Revealing Gertrude Stein’s Oakland roots.
“Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”
“Pigeons on the grass alas.”
“There is no there there.”
And there you have it: perhaps the sum total of what many of us know of the work of avant-garde modernist author Gertrude Stein, who grew up in Oakland but lived most of her adult life as a bohemian expat in the artiest circles of early 20th-century Paris. “The most quoted, least-read author ever to come from East Oakland,” Mary Helen Barrett, then editor of the Mills Quarterly, wrote of Stein in 1992, and today the snarky epithet still rings true.
The current season of Bay Area Stein-mania, with extraordinary debut exhibits at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the city’s Contemporary Jewish Museum as well as an abundance of related events at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (the three institutions collaborated extensively on programming and marketing), may or may not add to our knowledge about the art or craft of the author’s much-parodied prose style. Regardless, the refreshingly unanchored fuss about Stein—it’s not the anniversary of her birth (1874), death (1946), or introduction to the love of her life, Alice B. Toklas (1907)—rekindles the romance of Stein’s star-studded life in self-imposed exile from the States and from the ranks of the bourgeoisie. Yes, the same bourgeoisie that’s now traipsing up to ticket counters all over San Francisco.
“What’s really wonderful is that people are feeling like they need to do it all,” says Connie Wolf, director of the Contemporary Jewish Museum, where plans for a major Stein exhibit have been 11 years in the making. “What people are always asking me is which show to see first. There is an unlimited appetite.”
Except, perhaps, for Stein’s notoriously inaccessible writing.
Rest assured, Stein’s experimental novels, essays, and poems baffled her contemporaries, too. A Newsweek article in the mid-1930s even suggested that Stein suffered from palilalia, a tic associated with verbal repetition. But an Olympian ego (“I am a genius,” Stein wrote, over and over) and a generous inheritance (her parents died young) allowed Stein to either indulge or engage, depending on your point of view, her talents without concern for commercial potential. Not until 1934, when she was 60 years old, did the writer—who had been turning out prodigious quantities of prose at her home at 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris for decades—find herself a celebrated literary figure in the country of her birth.
In 1933, Four Saints in Three Acts, an opera by Virgil Thomson with a libretto by Stein (source of the famous “pigeons on the grass alas” aria), performed by an all-black cast, became a Broadway hit. Close on Four Saints’ stylish heels came the publication of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, a surprise bestseller that took Stein (Toklas was neither the book’s subject nor its author) all of six weeks to produce and whose uncharacteristically comprehensible style she termed “audience writing.” Stein’s subsequent American speaking tour, a nine-month victory lap during which she and Toklas hobnobbed with the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Charlie Chaplin, and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, was preceded by her appearance on the cover of Time magazine and heralded by a moving electric sign in Times Square reading “Gertrude Stein has come.”
The 1934-35 trip brought Stein, who lived in Oakland from the age of 5 until 17 and considered herself “an ardent Californian,” back to the area for the first and only time since her departure for the East Coast and points beyond in 1892. It also brought the opportunity to inadvertently offend then-unborn generations of Oaklanders with her observation that “there is no there there” (what she meant, people, was that her childhood home was gone, her old haunts didn’t look the same, and her memories were all she had—not that Oakland, as we say in the vernacular, sucks. The chip may hereby be removed from the collective shoulder). In addition to stirring the pot, Stein spoke at Mills and Stanford, to local women’s clubs, and to U.C. Berkeley’s Phi Beta Kappa society and an ad hoc group at International House. She was not invited to officially speak at Cal: The university event planning committee did not consider her a good enough writer to sponsor.
Whether or not Stein’s writing skills were up to snuff—a subject of continued debate—she had an unforgettable, often charming persona both on and off the page. “I see her as a wonderful, witty performer, good at mimicry, with her tongue in cheek over so much stuff,” says Janice Doane, a professor of English and women’s studies at St. Mary’s College in Moraga and a lifelong Stein scholar. “People tend to take her a little too literally.” Bay Area audiences of 1935, it turned out, received the odd Steinism—“commas are servile,” she pontificated—with no undue distress. Mostly, though, Stein simply took questions, responding in perfect conversational English, with excellent elocution and great good humor. This summer, the Contemporary Jewish Museum offers samples of Stein’s sound via an iPad app; you can also access her voice via a University of Pennsylvania website (writing.upenn.edu/pennsound).
“I don’t think anyone could help liking her,” wrote Stein’s longtime friend, the famously alabaster-shouldered San Francisco novelist Gertrude Atherton. However, Atherton opined, Stein must have “realized early in life that she had no gift to make her famous so decided to be a freak.” (In fact, Atherton’s own behavior was not entirely free of freakism—at 19, for example, she eloped with her own mother’s suitor, then got herself kicked out of polite Peninsula society by publishing a scandalous roman à clef about bad behavior in high places, and warded off old age by having her ovaries stimulated via radiation. “One must respect her [Stein] for putting it over,” added Atherton in the prim, two-faced Victorian-speak of her prime.)
As the title suggests, The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde at the SFMOMA casts Stein, along with brothers Leo and Michael and her strong-willed sister-in-law Sarah, as a world-class patron of the arts, one who changed the course of civilization by cultivating and promoting Picasso (whose Cubist works she saw as parallel to her own fragmented, non-representational writings), Braque, Gris, and a host of other male painters that we now describe as modernists. (Women artists, she didn’t have much use for.) The SFMOMA show reunites 155 of the 450 works collected by the Stein family in the early 20th century, when you could pick up an as-yet-unrecognized genius for a song—the Steins had money, but not big money—including pieces by Matisse, Picasso, Cézanne, Renoir, and Toulouse-Lautrec. “You can either buy clothes or buy pictures,” Ernest Hemingway quotes Stein as saying in his Paris memoir, A Moveable Feast.
At the same time, the Contemporary Jewish Museum focuses on Stein’s multifaceted roles in Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories, an exhibit rich in photographs, movies, and artifacts from the less public side of Stein’s life—couturier bills, Stein’s textured, man-styled vests, boudoir wallpaper patterned with white pigeons against a blue sky. The show reveals the extent to which Stein and Toklas acted as work partners, as well as co-creators and guardians of Stein’s eccentric, Napoleonically self-assured public image. Not that there was anything atypical about the way the couple did domesticity, Stein playing the alpha and Toklas the frocked femme who poured tea for other “wives of geniuses” but also ran an airtight ship (after Toklas intercepted a “strong look” that passed between Stein and her friend and promoter Mabel Dodge Luhan, Stein saw less and less of her admiring pal). In highlighting the couple’s Jewish heritage, the show also touches on the sensitive question of why Stein and Toklas remained in Nazi-occupied France during the 1940s, and how they managed to survive.
The summer of Stein also brings us masterpieces by Stein protégé Picasso at the de Young Museum (fortuitously on loan during the renovation of the Musée National Picasso in Paris); a slender, sassy memoir titled Paris Portraits: Stories of Picasso, Matisse, Gertrude Stein, and Their Circle, from a manuscript held by U.C. Berkeley’s Bancroft Library that was written by Stein’s acquaintance, Harriet Lane Levy, and published by Berkeley’s Heyday Books this spring; a theatrical version of Paris Portraits; a performance of Four Saints in Three Acts, and a spate of related events.
San Francisco museum directors admit that another Stein development this summer—Kathy Bates’s perky cameo as Stein counseling Hemingway on his love life (think Rosie O’Donnell playing camp director) in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris—is simply a coincidence. In real life, by the way, Hemingway might have hit on Stein, his literary mentor and son’s godmother, instead of—or in addition to—the pretty straight girl who didn’t like bullfighting. “I always wanted to [sleep with] her and she knew it and it was a healthy feeling and made more sense than some of the talk,” he wrote to W.G. Rogers, author of the Stein biography When This You See Remember Me.)
(Stein on Hemingway: “Remarks are not literature.”)
“My first conscious enthusiastic pleasure was a sunset in East Oakland,” Stein wrote to another of her biographers, Robert Bartlett Haas. The year of that aesthetic epiphany would have been 1883, and Stein a young student at Franklin Grammar and Primary School in Oakland—today called Franklin Elementary School and twice reconstructed since Stein’s day, but still located between 9th and 10th avenues at what is now 915 Foothill Blvd.—where she received a prize for her essay describing “the sun setting in a cavern of clouds.” (The vivid red twilights caused by atmospheric disturbances after the eruption of the volcano Krakatoa that year in the South Pacific inspired strong work not only by Stein, but also by visual artists such as England’s William Ashcroft and possibly Norway’s Edvard Munch.)
Three years earlier, Stein’s well-to-do parents, Daniel and Amelia, had transplanted their five-child household (the future self-proclaimed genius was the youngest, though not the most self-effacing) from Pennsylvania to one of the first houses in a not-yet-annexed section of rural East Oakland then known as Fruit Vale. The large wood structure at the northwest corner of 13th Avenue and East 25th Street rented for $50 a month, including 10 acres of gardens and fruit trees, roses rambling along the fences, and a eucalyptus-lined drive. From this “half country, half city” estate, as Stein would later call it, her father, whoe occupation was listed as “capitalist” in the Oakland City Directory of 1883, commuted to his job as vice president of the municipal railway company in San Francisco. It fell to Mrs. Stein to drive him to the ferry via horse-drawn carriage.
“In East Oakland, the Steins were exotic, being both Jewish and rich,” wrote Barrett (who couldn’t resist describing herself as “one of those rare people who actually has read all of Gertrude Stein” in her biographical note in the Mills Quarterly). But not, perhaps, all that exotic—the family found its way to the First Hebrew Congregation of Oakland (then located at 14th and Webster streets and, from 1914 on, usually referred to as Temple Sinai), where Stein attended Sabbath School classes taught by Rachael “Rae” Frank, the first Jewish woman in the United States to formally preach from a pulpit.
Like other local children in the 1880s—among them future writer Jack London and dancer-to-be Isadora Duncan—Stein frequented the Oakland Free (now “Public”) Library, then presided over by Ina Coolbrith, an influential salonière who was named the first poet laureate of California in 1915 (but never ceased to be mortified that her uncle, Joseph Smith, had founded the Mormon Church). Legend has it that Coolbrith’s charms led to the divorce of Duncan’s parents; but then again, legend also has it that Duncan’s brother used to steal apples from the Stein family’s neighboring orchard—and never mind that the impoverished Mrs. Duncan and her brood (Isadora started giving dance lessons as a child) lived at a series of downscale West Oakland addresses on Fourth, Seventh, and Eighth streets—nowhere near the Steins with their 10 acres and their burgeoning roses.
Decades later, a reporter for The Oakland Tribune noted how Stein, reminiscing about boating on Lake Merritt during her lecture tour in the ’30s, eagerly “demonstrated rowing with her strong arms and unjeweled hands.” A childhood fondness for extended walks in the East Bay hills lasted the remainder of her life, presenting a challenge for companions who enjoyed her company but not her pace. Not that convention or lack of courage prevented Stein from walking alone, if she so chose. If a man harassed her, she once said, she would immediately climb a tree, then drop on the lout and squash him.
Later, Stein memorialized her outdoorsy Oakland childhood in The Making of Americans: “Freedom in the ten acres where all kinds of things were growing . . . all anybody could want of joyous sweating, of rain and wind, of hunting, of cows and horses and dogs, of chopping wood, of making hay, of dreaming, of lying in a hollow all warm with the sun shining while the wind was howling.”
The fact is, though, Stein’s home life during her Oakland years was not all nature strolls and sunsets. Her volatile father was sometimes given to bizarre behavior, “whipping the air furiously with his cane” and shouting “loud, profane imprecations at unseen companions,” according to Barrett. In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein describes “the agony of adolescence,” a period during which her mother was diagnosed with stomach cancer and the family moved to a considerably less grand home at what is now 1640 10th Ave. (a structure that still stands, although extensive remodeling disguises its original incarnation as a Victorian). In 1887, Stein started studies at Oakland High School (then at 12th and Market streets), but dropped out the following year, when her mother died. Three years later, her father, too, was gone. Both parents are buried in Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery, in the core of Temple Sinai’s “Home of Eternity” plot.
In the midst of this summer’s big buzz and big names, it’s easy to lose sight of Stein’s identity as a passionate, hardworking artist—one who spent eight years, for example, drafting in longhand the massive, experimental novel The Making of Americans; often, she stayed up all night to work. “My question is, why are we so interested in Gertrude Stein and her family as collectors and matchmakers between artists and patrons, and not in Gertrude Stein as a writer?” says Berkeley poet Carol Dorf, who favors experimentation in her own writing. Attending a marathon Stein reading several years ago, she says, she found that Stein’s writing comes across as more cogent and powerful when read aloud.
“She wanted readers to play,” says Doane of St. Mary’s, speaking of the writer’s sparsely punctuated, seemingly random, deliberately repetitive style. “She was hopeful that people would let loose” of their usual ways of interpreting and appreciating what they read.
Berkeley actress Laura Sheppard says she grew to love Stein’s writing while performing a signature one-woman show, Still Life with Stein, in the ’80s. “It’s a very theatrical way of writing, suggestive and open for interpretation, and it lends itself to being vocalized,” says Sheppard, currently appearing in another solo sketch, Paris Portraits, at venues around the Bay Area. The piece is based on an autobiographical manuscript of the same title by San Francisco journalist Harriet Levy, who traveled to Paris in 1907 with Toklas, her longtime friend and neighbor on O’Farrell Street in San Francisco. Through Levy’s connections, Toklas was introduced to Stein—and soon, according to Levy, the infatuated Toklas was subject to such fits of weeping that she “used 30 handkerchiefs a day.” Meanwhile, Levy learned art appreciation from Stein, purchased Matisse’s La Fille aux Yeux Verts (she bequeathed it and many other works to the SFMOMA), and sang for her supper, so to speak, at Stein’s storied salon. Guests couldn’t get enough of Levy’s tales of the ’06 earthquake, and Picasso raved about her rendition of the Cal yell: “Oski wow wow/Whisky wee wee/Ole Muck I/Ole Ber-keley I/California/Wow!”
The fact is, though, that many people view the charismatic Stein—a secular Jew, a lesbian, a woman artist in a sea of male masterpiece makers—as an icon for reasons that don’t center on her written work. Her close connection to gay artists and writers of her era (among them Virgil Thomson, Thornton Wilder, and Cecil Beaton) and the frank lesbian eroticism of works such as “Lifting Belly” and Tender Buttons (a title that scholars have interpreted as a reference to everything from peyote buttons to sexual anatomy) make her a key figure in queer culture. SFMOMA and the Contemporary Jewish Museum even deployed a Stein and Toklas float in San Francisco’s annual Pride parade this June. In a book of Stein’s collected writings at the Berkeley Public Library, I found an index card on which an anonymous reader had copied an excerpt from “Lifting Belly”:
Lifting belly. Are you. Lifting.
Oh dear I said I was tender, fierce and tender.
Do it. What a splendid example of carelessness.
It gives me a great deal of pleasure to say yes.
“This caused me to cry,” the unknown reader added parenthetically.
Yet although Stein surrounded herself with gay men (“homosexuals . . . do all the best things in the arts,” she wrote), she didn’t extend herself in the same way to literary lesbians—Natalie Barney, Janet Flanner, Sylvia Beach, for example—in the Parisian expat community. “Women writers were not respected and admired [then],” says Doane, who believes that Stein drew on an autobiographical manuscript by Picasso’s first great love, Fernande Olivier, in writing The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. But Stein failed to acknowledge her debt—or, for that matter, to write a promised introduction—to Olivier’s memoir. “What she was trying to protect was her sense of herself as male,” says Doane. “To consider yourself a genius is a male attribute, and it was safer for her to put herself forward as a male in terms of getting respect.”
An oft-repeated story about Stein’s ballsy bravado has her, on a lovely spring afternoon, penning a note to her Radcliffe professor, the psychologist William James: “I am sorry but really I do not feel a bit like an examination paper in philosophy today”—and receiving top marks for the response. Smart-alecky on Stein’s part, inexplicable on James’s; but how remarkable that this exchange took place between a distinguished professor and an “uncorseted, besandalled” young woman (as a 1961 article in The Harvard Crimson described Stein)—two decades before American women were eligible to vote.
Stein had no ambition, however, to serve as an inspiration to her sex. “But Gertrude, think of the cause of women,” pleaded a friend, hearing of Stein’s decision to abandon her medical studies after four undistinguished years at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
“You don’t know,” responded Stein, “what it to be bored.”
Mostly, she wasn’t—a form of genius in itself.
As Stein’s 1935 storm of the Bay Area drew to a close, she grew wistful. “Now our American visit is almost over and we are very sad,” she wrote to a cousin. “No we don’t want to go home that is to France, no we want to go on as we are, we do like the lap of luxury and the pleasant adulation.” In the end, though, Oakland’s gratifyingly lionized daughter returned to Europe for good, finally opting to experience eternity at Cimetière Père Lachaise in Paris, the hallowed boneyard of geniuses—or, perhaps, sub-geniuses. (“Besides Shakespeare and me, who else do you think there is?”) There Stein remains, with Alice B. Toklas at her side, and lesser luminaries—Heloise and Abelard, Chopin, Molière, Colette, Proust, Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, and so on—in repose nearby.
Autumn Stephens, co-editor of The East Bay Monthly, is the author of the Wild Women series of women’s history and humor. She lives in Berkeley.
Four Saints in Three Acts. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Novellus Theater, 701 Mission St., San Francisco; Aug. 18 at 7:30 p.m.; Aug. 19 and 20 at 8 p.m.; Aug. 21 at 2 p.m.; $15-$85; (415) 978-2787 or ybca.org.
Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories. Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., San Francisco, through Sept. 6; tickets $10; (415) 655-7800 or thecjm.org.
Paris Portraits (performances by Laura Sheppard). Mechanics Institute Library, 57 Post St., San Francisco, July 28-29, 7 p.m.
San Francisco Public Library, 100 Larkin St., Aug. 4, 6 p.m.;
Bird & Beckett, 653 Chenery St., San Francisco, Aug. 14, 2:30 p.m.;
Mrs. Dalloway’s, 2904 College Ave., Berkeley, Aug. 21, 4 p.m.;
and other venues. For more info: (510) 549-3564 or heydaybooks.com.
Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris. De Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco; through Oct. 9; tickets $15-$25; (415) 750-3600 or deyoung.famsf.org.
The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St.; through Sept. 6; tickets $7-$25; (415) 357-4000 or sfmoma.org
Words + Voices: TODCO Poets (reading of original works on Stein and more). Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, Mission St. between 3rd and 4th streets, San Francisco; Aug. 16 and Sept. 20, 1:30-2:30 p.m., free; (415) 543-1718 or ybgf.org.