The books I'm reading and the pictures in them take me on a daily mind trip to Paris in the early part of the 20th Century. I am in the company of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, looking at the two of them through the eyes of others and looking at the world through their eyes. It's an enchantment. I recommend the trip to you.
Gertrude Stein had spent much of her early childhood in Paris. No one ever thinks of Gertrude Stein as a child, but she was once a little girl, hard as that might be to picture. There are photographs of her in childhood, the youngest in the family, gussied up as children were in those days, even with the long hair, skirts, and ribbons. Smarter than most other children, and surely less girly than most other little girls, she observed the Paris of the 1870's and wanted to stay there. Born in Pennsylvania and living much of her childhood in Oakland, California ("There is no there there"), when Gertrude Stein lived in Paris she made it her own. ("America is my country and Paris is my home town.")
It was no doubt a beautiful place to be. She had spent her youth in the shadow of her older brother Leo, but when she met the odd-looking Miss Toklas it was love at first sight for both of them. Her brother left them to live in the apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus which he had shared with Gertrude, the apartment in which artists and writers came and went. The Steins had collected artists as well as art; Miss Toklas became the silent, solicitious if always-in-the-background hostess to throngs of young people who came to appreciate and be appreciated by Gertrude Stein in her emergence as an artist in her own medium of the English (or maybe I should say American) language.
The two women shared a bond and a mutual cause, both convinced that Gertrude Stein was a genius. Pablo Picasso apparently agreed, as did Matisse, as did Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, André Gide, Clive Bell, and ever so many others. The high ceilings in the old building gave them huge walls to hang their extraordinary collection of paintings they liked; they like the new things, which looked oddly right in the antique surroundings. Picasso was a young friend to both women. His portrait of Gertrude Stein is one of the most important of the pictures she ever was to possess. He worked and worked at it, wasn't happy with the face and made many attempts to get it right. When he declared it finished, someone said, "But it doesn't look like her," and he replied, "It will."
Gertrude Stein's writing was revolutionary. She and Miss Toklas assumed it would be easy to see that, easy to understand and easy to read. She repeated phrases, repeated sentences, made a statement clearly and then made it again, sometimes repeating it within itself and of itself. Like Fred Astaire's dancing, it looked easy, but wasn't. Miss Toklas contributed food to the party, and supported Miss Stein by screening and editing her visitors subtly, accepting most as friends but quietly caustic about others. The two enjoyed the art of fashion, that is, in creating personal style. They dressed oddly and their appearance caused quite a stir.
Life in Paris in those days is something to be nostalgic about, even if you weren't there. I've been to Paris many times, and know its magic to be real; and know that the Paris of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas is my Paris too, far more than the brash young Pompidou Museum -- although they ladies would have surely loved it -- or the I.M. Pei glass pyramid that blights the entrance of the Louvre with its inappropriateness. I wish I could have taken tea with the Misses Stein and Toklas, or been a fly on the wall when Miss Stein coached Hemingway with his prose style, or just passed them on the street in the traffic of the 1920's.
I am thinking about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas because they are coming to Fairhope. They would have been quite interested in the Fairhope of their own day, in fact, I might say I would not have been surprised to heard that they had actually visited. But that will happen in a few months, and I shall inform you as the time approaches. In the meantime, find what you can to read about them and the locales they did visit and the people who visited them. It's a wonderful trip.
And do not be surprised, for there is no surprise in surprise, if the future holds surprises, and those surprises include a visit from Gertrude Stein, even in the writing you read here. There is a here here.