PAST Out: Who were Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas?
|by David Bianco|
On the morning of July 27, 1946, in a Paris hospital, Alice B. Toklas kept vigil at the bedside of her partner of almost 40 years, modernist writer Gertrude Stein. Both women were worried, because Stein would soon undergo surgery for cancer. Stein turned to Toklas and asked, "What is the answer?" Toklas was silent. "In that case," Stein continued, "what is the question?" The words have gone into history as the writer's last utterance.
Stein and Toklas each spent their youth in the San Francisco Bay area, but they met and fell in love in Paris. Both had had prior romances with women. Stein met her first lover, May Bookstaver, while studying psychology at Johns Hopkins Medical School in the early 1890s. Bookstaver was simultaneously involved with Stein and a mutual female friend. The romantic triangle caused Stein great pain, which she exorcised by writing a novel about the experience. Because of its lesbian content, Stein put Q.E.D. away in a closet, and the novel was not published until four years after her death. Disillusioned by medical school and eager to forget Bookstaver, Stein went to Paris in1903 to become a writer.
In the 1890s, Toklas was studying piano at the University of Washington and enjoying romantic friendships there with other young women. But both her musical career and the budding of her lesbian sexuality were cut short when her mother became ill and died. Toklas returned to San Francisco to take charge of the household. After 10 years of caring for her father and brother, she became fed up and used an inheritance from her grandfather to sail to Paris in1907. On September 8, one of her first days there, she received an invitation to dinner from fellow San Franciscans Sarah and Michael Stein, Gertrude's sister-in-law and oldest brother. Toklas recalled that when she met Gertrude Stein that evening she heard bells ringing, which she took as a sign that she was in the presence of genius.
Stein and Toklas discovered they had many mutual interests, such as modern art and literature, but their biggest common interest was Gertrude Stein. The two began meeting every day at Stein's apartment, where they discussed her work-in-progress, The Making of Americans, and Toklas taught herself to type so she could transcribe the manuscript.
Toklas soon moved in with Stein, and they settled into married life. Stein's pet names for her lover included "wifie" and "pussy"; in turn, Toklas called Stein "hubbie," "lovey," and "Mount Fatty." Toklas managed all the domestic chores so that Stein was free to write. In addition, she typed Stein's work and scrupulously checked the galley proofs of her books. Since Stein got to fulfill herself while Toklas simply took care of her, some lesbian scholars have criticized their relationship as mimicking the worst heterosexual marriage.
However, both women expressed contentment in their relationship and devotion to each other. Toklas was, Stein said, "all to me." They left daily love notes to each other signed "DD" and "YD" ("Darling Darling" and "Your Darling"). Stein wrote about their seemingly robust sex life, using code words like "cow" for orgasm. "I am fondest of all of lifting belly," reads Stein's "Lifting Belly," a 50-page tribute to lesbian sex:
That is what I adore always more and more.
Though Stein was a prolific writer, most of her work was considered too experimental for large publishers. Her prose, like her poetry, contained many repetitive phrases and not much punctuation. As a result, Stein's early books were either self-published or put out by small presses and received little public attention or money. Stein and Toklas lived almost solely off their modest inheritances. It wasn't until 1934, with the publication of Stein's whimsical Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (which was more about her own genius than about Toklas) and a lecture tour of the United States, that the author became a celebrity. Her writing was suddenly in demand, and the couple's finances were secured.
Over the years, Stein and Toklas were inseparable, dividing their time between Paris and a rented house in the south of France. Together they witnessed two world wars at close range. During World War I, they used their Ford car, "Auntie," as a supply truck and ambulance, hauling equipment, provisions, and wounded French and American soldiers across the country. They received medals from the French government for their war service. In the Second World War, when the Germans occupied Paris, the two women, who were both Jewish and by then in their sixties, moved to their country house for safety.
Soon after the end of World War II, Stein was diagnosed with cancer. She died during surgery at the age of 72. Toklas lived another 21 years, mostly managing Stein's literary estate. But she also tried her hand at writing, contributing articles on cooking to U.S. magazines and compiling her memoirs of life with Stein, What Is Remembered. A reviewer in Time magazine called Toklas "a woman who all her life has looked in a mirror and seen someone else." When Toklas died in 1967 at the age of 90, she was buried with Stein in a joint plot in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
Gay Essentials, a collection of David Biancos Past Out history columns, is forthcoming from Alyson Publications this October. He can be reached at DaveBianco@aol.com. For more Past Out, visit http://www.gay.com or http://www.planetout.com.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 9, No. 13, Sept. 17, 1999