AH GERTIE, I NEVER KNEW YE! She loved new artistic expression and created a whole new way of writing. For a brief time in my twenties I swirled around an intellectual crowd of writers, professors and bon vivants. That must be where I heard her name. So when I happened upon the final resting place of Gertrude Stein on the Avenue Circulaire in Père Lachaise Cemetery, I stopped and scratched my head a bit. Gertrude Stein. Hmmm I was going to have to go to the library and look her up – this was years before the Internet and technology that now enables me to look up such information on my phone.
Standing in front of floor to ceiling shelves in the Chicago Public Library I opened a book and saw her. The first photo I found of Gertrude Stein was a revelation. She was not pretty, nor would I describe her as handsome… she was just a solid woman. There. That’s as close as I can come to describing how she struck me physically. And if her photos do her justice, she had a commanding presence.
Born in Allegheny Pennsylvania in 1874, to wealthy parents who wanted their children to appreciate the European sensibilities of art and culture. I believe you would agree that she did absorbed their tutelage because she certainly loved Europe as evidenced by moving there and living in France for the remainder of her life. Gertrude more than anyone else embodied the Parisian ‘salon life’ with her incredible ability to draw talented people to her and her generous patronage of those artists.
I then found a photo of Alice B. Toklas who was her lover and partner until Gertrude’s death left Alice alone in their salon. They met on Alice’s first day in Paris and that was it for life. These were two women who knew their minds and desires.
If ever there was a woman who was a woman of her own mind, it was Gertrude. Her parents would have been proud of the way she immersed herself in European culture – but what they would have thought of her destiny; which was to forge a new way of writing that was fresh, and has been described as literature’s answer to Cubism. The style we know as Hemmingway’s was actually Gertrude’s first and she’s credited with coining the term The Beat Generation. An article in The NewYorker inspects that aspect of Gertrude’s legacy with a loving monocle.
And instead of having a taste for the paintings that the European art establishment sanctioned, she put her money and patronage squarely behind people like Matisse and Picasso. How liberated she was to know her own taste and never look to others for nods of approval.
But what the well-read people that were talking about her when I was in my 20s must have been remarking on was her writing. Gertrude Stein created her own style of writing that bracing and bold liberation of expression that I simply adore and allow her to live on years after her death. Gertrude is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery and while at first you may think that Alice B. Toklas is buried somewhere else, upon closer inspection of Gertrude's headstone you will find Alice's inscription...you just have to go to the back...an explanation is provided in that the Stein family refused to have the inscription on the front of the grave.
Gertrude I’m sorry I never knew you, but I sure love to quote you! “The thing that differentiates man from animals is money.”
Screenshot of photo above of Getrude (left) pet poodle and Alice (right)