Gertrude Stein (February 3, 1874 – July 27, 1946) and Alice B. Toklas (April 30, 1877 – March 7, 1967) met on the first day Toklas arrived in Paris, in 1907. Toklas moved into Stein’s residence in 1910 and they were life-long partners until Stein’s death. In addition to the role of wife, Toklas acted as Stein’s editor, typist, secretary, and muse. Both Stein and Toklas were writers, intellects, and art patrons. They were key members of the vibrant expatriate community of writers and artists in Paris. They hosted a salon at their home, on Rue de Fleurus, that served to create a space and community of mutual support for many of the great writers and artists of the 1920s and 30s.
Homoerotic, Expatriate Freedom…
Many of these writers and artists dealt in lesbian and homoerotic art and writing. For example, in 1925, Stein saw the work of Russian-born artist and set designer Pavel Tchelitchew. His homoerotic, bold work was controversial, but for Stein her appreciation led her to purchase the entire contents of his studio after seeing his work. He would go on to do portraits and sketches of both Stein and Toklas (Starr, The Queer Encyclopedia of the Visual Arts 329-30). Similarly, Stein was one of the first Americans to befriend and support the work of bisexual painter Marie Laurencin. Stein endorsed homoerotic photographer and artist George Platt Lynes, who took one of the most stoic and familiar of Stein’s later photographic portraits, titled “Bilignin” (The Queer Encyclopedia of the Visual Arts, 1931). And Stein was an early supporter of Picasso, with whom she was a dear friend, buying his pictures “when no one else in the world wanted any” (Lord, Six Exceptional Women, 16-17).
Paris, like most large cities that sexual and gender variants have always gravitated to, was a place of exploration, freedom, and self-expression for many of the modernists. Djuna Barnes’s Ladies Almanac (The Queer Encyclopedia of the Visual Arts, 1928) is a bold, erotic lesbian satire of the “literary women of the Left Bank,” or “the Academy of Women,” which gathered at Natalie Barney’s weekly Salon. These now famous women of letters included Stein, Toklas, Barnes, Barney, Mina Loy, Sylvia Beach, and Radclyffe Hall among others. There is a naiveté in any assumption that the modernist women of the 1920s and 30s lacked the sexual enlightenment of our own time; however, before the 1960s women’s and sexual revolution, Barnes’s Ladies Almanac is just one striking example of how pornography, erotica, and taboos were boldly at work in the writing and lives of the modernist lesbian women.
Women were not the only ones exploring their sense of expatriate freedom, of course. Many experimentally focused male writers and artists gathered at Stein and Toklas’s home as well, and much has been written on Stein’s loving friendship with Picasso and shorter friendships with Matisse and Cezanne. Interestingly, the men–the producers of art and letters–would often gather in one room with Stein, while the wives/women would often join Toklas in a separate room (Imhof, The Queer Encyclopedia of the Visual Arts, 278). That said, I want to urge caution in the fallback tendency for some readers to box Stein and Toklas in delineated, unshifting, heterosexually based wife and husband roles, this is a reduction. In my book The Switch: Freedoms in Sexuality, Desire, Gender & Identity I demonstrate that Stein and Toklas’s switching between roles, genders, and identities, the couple switching and playing with dominance, submission, giver, and receiver is frequent, organic, and authentic, even as some roles predominate both in their public presentations and in their letters. Stein as the dominant, bulldagger husband and Toklas as the supportive, submissive wife are not quite as solid in stature as their stoic photographic images might have us make meaning of; in fact, both women were absolutely committed to a very maternal caring and nurturing of the other in a marriage of equality.
The Politeness of An Erotically Charged Couple & Life…
Stein’s writing shares her sexual longing despite knowing “that there is politeness” (Pink Melon Joy, A Stein Reader, 282) when discussing sex, especially lesbian desire and lust. Does politeness evoke propriety or shyness? Discomfort or awkwardness? Or possibly shame? Much of Stein’s work spends at least a few sentences questioning the silence and unjust illegality around LGBT love and romantic union. Lest we neglect the obvious, Stein and Toklas lived together, as an out lesbian couple, married unto themselves, for thirty-six years—starting in 1910, a time when homosexuality was illegal and punishable by law and with imprisonment. Much of Stein’s work constructs and shares the couple’s wedding vows, lesbian love, and union. Stein’s life was housed in her love and marriage with Toklas: her pronouncing “it is to be certain that love is lord of all” (How to Write, 28) proves to be foundational to her life and work.
While most of the photographs of Stein and Toklas have them at a domestically familiar yet polite distance, Cecil Beaton’s 1936 photograph stands out as the most familiar, loving, and comfortable; Stein is in a nightgown or housedress on the terrace at Bilignin while Toklas is standing very close and right behind her, with her hand on Stein’s shoulder, almost holding her in place. A bouquet of roses is in Toklas’s other hand as Toklas gazes down at Stein while Stein looks to the camera smiling. Both of them look rather smug, and the roses, well, being in the atmosphere of such a love, desire, and metaphor, the roses are very large and in full bloom.
This couple’s love existed outside the laws of marriage and the privileges legality affords, yet their commitment was apparent, visible, and shared with us. In her Introduction to Baby Precious Always Shines: Selected Love Notes Between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Kay Turner writes “in the happiness of being one, Gertrude and Alice created a unique blend of the conjugal, the erotic, the domestic, and the artistic … while maintaining separate identities” (35). She further notes that “the alliance and affection—the marriage—between Gertrude and Alice was truly their religion” (Baby Precious Always Shines, “Introduction”, 35), which is a wonderful way of expressing the honoring, idolizing, and ritual that these two women shared; the meditations on their love and each other are the content and foundation to much of Stein’s writing.
Toklas’s poverty, her unfortunate legal and estate experiences after Stein’s death, exemplify some of the unfairness Stein would write about; the refusal for societies to fully and legally recognize same-sex love and marriage continues to be something same-sex couples experience as painful over seventy years later. So while Stein would write and publish their vows, stating that their love and selves are complete without the permit of marriage: “I am not missing. / Who is a permit. / I love honor and obey I do love honor and obey I do” in Sacred Emily (Geography and Plays, 178). She would also write: “they will be felt not well / not as ours hours are polite. / Or they think well or violent or weeding / or maybe they be spared … it is not ordinary standing or standard” (Stanzas in Meditation, 24). Making the point that disturbed sensibilities, judgment, or violence, the “weeding” out of unsuitables that are “not ordinary” are not in alignment with being “well.” She continues to offer that while people may experience fear, love is a gift and there is no difference between a heterosexual or homosexual union: “now I know everything of which it is that there is no difference / between then and now but very much the same / as of course teen it was not only here. / There they came well / here they come well / often make it believed that they marry / it is not only that there was no doubt. / Indicated why they left in fear” (Stanzas in Meditation, 24).
Stein grappled between the social climate of her time being somewhat liberated, acknowledging, “that they see this” (Stanzas in Meditation, 24) while also recognizing that modernity engaged in a backlash against the bolder Victorian times, to which Stein would ask: “please forgive a mess” (Stanzas in Meditation, 25). So while Stein lived and wrote with incredible boldness and freedom, she also could be affected by the world around her. She agreed for some of her more personal material to be published at least twenty years after her death, for example.
Being a Yes to Love & Desire…
For the most part, however, Stein and Toklas both refused to be closeted and bound by imagined, perceived, or substantiated societal prudery. Thus, variations on the word polite occur six times in the first six pages of Pink Melon Joy to create a clearing for what is to come. Notifying the reader that this poem is “not polite” (Pink Melon Joy, A Stein Reader, 281), Stein created a space for forty-one variations on the words to please and pleasure to then be articulated. By acknowledging “that there is a politeness” (Pink Melon Joy, ASR, 282) Stein creates the tension and seduction of upcoming taboo desires while powerfully choosing to dwell in and describe pleasure, to smell the rose and, further, to invite us into the room where the rose lay open. She does this similarly throughout Stanzas in Meditation, in a tug and pull of silence and speaking, insisting that she is and is not polite, writing, “I refuse I I refuse or do / I do I do I refer to refuse / or what what do I do … I feel the necessity to do it / partly from need / partly from pride / and partly from ambition” (Part IV, Stanza III) so that “they were not denied their pleasure,” and to “say yes … we will say yes” (Stanzas in Meditation, Part II, Stanza IV 42-43).
In Stanzas in Meditation Stein wrote:
Let me listen to me and not to them
May I be very well and happy
May I be whichever they can thrive
Or just may they not.
(Original version from the original manuscript as cited in “Notes,” Stanzas in Meditation, 8).
I am addicted to this stanza because it holds both action and non-attachment in a ridiculously perfect and beautiful poetic form. To add, this stanza is Stein’s ultimate “fuck you” to fear and constraint. This stanza succinctly epitomizes Stein’s entire life: from her personal choices to her impressive oeuvre. This short passage quite perfectly expresses the essential backbone of Stein’s philosophy and way of being in the world. Stein was a woman who (very early on) recognized what many human beings struggle a lifetime to even remotely comprehend: that it was up to her to create her life as happy, fulfilled, and powerful.
Each poem she wrote, each artist she supported, each person she loved was undertaken from this location of self-love and self-pleasing, which resulted in her life being one of inspiring velocity and astounding aliveness. This stanza holds the gift of self-love and self-respect and serves as not only an explanation, but also an invitation, to her as to us as well, to live our lives with freedom, full self-expression, and power—regardless of the circumstances or end result. Simply put, we will thrive, we will be well and happy, out of having chosen and acted out of being so. Rather than acquiesce to what others may think or want, and thus be at the affect of life, Stein’s philosophy was to look within, to “listen” and act from that internal place of knowing. Further, she took on a listening for and to others. She writes, “should there be a call there would be a voice” (Tender Buttons, Selected Writings, 504). The voice and this place of thriving exist where “anything is righteous” in “cadences, real cadences” and the diversity of “all accounts and” (Tender Buttons, Selected Writings, 504) are intimately shared.