Gertrude Stein is a famed and formidable icon of modernism. As novelist, poet, theorist, playwright, and even librettist, Stein produced some of the most provocative—and difficult—texts of her time. Three Lives, Tender Buttons, and The Making of Americans to name just a few of her more famous books, are notorious for their disjunctive syntax, their repetitions, their surprising humor, and their overall subversion of linear thinking and experience. Stein above all was a modernist who treated linguistic play as a serious business.
Taken on the strength of her body of work alone, Stein would be counted as a significant figure; however, the salon she hosted with her partner Alice B. Toklas in their Paris home brought together confluences of talent and thinking that would help define modernism in literature and art. Regular guests included Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, James Joyce, Henri Matisse, and many others. These writers and artists knew Stein’s writing, which was often called a literary equivalent to cubist painting techniques, and the degree to which it influenced their work is a topic of much debate among scholars. Stein’s interest in perception and the rhythms of language, as well as her abandonment of traditional narrative structures certainly played a part in shaping the course of modernist writing and thinking.
For her part, Alice B. Toklas provided support and assistance to Stein by running the household, typing and editing her work, and correcting proofs of her books. She also asserted her ambitions for Stein and worked as a kind of manager, publicist, and agent for her and her work. Toklas founded her own small press, Plain Editions, to publish Stein’s work, and after Stein’s death, Toklas devoted the rest of her life to promoting her partner’s work. She also wrote books of her own after Stein’s death—two cookbooks, and a memoir of the couple’s life together.
As important as Stein’s and Toklas’s Paris salon was, it should not overshadow the significance of their relationship with Carl Van Vechten. As a friend, supporter, critic, and advocate, Van Vechten played a major role in the promotion and reception of Stein’s work in the United States. In fact without his efforts, it is possible that Stein’s work would never have gained a serious audience outside of Paris. Van Vechten, before he and Stein actually met, had written articles about her work, praising its formal innovation, wit, and intelligence, but it was after they met in Paris in 1913 and became friends, that Van Vechten became her informal, stateside literary agent. After the incomparable success of Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Van Vechten played no small part in orchestrating their lecture tour of the United States.
Before the lecture tour in 1934, Stein hadn’t set foot in the United Sates in many years. Though she grew up in California, she moved to Paris to live with her brother Leo in 1903. Stein had followed her brother from California to Cambridge, Massachusetts, a few years earlier when he entered Harvard University. She enrolled in the Harvard Annex, the women’s college that would become Radcliffe, where, among other things, she studied psychology with the philosopher William James, who profoundly influenced his pupil’s ideas about literature and art.
After arriving in Paris, Gertrude and Leo Stein quickly became members of the Parisian art scene. They began collecting the work of artists they admired, beginning what would become one of the most remarkable private collections of modern art ever assembled, including the work of Picasso, Matisse, Gris, Cezanne, and others. It was in Paris that Stein began writing seriously, determined to make writing her life’s work. It is also where she met Alice B. Toklas.
Toklas, who was also raised in California, was the daughter of an upper middle class Jewish family from San Francisco. For a time she studied piano in hopes of becoming a concert pianist. Her plans changed, however, after her mother’s death when she moved with her father to his parents’ home, where she would spend several years keeping house for her father, brothers, uncles, and grandparents. In 1907 Toklas took a trip to Paris and met Stein the very night she arrived. Within months of their meeting, Stein and Toklas agreed to live as husband and wife, a relationship that would last until Stein’s death.
Well known in her adopted home as a powerful intellectual and artistic force, Stein was otherwise a coterie author. That was to change when The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was published in the early 1930s. The book, thanks in large part to Van Vechten’s shrewd promoting, became an immediate sensation, making both Stein and Toklas literary celebrities. By this time, Van Vechten had become one of the couple’s closest friends. They had adopted pet names for each other that implied the familial intimacy of their relationship: Van Vechten was known as Papa Woojums, Toklas as Mama Woojums, and Stein as Baby Woojums. Van Vechten acted as host for much of their trip, arranging visits with many of his friends, including a party with some of Harlem’s finest writers and a tea with actress Katharine Cornell, who served Stein and Toklas lemon pie.
The relationship of these three is an intersection that would shape the early and middle part of the twentieth century’s artistic production. The sheer strength of influences and number of cross-continental connections they both provided and represented stands as a central factor in the dialogue between American and European Modernism.