’). Matisse is thirty-five years old, depressed, and poor when Stein first meets him, but after the 1905 show, he becomes widely known and immensely popular. Stein introduces Matisse to Picasso.

Fernande Olivier Fernande is Picasso’s lover, who Toklas initially describes as ‘‘a tall beautiful woman with a wonderful big hat and a very evidently new dress.’’ Later she writes that Fernande ‘‘was not the least amusing’’ and that she only had two subjects: hats and perfumes.

Francis Picabia Picabia (1879–1959) floats in and out of stories. He is a drawer, painter, and poet of Spanish descent who is affiliated with the cubists. Picabia paints Stein’s portrait. He is also a good friend of Apollinaire’s. He brings Tristan Tzara to Paris in the last chapter. Tzara is credited with developing Dadaism.

Pablo Picasso Picasso (1881–1973) is widely acknowledged to be the most important artist of the twentieth century. He is credited with pioneering cubism, collage, and assemblage. Born in Spain, Picasso lived most of his life in France and was very close friends with Stein, who bought many of his paintings. Toklas describes him as ‘‘small quick moving but not restless, his eyes having a strange faculty of opening wide and drinking in what he wished to see.’’ She also writes that he is volatile, intense, and often rude, but a genius. His relationships with other painters, such as Georges Braque, Juan Gris, and Henri Matisse, are at the center of many of the book’s anecdotes. Stein and Picasso have arguments, but they also reconcile and remain lifelong friends.

Ezra Pound Pound (1885–1972) visits Stein and Toklas in Paris. Toklas finds him interesting but not very amusing. She says, ‘‘he was a village explainer, excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not.’’ Pound’s ideas about literature and his work as a correspondent for Poetry magazine made him one of the single biggest influences on modern poetry.

Gertrude Stein Stein (1874–1946) is the actual author of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas; however, she writes as Alice B. Toklas, so her observations are as if from Toklas’s point of view. This allows Stein to say things about herself she otherwise would not be able to without sounding utterly egotistical and pompous. By having Toklas write about her, Stein capitalizes on the humor inherent in the point of view shift and upon the couple’s obvious affection for each other. Wendy Steiner describes Stein’s character in the autobiography as follows: ‘‘The writer records another’s perceptions of her and in so doing creates the other who is then found to be the writer herself.’’ This way of mirroring, or overlapping of selves, is a kind of literary equivalent to cubism, where forms overlap and merge with one another.

Leo Stein Referred to only as ‘‘Gertrude Stein’s brother’’ throughout the book, Leo Stein (1872–1947) lives with his sister from 1903–1913 and is largely responsible for introducing her to modern art. Together they buy paintings by artists such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse, Gris, and Picasso. He is rarely mentioned after 1913, as he and his sister have a falling out.

Alice B. Toklas Toklas (1877–1967) is Stein’s companion for almost forty years. She is the purported narrator of the book, through whom Stein recounts the story of her life. A brief biography of her appears in the first chapter. She was born in San Francisco of ‘‘Polish patriotic stock,’’ and is domestic in nature, enjoying gardening, needlework, and the like. Toklas types and proofs Stein’s manuscripts, seeks out publishers for Stein’s work, and runs the household. Toklas is also responsible for entertaining the wives and girlfriends of the writers, artists, and visitors to the couple’s house, as Stein finds most of the women boring. Stein has Toklas recall: ‘‘The geniuses came and talked to Gertrude Stein and the wives sat with me.’’

Toklas first met Stein in Paris in 1907 and moved in with her in 1909. She had previously known Stein’s older brother, Michael, from San Francisco. In her memoir, What Is Remembered (1963), Toklas writes of that meeting:

In the room were Mr. and Mrs. Stein and Gertrude Stein. It was Gertrude Stein who held my complete attention . . . . She was a golden brown presence, burned by the Tuscan sun and with a golden glint in her warm brown hair. She was dressed in a warm brown corduroy suit. She wore a large round coral brooch and when she talked, very little, or laughed, a good deal, I thought her voice came from this brooch. It was unlike anyone else’s voice—deep, full velvety like a great contralto’s, like two voices. She was large and heavy with delicate small hands and a beautifully modeled and unique head.

Carl Van Vechten Van Vechten (1880–1964) is an American music critic, novelist, photographer, and close friend of Stein’s. He wrote The Music of Spain (1918), Peter Whiffle (1922), and Nigger Heaven (1926), among other works. He was active in the Harlem Renaissance and is known for his efforts to promote better interracial relations. He and Stein correspond for years and Van Vechten visits her in Paris. When she dies, Stein leaves him funds to publish all of her unpublished work.

Ambrose Vollard Ambrose Vollard (1865–1939) is an ambitious Paris art dealer who heavily promotes Paul Cézanne’s work. The Steins buy their first Cézanne from Vollard and many subsequent paintings. Toklas describes him as ‘‘a huge dark man’’ and gloomy.

Alfred North Whitehead Whitehead (1861–1947) is a professor at the University of London when Stein and Toklas visit him and his wife just before the outbreak of World War I. He is one of three geniuses that Toklas has met, the other two being Stein and Picasso.