Although Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas both grew up in California, they met in Paris in 1907. By that time, Stein had been living in Paris with her brother, artist Leo Stein, for four years and their flat at 27 rue de Fleurus had become home to a remarkable collection of modern art, as well as a lively salon. It was during these early years in Paris that Stein began to write, publishing her important early work Three Lives (1905).
When Stein and Toklas met, the connection between them was immediate, and Toklas soon moved in and became Stein’s partner. The two presided over one of the most famous salons in Paris, and their home became a gathering place for avant-garde writers and artists. Stein helped to launch the careers of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, among others, and she attempted to translate their experiments in art into writing. Much of her work therefore rejects traditional linear narrative structure in favor of a more fractured form. Although Stein was a formidable figure among the Paris modernists and highly regarded among the writers who visited her, most critics and audiences found her work too dense and difficult. It was only with the publication in 1933 of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas that Stein reached a wider audience, and she and Toklas became literary celebrities.
Stein and Toklas differed greatly in their demeanors. Mabel Dodge Luhan wrote, “Gertrude was hearty. She used to roar with laughter, out loud. She had a laugh like a beefsteak.” While she described Toklas as “pensive, pale, and black-haired Alice . . . began by being so self-obliterating that no one considered her very much beyond thinking her a silent, picturesque object in the background.”1 Because of her unassuming nature, Toklas’s accomplishments have often been overlooked. She was Stein’s editor and sounding board, and she was active in creating and running The Plain Edition, a small press the two opened in the 1930s to print Stein’s work. Toklas’s business sense ensured that Stein’s Plain Edition books received greater distribution than any of her previous books.