Gertrude and Alice

The first time Alice B. Toklas met Gertrude Stein, Alice believed Gertrude to be speaking from her brooch: “She wore a large, round coral brooch, and when she talked, very little, or laughed, a good deal, I thought her voice came from her brooch. It was unlike any other else’s voice — a deep, full velvety contralto’s, like two voices.”

Alice also heard bells, which she believed to be an indication that she was in the presence of genius. As Gertrude writes in the “Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas,” a novel about Alice’s life with Gertrude in the voice of Alice (more about that later): “I may say that only three times in my life have I met a genius and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken.” (The other two bells rang for Alfred North Whitehead, the philosopher; and Pablo Picasso, a decent dinner companion.)

The year of their meeting was 1906. Alice was a San Francisco expatriate who came to Paris after becoming bored with serving as housewife to her brothers and father; Gertrude was an Oakland expatriate and the queen mother of a literary salon located at 27 rue de Fleurus. Gertrude had been quite fond of declaring herself a genius long before Alice heard bells, and that became the first thing they agreed upon. They also agreed that a life worth living should include plenty of food, the company of artists and writers, and a general refusal to do the things that did not please them — like learning to drive in reverse, or continuing to entertain writers and artists who had become quarrelsome or boring.

For the 39 years that followed their first meeting, that is the life they lived. Gertrude proposed to Alice on a trip to Tuscany; afterwards they moved back to 27 rue de Fleurus, ousted Gertrude’s brother, Leo (he left, writing, “I hope we will all live happily ever after and suck our respective oranges”), and set about making their home.

Gertrude was ample, and had, by all accounts, a large, well-shaped head which she eventually displayed with a fetching Caesar cut. Alice was small and thin with large dark eyes and a small bit of fur on her upper lip. She had a propensity for flowing dresses and gypsy earrings. When they went to visit Gertrude’s brother, Julien Stein, his 3-year-old son said that he liked the man, but why did the lady have a mustache?

They lived as husband and wife, “she with a sheet of linen and he with a sheet of paper,” as Gertrude is quoted in Diana Souhami’s biography, “Gertrude and Alice.” Gertrude, who was the genius, stayed up all night writing her strange, lovely prose, while Alice, the mistress of the house, woke early to supervise the servants, collected recipes and typed Gertrude’s manuscripts. The terms of their endearment reflect their respective roles. According to Souhami, “Alice was gay, kitten, pussy, baby, queen, cherubim, cake, lobster, wifie, Daisy, and her little jew [sic]. Gertrude was king, husband, hubbie, Mount fattie and fattuski.” They scattered love notes to one another around their house, signed DD and YD (Dear Dear and Your Dear).

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