“There Is No There There” — Gertrude Stein
Gertrude Stein (1874 –1946) was a free soul, a giantess of gay history and the arts (photo 1). As a novelist, poet and playwright, she eschewed the conventional narrative and the linear in her writing and in her choice of artworks, widely acknowledged as an important advocate/patron of Modernist painters. She understood the work of the Matisse and Picasso, when collectors turned up their nose. After Picasso delivered a portrait of her (photo 2), this exchange followed between artist and subject: “After a while, I murmured to Picasso that I liked it. Yes, he replied, everybody says that you don’t look like it, but that doesn’t make any difference – you will.”
She dared to be unapologetically butch, but had to live in France to do that. Her childhood home was Oakland, California (the “there” of the quote above, from “Everyone’s Autobiography”, 1937). On that subject, she said, “America is my country, but Paris is my hometown”. She was in every way married to Alice B. Toklas, who was herself much more than a lifetime partner.
Gertrude and Alice are known for their famous literary and artist salon, held at their residence on 27 rue de Fleurus (photo 5), in the 6th arrondissement, the heart of the Left Bank in Paris. Their regular attendees included the artists Picasso, Braque, and Picabia, and many writers, including Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who flocked to Paris after the end of WWI (she called them the “Lost Generation”). (photo 6 – Gertrude and Alice at home)
On my many journeys to Paris, I spent considerable time on the Left Bank (photo 3, view of St. Suplice), the heart of progressive intellectualism, tarrying in bookstores (photo 4, Shakespeare & Co. books), funky shops, college cafes, the historic buildings of Saint-Germain-des-Prés (surrounding the Abbey founded in the 6th century), street markets, my day topped off with afternoon tea and madeleines at the Bon Marche. I sat watching children shove their little sail boats from the edge of the circular pool at the Jardin du Luxembourg. And sometimes I passed by 27 rue de Fleurus and gazed up at the memorial plaque. America sadly seldom honors the residence of artists, writers, and activists who stood up for their sexual truth.
Gertrude was fortunate to have progressive German-Jewish parents who encouraged her to speak multiple languages and learn about art. College followed at Radcliffe, where she developed a lifelong interest in psychology and became a pupil of William James. She almost finished medical school but decided instead to join her brother in Paris in 1903 and took up residence at Number 27. She would spend the next 43 years in France.
She liked to mess with your mind in her writings, especially the landmark memoir published in 1933, an “Autobiography” of her partner. She was interested in the color, sound, and rhythm of words, which has earned her a unique place in literature.
After France fell to the Nazis in 1940, the couple lived in the country near the Rhone, as Gertrude was liable to be transported at any moment to a death camp, being a woman of Jewish descent, plus a lesbian. After Liberation, Stein became seriously ill in 1946 and died in the American Hospital at Neuilly. She stayed firmly in character to the end. From her hospital bed, she asked Alice, “What is the answer?” and getting none, laughed and replied, “In that case, what is the question?”