Wendy Steiner

  • Gertrude Stein in Words and Pictures by Renate Stendhal
    Thames and Hudson, 286 pp, £14.95, March 1995, ISBN 0 500 27832 6
  • ‘Favoured Strangers’: Gertrude Stein and Her Family by Linda Wagner-Martin
    Rutgers, 346 pp, $34.95, August 1995, ISBN 0 8135 2169 6

Gertrude Stein knew how to make herself happy. Sometimes she was heroic, as when she delivered medical supplies to soldiers during the First World War by toddling over enemy lines in an old Ford. And in World War Two, she was honoured by the French Resistance for transmitting information during the Occupation. ‘Gertrude Stein, safe, safe, is safe’, came the press release from liberated Culoz. But Stein’s fearlessness was tested much more in everyday situations where she did not hesitate to please herself. She loved to eat and her body showed it. At 12, her mother noted, Gertrude was five feet tall and weighed 135 pounds, and the ratio did not improve with time; nevertheless, she went on to participate, somewhat to her friends’ dismay, in nude bathing parties. ‘She had none of the funny embarrassment Anglo-Saxons have about flesh’, wrote Mabel Dodge Luhan. ‘She gloried in hers’.

In her thirties, Stein ‘married’ Alice Toklas, who was an avid and accomplished cook, but Stein’s love of food was just a part of her intense physicality. Throughout her life, she took prodigious walks, window-shopping her way across Paris for hours at a time, and in her sixties tramping as much as sixteen kilometres a day over the Vichy countryside. In an early fit of depression, she hired a boxer to spar with her. ‘Give me one to the jaw,’ she barked, ‘one to the kidneys.’ The talented people in Stein’s circle were drawn to this physicality, and often inspired by it. After painting his famous portrait of Stein in 1905-6, Picasso filled canvas after canvas with large androgynous women, their arms about each other’s waists. Stein’s Caesar head and massive body became instant icons of the Modern, and though she often went about in shapeless robes and sandals, Pierre Balmain and Yvonne Davidson were pleased to dress her. ‘She accepted herself as she was,’ wrote Lincoln Steffens. ‘She was large; she dressed as a large woman ... You felt ... her self-contentment and shared her self-composure, but, best of all, the prophetess gave you glimpses of what a Buddha can see by sitting still and quietly looking.’

This is the pattern of Stein’s extraordinary legend; she pleased herself, and others came round. When she wrote in a final exam for William James, ‘I am so sorry but really I do not feel a bit like an examination paper in philosophy today,’ James understood, and gave her the highest grade in the class. She eventually graduated from Radcliffe magna cum laude, published original psychological research, and spent five years at Johns Hopkins Medical School. Then, disaffected, she decided to drop out and join her brother Leo in Europe. ‘Gertrude, Gertrude, remember the cause of women,’ her friend Marian Walker expostulated. Stein replied: ‘You don’t know what it is to be bored.’

For Stein, the personal was not the political, but the aesthetic. The ‘Mama of Dada’ and the ‘Mother of Modernism’, she anticipated several of the major developments of 20th-century art and literature, realising in aesthetic form many of the ideas of William James, Bergson and Benjamin. With her repetitions and outrageous banalities, she is a clear forerunner of Andy Warhol, and though she didn’t become really famous until she was in her fifties, her fame has certainly lasted longer than fifteen minutes. Alone among the literary avant garde she has entered popular idiom and not only with a ‘Rose is a rose is a rose, is a rose.’ ‘Lost Generation’; ‘Pigeons on the grass alas’; ‘Remarks are not literature’ are all hers. ‘What is the answer?’ she asked on her deathbed and, getting no answer: ‘In that case, what is the question?’

There is no better account of the exhilaration of living in early 20th-century Paris than The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, in which Stein presents the grand adventure of her writing, collecting, conversing and ‘daily living’. Paris was where she discarded her stays, literally, allowing her body unfettered freedom. A discreet lesbian but hardly a closeted one, she wooed and won Alice Toklas in 1908 and the two lived together, in a more stable marriage than most of her friends achieved, until Stein’s death almost forty years later.

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