February 3, 1874– Gertrude Stein:
“Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.”
I caught it yesterday while channel hoping. The familiar Woody Allen opening credits were rolling and I decided to watch it for a third time. It seems disingenuous to label a work of art as charming, but Midnight In Paris (2001) has so much charm, so many deft moments, that I felt that I was actually being transported to some magical place. The film is populated with small turns by great actors playing ex-pats and assorted artists, writers & personalities of 1920s Paris. It is an enchantment set in Paris about a family that goes there because of business, and the pair of young people who are engaged to be married who have experiences there that change their lives. It’s about a young writer’s love of Paris, and the illusion people have that a life different from their own would be much better.
The cameos include a perfectly cast Adrien Brody as Salvador Dalí, emphasizing the accent each time he says his name. Also in the cast are my much adored Corey Stoll as a sexy, young Ernest Hemingway and Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein. Bates plays Stein as an Earth-Mother, no-nonsense, the incredibly pragmatic center of the artistic activity of her epoch. Her moments in Midnight In Paris are superb. She embodies Stein as I always imagined her. The entire enterprise is as effervescent as champagne. As a fan of Allen’s films, it is nice to know his work can still intoxicate.
Stein is the sort of author you want people to catch you reading when you are in college. That is how I played it, anyway.
Stein was a wealthy American art collector and writer who dominated the Paris Avant Garde in the days of Pablo Picasso. She was one of Picasso’s boldest collectors, his only real female friend, and the object of one of his most revolutionary paintings. Picasso’s Portrait Of Gertrude Stein hangs in her apartment in the film.
Stein played herself in her own literary classic The Autobiography Of Alice B. Toklas, which is not an autobiography, but that portrays Stein through the eyes of her lover/partner, Alice B. Toklas.
Stein’s work is exasperating and exhilarating. Her novels, plays, operas, valentines, poems, autobiography, and lectures are challenging for me to read. She was a revolutionary experimenter with language, French and English. Stein challenged literary tradition. She questioned why stories must have beginnings, middles, and ends. She asked why plays need to have acts of equal length, or why an autobiography must be written only by the person whose life is being told, or why key words need to be repeated in a sentence, or even why they be used only in their usual ways. On the book jacket blurb for one of her tomes, her publisher wrote:
“I do not know what Miss Stein is talking about. I do not even understand the title. That, Miss Stein tells me, is because I am dumb.”
Here is an example, a fragment from the poem If I Told Him A Competed Portrait Of Picasso:
“Shutters shut & open so do queens. Shutters shut & shutters & so shutters shut & shutters & so & so shutters & so shutters shut & so shutters shut & shutters & so. & so shutters shut & so & also. & also &
so & also.
Exact resemblance to exact resemblance the exact resemblance as exact as a resemblance, exactly as resembling, exactly resembling, exactly in resemblance exactly a resemblance,
exactly & resemblance.
For this is so.
Stein was born in Pittsburgh and raised in Oakland, California. She studied psychology at Radcliffe College and medicine at Johns Hopkins University, but in 1903 she moved to Paris to be a writer. In 1907, she met the lovely Toklas from San Francisco. Five years later, they moved in together. The couple lived together for nearly 4 decades, until Stein left this world in 1946.
At their apartment at 27 Rue de Fleurus, Stein hosted her famous Saturday night salons that brought together the greats of modern literature and art. Regular participants included Picasso, Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Ezra Pound, Thornton Wilder, Stephen Rutledge, Henri Rousseau, Paul Bowles, and Henri Matisse. Toklas served as the hostess for the wives, girlfriends, and mistresses of the artists in attendance, who gathered in a separate room.
They were not exactly pretty lipstick lesbians. With her short cropped hair, Stein challenged the gender stereotypes of her era. Stein’s 3 year old nephew stated:
“I liked the man alright, but why did the woman have a moustache?”
At a time when polite people never talked about such a thing, Stein and Toklas were an out-of-the closet couple.
When WWI broke out, they drove an ambulance for the Red Cross. During WWII, when the Nazis occupied Paris they had to flee to the countryside. They lived in a small town and kept a low profile, protected by their French neighbors. Stein had to walk for miles to find bread, and foraged for food in the forest. When France was liberated, Stein became a sort of grandmother to American GIs.
Stein died when she was 72 years old, taken by complications from surgery for stomach cancer. When Stein was being wheeled into the operating room, she whispered to Toklas: “What is the answer?” Toklas did not reply. Stein asked: “In that case, what is the question?”
Stein is buried in Paris in the Père Lachaise cemetery. After Stein’s demise, Toklas actually did publish her autobiography, What Is Remembered (1963), which abruptly concludes with the death of Stein. Stein’s family made claim to the apartment and all of the valuable art. Toklas died in poverty when she was 89 years old. She is buried next to Stein. Her name is engraved on the back of Stein’s headstone.
There is a monument to Stein on the Upper Terrace of Bryant Park, NYC, to which I have often paid homage.