Literary lesbian heroes: Gertrude Stein

Diana Souhami

Writer Gertrude Stein was a self-proclaimed genius and happily settled lesbian woman who delighted in diverting from the expectations of the mainstream. 

Gertrude Stein and her partner, Alice B Toklas, were at the cultural heart of Paris for four decades. Intrinsic to the modernist movement, an indomitable duo, photographed by Man Ray, painted by Picasso, featured in memoirs, they were a sight to be seen.

gertrude stein
Image via Wiki Commons

"The two things you never asked Gertrude, ever", the composer Virgil Thomson said, "were about her being a lesbian and what her writing meant." Gertrude was terse on both subjects. About being lesbian she said: "I like all the people who produce and Alice does too and what they do in bed is their own business and what we do is not theirs." She was equally laconic about her writing. "Twentieth-century literature is Gertrude Stein," she said without irony. After a public reading of an unfathomable piece of her prose, an audience member asked her why she did not write the way she spoke, for she was direct and down-to-earth in conversation. "Why don’t you read the way I write?" was her reply.

"Her handshake was warm, her laugh infectious and her hair brown"

She was large, though not in height. In portraits and photographs, her eyes look thoughtful, her face strong. In bulk and stillness, she was like a Buddha. Her handshake was warm, her laugh infectious and her hair brown. She liked loose comfortable clothes with deep pockets and she wore sandals over her socks in winter, made for her by Raymond Duncan, dancer, philhellene and brother to Isadora. Comfort dictated what she wore, but she cared about the quality of the silk of her shirts, the provenance of the brooch at her throat, the way her neck scarf was tied. Above all, she was comfortable with herself. People valued her friendship and opinion and had a good time in her company. As with Natalie Barney, she thought living was the first of all the arts but whereas for Natalie that meant lots of lovers, for Gertrude living meant the uxorious company of her partner and home builder, Alice B Toklas.

alice b
Gertrude's partner, Alice. Image via Wiki

Alice was under five feet tall and her legs dangled when she sat. She had grey eyes, dark hair and a moustache, which the editor of House Beautiful said made other faces look naked by comparison. Her senses of smell and taste were acute, though she was a heavy smoker. She took great care of her hands and nails, which she massaged and manicured daily, and she always carried both her own and Gertrude’s bags and umbrellas, or sat in the less comfortable chair, or walked behind Gertrude. But she fostered this image of the self-effacing handmaiden and it belied her forceful role in their relationship.

Gertrude achieved her status as notable lesbian and architect of modernism without seeming to expend effort. "To try is to die," she said. Though above all she championed her own work, she furthered a galaxy of careers.

""Think of the Bible and Homer think of Shakespeare and think of me," she advised"

Before they were famous, and for not much money, she bought the work of and praised Matisse, PicassoCézanne and other artists whom the establishment decried as "wild beasts". She guided and encouraged Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and Paul Bowles early in their careers.

In Gertrude’s view, she just happened to be a genius. "Think of the Bible and Homer think of Shakespeare and think of me," she advised. That was how things were, like oak trees were programmed to be oak trees and rivers ran down to the sea.

Gertrude Stein with Ernest Hemingway's son, Jack Hemingway in 1924.
Gertrude Stein with Ernest Hemingway's son, Jack Hemingway in 1924. Image via Wiki

She lived as she chose and thought others should do so too. The bones of her lesbian love life were that as a student at Johns Hopkins University in 1900 she had an unhappy triangular affair with May Bookstaver, a graduate student, and that in Paris in 1906 she met her partner for life, Alice B Toklas. "Little Alice B is the wife for me," she wrote. These were not topics for gossip, theory or censure. They were how it was and who she was. If others objected or took offence, that was their problem.

Gertrude held libertarian views and was of a generous nature, but she was too comfort-loving and individualistic to struggle for a cause. Living happily with Alice, eating long lunches, talking with friends, walking the dog, driving the car, writing her modernist prose and being a genius took her time.

She championed ordinary, homey living: "I have it, this interest in ordinary middle class existence",  she wrote in her autobiographical modernist magnum opus, The Making of Americans: "in simple firm ordinary middle class traditions, in sordid material unaspiring visions, in a repeating, common, decent enough kind of living, with no kind of fancy ways inside us, no excitements to surprise us, no new ways of being bad or good to win us."

Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Gertrude Stein, 1906, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. When someone commented that Stein didn't look like her portrait, Picasso replied, "She will".[48] Stein wrote "If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso" (1923) in response to the painting.
Pablo Picasso's Portrait of Gertrude Stein, 1906. Image via Wiki Commons

She was born in 1874 and died in 1946: in that span of time she lived through political upheaval and the slaughter of a billion people in two world wars. This turbulence and carnage was, she averred, a product of patriarchy: "father Mussolini and father Hitler and father Roosevelt and father Stalin and father Lewis and father Blum and father France... There is too much fathering going on just now and there is no doubt about it, fathers are depressing."

Gertrude was not answerable to any father, from God down. She was true to herself, pursued her own ambition and kept to her own theory of obligation and personal value judgements. Freedom of thought and expression defined her. To be lesbian was to differ from the mainstream, slough off the directives of fathers and depart from nineteenth-century thinking, but in her lifestyle, apart from her and Alice both being women, she did not want to change the recognised values of harmonious married life. It was in art and literature that she departed from patriarchal ideas, dogmas and past conventions of style and content, left behind old ways of seeing and saying, forged new ways of expression and took credit as the mother and father of modernism.

"To be lesbian was to differ from the mainstream, slough off the directives of fathers and depart from nineteenth-century thinking"

She resented the attention given to James Joyce’s Ulysses and cancelled her subscription to the Shakespeare and Company lending library when Sylvia Beach published it. She viewed Joyce as her rival and said he smelled of museums and that was why he and not she was accepted. "You see it is the people who generally smell of the museums who are accepted and it is the new who are not accepted." 

They only met once, at a party given by the American sculptor Jo Davidson, who did a sculpture of Gertrude. Sylvia Beach introduced them. Gertrude said to Joyce, "After all these years." 

Joyce said, "Yes, and our names always linked together."

Gertrude said, "We live in the same arrondissement." And with that their one and only exchange ended.

 

This extract is from No Modernism Without Lesbians by Diana Souhami. Available now, £9.99. Published by Head of Zeus. 

 

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