Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice
It is generally agreed that without Alice Toklas, Stein might not have had the will to go on writing what for many years almost no one had any interest in reading. Stein’s self-admiration and self-assurance needed to be fed, and Toklas appeared just in time to give them the nourishment Leo had withheld. Toklas recognized Stein’s originality when Stein’s self-confidence was at its lowest ebb. She banished doubt from Stein’s artist’s consciousness, as she would later banish the unworthy from Stein’s salon. The division of household labor between the two women, with one doing everything and the other nothing, was another precondition for the flowering of Stein’s genius. “It take a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing,” Stein cheerfully reports in Everybody‘s Autobiography. Her literary enterprise was itself almost entirely work-free. Mabel Dodge’s four-volume autobiography intimate Memories, begun in 1924 (after her fourth marriage, when she became Mabel Dodge Luhan), gives a rare glimpse of Stein at her desk during the long visit she and Toklas made to the Villa Curonia in 1912. It was late at night and Stein was “writing automatically in a long weak handwriting—four or five lines to the page—letting it ooze up from deep down inside her, down onto the paper with the least possible physical effort; she would cover a few pages so and leave them there and go to bed, and in the morning Alice would gather them up.” Stein never (or hardly ever) revised (a rare false start to The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas exists among Stein’s papers), and in Everybody’s Autobiography she said that she never wrote much more than half an hour a day (but added significantly, “To be sure all day and every day you are waiting around to write that half hour a day”). Stein didn’t even type her work—she just oozed into her notebooks and Toklas did the rest.
The two women came from similar backgrounds—second-generation Jewish-American business families—and both lost their mothers to cancer—Stein at the age of fourteen and Toklas at twenty—but could not have been more different in appearance and temperament. In Intimate Memories, the wickedly observant Mabel Dodge draws a vivid contrast between them:
Gertrude Stein was prodigious. Pounds and pounds and pounds piled up on her skeleton—-not the billowing kind, hut massive heavy fat. She wore some covering of corduroy or velvet and her crinkly hair was brushed back arid twisted up high behind her jolly, intelligent face. . . The year before Gertrude had lived in Fiesole—and she trudged down one bill and across town and up another to see us . . . and arrive[d] just sweating, her face parboiled. And when she sat down, fanning herself with her broad-brimmed hat with its wilted, dark brown ribbon, she exhaled a vivid steam all around her. When she got up she frankly used to pull her clothes off from where they stuck to her great legs. Yet with all this she was not at all repulsive. On the contrary, she was positively, richly attractive in her grand ampleur: She always seemed to like her own fat anyway and that usually helps other people to accept it. She had none of the funny embarrassments Anglo-Saxons have about flesh. She gloried in hers.
As for Toklas (to whom the bisexual Dodge was not drawn), she “was slight and dark, with beautiful gray eyes hung with black lashes—and she had a drooping, Jewish nose, and her eyelids drooped, and the corners of her red mouth and the lobes of her ears drooped under the black folded Hebraic hair, weighted down, as they were, with long heavy Oriental earrings … She looked like Leah, out of the Old Testament, in her half-Oriental get-up—her blues and browns and oyster whites—her black hair—her barbaric chains and jewels— and her melancholy nose.”
Dodge goes on to extend the comparison to the dinner table: Gertrude “loved beef and I used to like to see her sit down in front of five pounds of rare meat three inches thick and with strong wrists wielding knife and fork, finish it with gusto, while Alice ate a little slice daintily, like a cat.” Soon after the visit, even though Dodge was a tireless promoter of Stein’s work, Stein dropped her—and Dodge was convinced that Toklas was behind it. She cites the incident that she believes sealed her fate: “One day at lunch, Gertrude, sitting opposite me in Edwin’s”—the absent Dodge’s— “chair, sent me such a strong look over the table that it seemed to cut across the air to me in a band of electrified steel—a smile traveling across on it—powerful-—heavens! I remember it now so keenly! At that Alice arose hastily and ran out of the room on to the terrace.” Stein went after her and returned saying that Toklas did not want her lunch. “She feels the heat today.” “From that time on,” Dodge writes, “ Alice began to separate Gertrude and me—poco-poco.” Ten years later Man Ray took a famous photograph of Stein and Toklas at 27 rue de Fleurus. They sit at opposite ends of a low table in front of a fireplace above which modernist works hang—Gertrude fat, handsome, comfortable, benevolent, Alice thin, plain, tense, sour. The photograph is a kind of parody of the conventional society portrait of a husband and wife at home—it shimmers with the genre’s sense of appearances being kept up and things not being said. The word “lesbian” was never publicly uttered by either of them about their relationship—as it was the custom of the day not to utter it. But the intensity of their love is documented by Stein’s erotic poems (published after her death), by the memoirs of contemporaries, and, in one extraordinary instance, by a piece of literary vandalism.
Toklas writes in her “Food in the Bugey” chapter that “as the dreary dismal months dragged on provisioning became easier and more abundant, except for meat and butter,” and, she adds, “More people came to see us, even from Lyon, which is seventy miles distant. All in the Resistance , naturally.” When I read this in the fifties, the last sentence did not cause me to smile knowingly, as it does today. Then it went without saying that the people Stein and Toklas saw during the war were the good guys. But today I know that at least one of the people who came to see Stein and Toklas at Culoz was riot a good guy—indeed was one of the very worst guys, convicted of collaboration after the war and sentenced to a lifetime of hard labor.
He was Bernard Faÿ, a French university professor and writer, a gay man in his late forties, who came from a wealthy Royalist Catholic family, and whose right-wing connections led to his appointment in 1940 to head the Bibliothèque Nationale (replacing a Jew). Faÿ had been a close friend of Stein’s since the early twenties—one of the few close friends with whom she didn’t eventually quarrel and break. A photograph of him with Stein at Bilignin shows him to be a heavyset man with a mustache and glossy dark hair. Not visible in the photograph is his limp, the result of polio in childhood. His academic field was American history and culture (he had a graduate degree from Harvard, and among his books are biographies of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, a work called The Revolutionary Spirit in France and America, and a study of American novelists), but he also cultivated the avant-garde arts, and was a busy promoter of Stein’s writings in France (he translated The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas into French and co-translated an abbreviated version of The Making of Americans). In 1966—twenty years after his conviction and sentencing, fifteen years after he escaped from a prison hospital and fled to Switzerland, and eight years after he was pardoned by François Mitterrand— Faÿ wrote a memoir called Les précieux, in which he identified himself as Stein and Toklas’s protector during the war. Part of his job as head of the Bibliotheque, he writes, was to act as adviser to Marshal Pétain, and once a month he traveled from Paris to Vichy to confer with the old man. During one of their meetings he found an opportunity to speak “about Gertrude, her genius, the peril she was in, and, more particularly, about the danger that she might freeze to death in the coming winter.” He goes on:
Before the meeting ended the Maréchal dictated a letter to the sous-prefect at Belley, entrusting Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas to his care, and directing him to see to it that they had everything needed to keep warm during the winter, as well as ration coupons for meat and butter. I came to Vichy quite regularly, and I telephoned the sous-prefect to remind him of his instructions. During this horrible period of occupation, misery, and nascent civil war, my two friends lived a peaceful life, They didn’t lack courage, they didn’t lack intelligence, they didn’t lack a sense of reality, and they didn’t lack coal.
This account—along with a paragraph in a letter of 1955 from Faÿ to a Mr. Monahan giving a shortened version of the story—is the only known documentary evidence of Faÿ’s intervention. Stein’s and Toklas’s biographers accept it as true. But Stein and Toklas never mentioned it in anything they wrote about their wartime experiences. Stein, in a letter written in March 1946, four months before her death, in which she defended Faÿ to the court that later convicted him, noted that he had saved her collection of paintings, but omitted to say that he had saved her life. Toklas, who lived until 1967, was similarly silent on the subject. In nothing she wrote—including letters trying to get help for Faÿ in prison—did Toklas acknowledge Faÿ’s wartime protection. Does this mean that Faÿ was lying about his intervention in order to make himself look good? Or was he telling the truth, and Stein and Toklas kept silent because they couldn’t bring themselves to admit to the world that they had been mixed up with a collaborator?
The answer to the question was given to me by a professor of English named Edward M. Burns. I had been much taken with an essay he and another English professor, Ulla E. Dydo, had written entitled “Gertrude Stein: September 1942 to September 1944” and published as an appendix in their collection The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder (1996). Burns and Dydo are distinguished Stein scholars. Bums had previously edited a two-volume collection of the letters between Stein and Carl Van Vechten (Van Vechten was the friend whose slavish devotion to Stein practically matched Toklas’s in his letters he called her Baby Woojums—he was Papa Woojums and Toklas was Mama Woojums), a book of Alice Toklas’s letters called Staying on Alone , and an illustrated hook of Stein’s writings on Picasso. Dydo, for her part, has produced A Gertrude Stein Reader, numerous papers on Stein published in scholarly journals, and a monumental critical study, Gertrude Stein: The Language That Rises, 1923–1934. But, in their essay on Stein in World War II, Burns and Dydo do not pull their punches in dealing with her problematic relationship to Faÿ, and they are equally stern about her perverse project, begun in late 1941 and evidently instigated by Faÿ, of translating a book of Pétain’s speeches into English. Stein was not alone, of course, in her admiration for Pétain, the hero of Verdun. “What is difficult to understand, however, is how Stein continued with the project once edicts against Jews were issued and deportations begun,” Burns and Dydo write, adding,
It is as if in 1942–43 she was insulated from understanding what was happening. She had always been conservative, reactionary, and fearful of communism, and in the Spanish Civil War she had been anti-Loyalist. We do not know to what extent she continued to rely on Faÿ’s judgment and what she understood of his political activities, his active anti-Semitism, his hatred of Bolshevism, his collaboration . . . . In “Wars I Have Seen,” filled with astute observation of daily life, a reactionary tone sometimes creates discomfort. What she understood about Faÿ and how she saw the situation remains a troublesome puzzle.
A page earlier, Dydo and Burns write of Faÿ’s escape from a prison hospital, on September 30, 1951, “with the help of friends.” One of these friends, they write, was Alice Toklas: “By means of the sale of one or more works on paper by Picasso, Toklas helped to finance the escape.” I looked for the source of this arresting information, but there was none—neither in the text nor in a footnote. I telephoned one of the authors, and this led to a series of meetings with Burns, Dydo, and another Stein scholar, William Rice, at Burns’s apartment on East Tenth Street in Manhattan.
Burns is a burly, affable, and loquacious man in his early sixties, who entered the Stein world when he was an undergraduate at Brooklyn College and took a course on American literature which Dydo was teaching there. Dydo’s teaching of Stein, Burns said, was his first encounter with Stein’s “real,” or experimental, writing—as opposed to her accessible “audience” writing—and the beginning of the serious interest in Stein which became his life’s work. Before writing the dissertation that was to become the Stein–Van Vechten volumes, Burns taught at the Charles Evans Hughes High School in Chelsea. (His own high school diploma, he told me, was jeopardized because he refused to sign the loyalty oath that was then a requirement of graduation.) He now teaches at William Paterson University, in New Jersey.
Dydo is a slender, elegant woman in her early eighties, who speaks with a European accent and has a tart manner that struggles with, and is defeated by, a deep underlying soft-heartedness. She grew up in Switzerland and came to this country in the late forties to get a master’s degree at Bryn Mawr and then a doctorate at the University of Wisconsin. Her dissertation was on Allen Tate. “Tate interested me when I started,” Dydo said at one of our meetings. “But he didn’t continue to interest me. In the dissertation, I virtually said ‘this work isn’t interesting.’ He was a traditionalist. And all that Southern business. I started reading Stein on my own at Wisconsin and that was interesting.” After Wisconsin, Dydo taught for a few years at the Brearley School in Manhattan, then at Vassar, Brooklyn, and Bronx Community Colleges.
Rice, a tall, thin man in his seventies, with a sad and very kind face, is primarily a painter and actor, and therefore has a slightly different status in the trio. In the Thornton Wilder book and in Dydo’s critical study, for example, he is given billing as “with William Rice.” He entered the Stein world in 1980 when Burns hired him to do research and to type the manuscript of the Van Vechten book, and he remained to work with Burns and Dydo as a valued research assistant.
Burns and Dydo toil in different parts of the Stein vineyard. Burns has all the impulses of a biographer, though he lacks one crucial biographer’s trait: the arrogant desire to impose a narrative on the stray bits and pieces of a life that wash up on the shores of biographical research. He is content to leave the bits and pieces as they are, and offer them in the footnotes and introductions and appendixes of the collections of letters he gathers. His appetite for research into Stein’s life is almost unappeasable. He goes where no one else had thought of going, and comes back with trophies of great worth.
Dydo’s concern, in contrast, is with Stein’s texts, of which she is an extremely close reader, perhaps the closest reader Stein has ever had. She is a leading figure in the recent movement to accord Stein the status of a major modernist master and to read her work with sympathetic, rather than hostile, incomprehension. Indeed, as Jennifer Ashton, one of the new Stein critics, reports without irony in a paper entitled “Gertrude Stein for Anyone,” published in the journal ELH in 1997, “Among more recent critical accounts that situate her as a precursor to postmodernism, unintelligibility—refigured as indeterminacy or indefinition—has become Stein’s strongest virtue.” Dydo’s essays and / her new book reflect an affinity for Stein’s experimental writing that is so strong that it almost persuades the reader that he or she, too, can pick up any Stein text and read it with rapt delight. Dydo cherishes the anarchy of Stein’s language. “By lifting words from the lockstep of standard usage, [Stein] stops us from unthinking association with things, ideas, and formulations,” she writes in Gertrude Stein: The Language That Rises. “This process also does away with all the hierarchical trappings of grammar and with the distinction between important and unimportant words. Words cease to be signifiers and become objects in themselves.” But Dydo has no illusions about the difficulty of Stein’s writing. “Is Stein worth the effort to figure her out?” she pauses to ask in The Language That Rises, and allows the question to hover over its six hundred and fifty-nine pages.
Twenty years ago, Dydo set herself the Herculean task of establishing a true text for Stein’s work. “Anybody who has ever copied or memorized a Stein piece knows that it is difficult to transcribe Stein accurately,” Dydo writes in an essay called “Row to Read Gertrude Stein,” published in 1984 in the Transactions of the Society for Textual Scholarship. “Stein’s syntax, grammar, and punctuation do not allow the typist or reader to rely unthinkingly on language habits when preparing or proofreading a Stein text.” Accordingly, typists’ and typesetters’ errors that would leap out of texts written in ordinary English do not leap out of Stein’s texts, and can be dislodged only through the painstaking comparison of printed text to manuscript. For more than two decades, Dydo has been reading printed texts against manuscripts and finding significant errors.
One of her most significant corrections was to the text of Stanzas in Meditation, an austerely impenetrable work, written in 1932—the same year, as it happens, that the beguilingly easy Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was written— but not published until 1956, by Yale. The book- length Stanzas, characterized by one critic as “perhaps the dreariest long poem in the world,” and by Dydo herself as “forbiddingly difficult,” makes demands on the reader that only the most heroic of Steinians will not balk at. While comparing the manuscript and published versions of Stanzas in Meditation. Dydo came across something extremely odd. In the manuscript, she found that almost everywhere the auxiliary verb “may” appeared Stein had crossed it out and put in the word “can.” For example, the lines “They may lightly send it away to say / That they will not change it if they may” were altered to “They can lightly send it away to say / That they will not change it if they can.” In addition, when the month of May appeared it was crossed out and “day” or “today” was substituted. The revisions make no sense and are clear disimprovements. In some cases, the changes “twist the language to incomprehensible, even un-English phrasing,” Dydo writes in The Language That Rises, as in “may be they shall be spared” changed to “can they shall be spared.” The published text of the Stanzas was set from a typescript that reflected the revisions, and until Dydo examined the manuscript and a hitherto unexamined earlier typescript, no one knew that all the awkward “can”s in the poem had originally been “may”s and the “today”s and “day”s had been “May”s. Why had Stein subverted her work in this way? Dydo could not answer the question.
Then, in the summer of 1980, she had a dream that gave her the answer. Her painstaking work of comparison of manuscript and printed text was being done at the Beinecke Library at Yale, where most of Stein’s manuscripts repose. Dydo would make periodic trips to New Haven and stay with a friend, but that summer there was no room at the friend’s house, and Dydo had to make do with Spartan accommodations at a place called the Graduate Club. “It’s the most depressing place there is,” she told me. “It is a ramshackle old wood house. The boards crack. The rooms are not much more than monks’ cells. There are sinks and narrow beds. There is no air conditioning. But it was close to the Beinecke and it was cheap. And that’s where the dream came.”
Dydo dreamed of an incident that Stein records in The Autobiography of Alice Toklas, in which she accidentally comes upon the manuscript of an early work of fiction. Stein does not identify the work, but we assume it is Q.E.D. “The funny thing about this short novel is that she completely forgot about it for many years,” Stein writes in Toklas’s voice, and goes on:
She remembered herself beginning a little later writing the Three Lives but this first piece of writing was completely forgotten, she had never mentioned it to me, even when I first knew her. She must have forgotten about it almost immediately. This spring just two days before our leaving for the country she was looking for some manuscript . . . and she came across these two carefully written volumes of this completely forgotten first novel.
When Dydo awoke in her stifling room at the Graduate Club she knew in a flash that the word “may” in the Stanzas was connected to May Bookstaver, the thinly disguised love object of Q.E.D. In a paper published in 1985 in the Chicago Review entitled “Stanzas in Meditation: The Other Autobiography,” Dydo spells out the connection. She relates that when Alice Toklas—who had known nothing about the Stein-Bookstaver affair—read the “completely forgotten” novel,
[she] was enraged. She destroyed—or made Gertrude destroy—May’s letters, which had served as the basis for the early novel. She became, as she put it, “paranoid about the name May.” That paranoia appears to be the key to the revisions of the text of Stanzas. Alice Toklas must have initiated the elimination of the words may and May from the stanzas in the hope of purging the poems of Gertrude Stein of anything suggestive of May Bookstaver.
“How do you imagine the scene?” I asked Dydo. She and Burns and Rice and I were sitting around a table in an alcove of Burns’s living room, a light-filled space sparsely furnished with modernist furniture, its walls crammed with paintings, drawings, and photographs. “Do you think Alice stood over Gertrude and watched her change the ‘may’s to ‘can’s?”
“No,” Dydo said.
“No,” Rice said.
“It’s far more punitive for Alice to say, ‘You go there and you do it! You do it tonight! In your room!” Dydo made her normally pleasant voice become a harsh bark.
“Go to the corner and do it,” Rice said.
“The manuscript tells a terrible story,” Burns said. “The force with which these words are crossed out. The anger with which this was done. Some of the slashes go right through the paper.”
“You almost expect to see blood,” Rice said.
Stein’s acceptance of the punishment inflicted on her poem by the infuriated Toklas is almost beyond understanding. How could a serious writer agree to such a crazy demand? But what does one know about other people’s intimate lives? We know that jealousy can drive people to dire acts. ‘We accept the idea of sadomasochism. Certain reports by contemporaries—and hints that Stein herself dropped—suggest that the “ can” / “ may” episode was not an isolated event but part of a regular repertoire of sadomasochistic games the couple played. The most striking of the reports is Hemingway’s. In his memoir A Moveable Feast, he writes of an exchange he overheard between Stein and Toklas whose violence so unnerved him that it effectively ended his friendship with Stein. Hemingway tells of coming to see Stein at 27 rue de Fleurus and being told to wait by a maid, who brings him a glass of eau-de-vie. He continues:
The colorless alcohol felt good on my tongue and it was still in my mouth when heard someone speaking to Miss Stein as I had never heard one person speak to another; never, anywhere, ever.
Then Miss Stein’s voice came pleading and begging, saying, “Don’t, pussy. Don’t. Don’t, please don’t. I’ll do anything, pussy, but please don’t do it. Please don’t. Please don’t, pussy.”
What Hemingway wrote about Stein and Toklas in The Moveable Feast has been regarded with skepticism. It is thought to be his revenge for Stein’s putting him down in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (“Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson are very funny on the subject of Hemingway. They both agreed that they have a weakness for Hemingway because he is such a good pupil. He is a rotten pupil, I protested. You don’t understand, they both said, it is so flattering to have a pupil who does it without understanding it,” and “He looks like a modern and he smells of the museums”). But in the light of what pussy did to Stein’s poem Hemingway’s account no longer seems so suspect.