When a friend invokes our hive mind to brainstorm books about writing and love for someone’s bridal shower, I give one recommendation: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by, as fans affectionately call her, Gertie. I’m ashamed to admit this book has lived on my TBR list for a decade (since Tender Buttons), but let’s not waste time on what has stood between me and her bestseller. In her biography, Gertrude Stein constructs a self, herself, by mimicking her partner’s conversational manner.
Lately, the power couple, Miss Stein and Miss Toklas, have shimmied into my life in lovely ways. At City Lights, while searching for ritual postcards in the Poetry Room, I find one featuring Stein at the forefront and Toklas in the background. Minutes later, at Vesuvio for a ritual cocktail, a Pittsburgh friend mentions he read about a famous writer who was born (but didn’t remain) in his beloved city en route to the Bay Area. “She knew F. Scott Fitzgerald,” he offers. “Gertrude Stein,” I say. How funny, I think, sitting under the gaze of Virginia Woolf, our friends who journeyed from Stein’s birthplace are visiting us in the birthplace of Toklas.
On my last morning in San Francisco, I jolt up in bed, thinking of earthquakes, and spend the rest of the morning finally reading the first three chapters of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. I find the descriptions of people fascinating, the way others press into memory. I strive to be someone who introduces others thoughtfully, concisely, and this work succeeds again and again:
- “I was impressed by the coral brooch she wore and by her voice.” (Gertrude Stein)
- “Miss Stein and he seemed to be full of hidden meanings.” (Matisse)
- “His eyes were more wonderful than even I remembered, so full and so brown, and his hands so dark and delicate and alert.” (Picasso)
When Toklas arrives in Paris, I can barely handle the way 1907—and time—is described: “It was the moment Max Jacob has since called the heroic age of cubism. I remember not long ago hearing Picasso and Gertrude Stein talking about various things that had happened at that time, one of them said but all that could not have happened in that one year, oh said the other, my dear you forget we were young then and we did a great deal in a year.” Rather than list the achievements of two “geniuses” and risk alienating readers, Stein, through Toklas, invites readers to enter by endearing them with a private anecdote about aging instead.
While describing her first visit to 27 rue de Fleurus, Toklas observes how art satiates Stein and company’s world. The pictures cover the walls “right up to the top of the very high ceiling.” Toklas confesses, “The pictures were so strange that one quite instinctively looked at anything rather than at them … at first.”
Love, I believe, lives in the structure of the piece and its sentences. The way thoughts, observations, and experiences are shared, inhabiting two people simultaneously for pages and pages and pages. The first chapter, “Before I Came to Paris,” ends with Stein and Toklas meeting, and the last line depicts love as an origin story: “In this way my new full life began.”
Sometimes the work veers into the circular. For example, “Matisse worked every day and every day and every day and he worked terribly hard.” Is this Stein breaking voice or does Toklas sound like, mimic, Gertie? How so many of us imitate or begin to sound like the people we love. I, of course, write this knowing the biography is a constructed thing, and inside and outside their love they were imperfect.