FEBRUARY 3: Gertrude Stein (1874-1946)

365daysoflesbians:

As I’m sure many of us have found out, there are a few
women in the great, wide history of wlw that have become so well-known and
intrinsically associated with gayness that you could make a game out of simply
name-dropping them in a crowded room to see how many among you are One Of
Your Kind™. Gertrude Stein, owner of one of the most famous Parisian salons
of the 20th century, puppet master of some of the century’s greatest
artists, and who turns 143 years old today, is one of those names.  

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Although she was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, Gertrude would
soon become a globetrotter when her upper-class Jewish family packed up and
moved to Vienna, and then Paris, until finally settling down in the city of
Oakland, all in just her first four years of life. After her mother died in 1888
and her father just three years after, Gertrude’s oldest brother Michael
shipped her off to Baltimore to live with her uncle. It was there where
Gertrude encountered a glimpse into her future in the form of Claribel and Etta
Cone, two sisters who lived together and held weekly “salon meetings” in their
apartment. Every Saturday night, Gertrude would gather with the sisters and
their friends to discuss politics and art. Later on in life, Gertrude would remark
that seeing Claribel and Etta’s domesticity as two women who were able to
uphold a household together had fascinated her and she came to understand it as
something she wanted for her own life.

As an adult, Gertrude bounced around to different colleges. She
studied psychology and writing at Radcliffe College and then pursued a medical degree
at John Hopkins University, although she eventually dropped out. One of the
driving factors behind Gertrude leaving John Hopkins (besides her disillusionment with
the patriarchal culture of academia) was her involvement in a classically tragic lesbian love triangle. Gertrude became infatuated with a fellow student, Mary Bookstaver, and later wrote of her crush as an “erotic awakening,” but she was hardcore rejected
when Mary revealed to her that she was involved in a longtime relationship with
her girlfriend Mabel Haynes. Heartbroken, Gertrude left school and moved to
Paris with her brother Leo, ready to start a new life for herself.

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The exterior of 27 rue de Fleurus as it stands today. 

It is in Paris where the mythical stories of Gertrude Stein’s
life begin to unfold. She and Leo moved into the now famous 27 rue de Fleurus,
where they began to host weekly salon meetings and amass an impressive art
collection. Throughout the years, the Stein siblings would eventually depart,
allowing for Gertrude to evolve the salon into her own creation. Pablo Picasso,
Henri Matisse, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald are simply a few of the defining artistic minds of the 20th
century that Gertrude came to form close and personal relationships with
through her salon meetings. Books upon books have been written about the tangled webs
Gertrude weaved among each of these men – A
Moveable Feast
by Hemingway being one of the most iconic. As a
woman who pulled the strings of so many male artists’ lives and creations, it would not take
much for one to want to categorize Gertrude as a feminist hero; however, Gertrude’s
approach to politics was contradictory in the extreme. In A Moveable Feast,
Hemingway accounts a conversation he had with Gertrude on the topic of
homosexuality where she is recorded as saying:

“The main thing is that the act homosexuals
commit is ugly and repugnant and afterwards they’re disgusted with themselves.
They drink and take drugs, to palliate this, but they are disgusted with the
act and they are always changing partners and cannot be really happy…. In women
it is the opposite. They do nothing that they are disgusted by and nothing that
is repulsive and afterwards they are happy and they can lead happy lives
together.” 

Following World War II, Gertrude would also form ties
with Nazi collaborators Bernard Faÿ and Marshall Pétain.

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The art collection of 27 rue de Fleurus as it stood during Gertrude’s lifetime. 

Now for Alice B. Toklas: Gertrude’s life partner and the
catalyst of her literary career. The two first met on September 8, 1907 on Alice’s
first day in Paris. Gertrude’s brother Michael introduced them and Gertrude
later wrote on her first impression of Alice:

“She was a golden brown presence,
burned by the Tuscan sun and with a golden glint in her warm brown hair. She
was dressed in a warm brown corduroy suit. She wore a large round coral brooch
and when she talked, very little, or laughed, a good deal, I thought her voice came
from this brooch. It was unlike anyone else’s voice—deep, full, velvety, like a
great contralto’s, like two voices.” 

And the rest is history. Alice and
Gertrude were together until Gertrude’s death in 1946. Although Gertrude penned
several seminal classics of lesbian literature (Q.E.D., one of the first known coming out narratives, and Tender Buttons, a commentary on lesbian
sexuality), it was the book The Autobiography
of Alice B. Toklas –
written by Gertrude in the voice of her partner – that launched
Gertrude from a behind-the-scenes role in the literary world to center stage in
1933. 

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Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas pictured with their pet poodle, Basket. 

-LC