Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas are icons in literature and LGBTQ folklife. Narratives concerning their lives portray them as a publicly visible lesbian couple that was nevertheless not seen as Lesbian (belonging to the Lesbian community).
Gertrude Stein was born into a German Jewish family in Allegheny, Pennsylvania in 1874, and grew up in Europe as well as the USA. In 1893, Stein enrolled at the Harvard Annex, which became Radcliffe College in 1894. Her studies included psychology with William James at Harvard/Radcliffe, medicine at Johns Hopkins Medical School, and embryology at the Marine Biology Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Alice Babette Toklas was born in San Francisco in 1877 to parents of German Jewish and Polish Jewish heritage. She studied music at the University of Washington. Neither Toklas nor Stein earned degrees from institutions of advanced education.
Stein Meets Toklas
In 1904, Stein moved in with her brother Leo in Paris. The Steins collected art, including works by Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, and hosted a weekly salon (intimate gathering of intellectuals and artists) in their home at 27 Rue de Fleurus. Alice B. Toklas met Gertrude Stein in Paris on September 8, 1907. In three years, Toklas moved into 27 Rue de Fleurus. Leo Stein moved out in 1914.
Both women agreed that Stein was a genius. Toklas became Stein’s secretary and took over the running of the household, while Stein wrote, much of it about her relationship with Toklas and their life together. Toklas and Stein considered themselves married to each other, and Stein referred to Toklas as her wife. In appearance, full-figured Stein tended to look and dress more masculine, while the more slender and feminine-clothed Toklas (who also loved grand hats) had fine black hairs on her upper lip. One story about them recounts the reaction of Stein’s three-year-old nephew when meeting the couple: he liked the man (Stein), but why did the woman have a mustache (Toklas)? Among their many pets were a dog named Basket and a cat named Hitler.
When World War I started, Toklas and Stein acquired a Ford automobile that they named Auntie. They supported the war effort by delivering supplies to French hospitals. In 1917, the two were sent to Perpignan in the foothills of the Pyrenees to set up a supply depot. When the war was over, they opened a center for civilian relief in Alsace.
During the 1920s, their home at 27 Rue de Fleurus was one of three renowned salons run by American women in Paris. Writer Natalie Barney and publisher Sylvia Beach hosted the other two. Americans would come to Paris to experience modernism (an aesthetic movement questioning religious, governmental, and scientific authorities), including writer Ernest Hemingway, who, although erotically attracted to Stein, said, “Gertrude Stein and I are just like brothers.”
Stein’s Fame, World War II, and Their Last Years
In 1933, Stein published The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which was actually the autobiography of Stein, who wrote as if she were Toklas. It became a bestseller. Stein and Toklas returned to the United States for a lecture tour in October 1934, then went back to France. In 1935, with the advent of World War II and the eventual invasion of France by Nazi Germany, Stein sent all her manuscripts to New York for safekeeping. Stein and Toklas were advised to leave Europe on several occasions because both of them were Jewish, but they preferred not to move. They did, however, leave Paris, and lived in the countryside for the duration of the conflict.
When the Germans surrendered, Stein traveled around France to visit with the American troops, but fell ill and died of stomach cancer in July 1946. Toklas began to write as a way of supporting herself, and produced The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, a combination of recipes and accounts of dinner parties with celebrities, in 1954. At the end of her cookbook, Toklas recounts the reactions of two friends when announcing she was publishing: “The first one gaily responded, How very amusing. The other asked, but, Alice, have you ever tried to write. As if a cook-book had anything to do with writing.”
Toklas became a Roman Catholic around 1957, claiming she had been baptized when she was eight years old, her Jewish upbringing and her relatives’ memories of her attending Yom Kippur services with her father notwithstanding. In 1960–1961, she stayed in a convent in Rome among a Canadian congregation of the Sisters of the Precious Blood, devoting herself to prayer, literature, and visits from friends. Toklas’ motives for converting appear to have been rooted in the peace she felt when attending an Easter service in 1956, and her desire to be reunited with Stein after death. Toklas died in March 1967, and she was buried beside Stein in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
Toklas in Popular Culture and Gay Folklife
In 1967, the movie I Love You, Alice B. Toklas was released. The plot dealt with a man falling in love with a hippie woman who makes pot brownies: chocolate pastries containing marijuana that are baked in a rectangular or square cake pan, then cut into squares or bars. The movie’s title is a reference to a recipe for haschich fudge (made with fruits, nuts, spices, and “canibus sativa” [sic]) found in The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, thus cementing in popular folk culture a strong association of Toklas with pot brownies. The title song of the movie acknowledges Toklas’ intimate relationship with Stein, opening with the following line: “I love you, Alice B. Toklas, and so did Gertrude Stein.” The association of Toklas with marijuana has led some to speculate that toke, a folk term for inhaling marijuana smoke in one inhaled breath, came from her name, but a more likely source is tocar (Spanish: “to touch” or “to play a musical instrument”).
In 1971, The Alice B. Toklas Memorial Democratic Club was formed. Toklas’ name was chosen so that the Gay political organization would not be obviously Gay. To be a “member of Alice” would be roughly equivalent “friend of Dorothy,” a code-phrase indicating same-sex orientation. In 2001, the organization changed its name to The Alice B. Toklas Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Democratic Club. Known affectionately as “Alice” by its members, the Club has championed LGBTQ rights, promoted AIDS activism, and supported the decriminalization of marijuana.
Lesbian Couples as Visibly Invisible
Like the Ladies of Llangollen who lived in Wales over a century before them, Stein and Toklas lived openly as life partners among the upper classes, who celebrated rather than condemned them. Both couples were famous as hosts and entertainers. Both were considered eccentric, wrapping themselves in the legends they constructed around themselves, and refraining from publicly revealing their same-sex attraction in the dynamics of their mutual devotion.
Stein, however, made oblique reference to their Gay identities in her writing, and her love for Toklas in her poetry. Famous for lapsing into repetition (Stein’s verse, “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” is one such example), Stein wrote the following excerpt taken from her short story, “Miss Furr and Miss Skeene” (1922), about two women living together, in which she repeats the word “gay” in almost every sentence of the story after the first paragraph, sometimes more than once:
Georgine Skeene was gay there and she was regular, regular in being gay, regular in not being gay, regular in being a gay one who was not being gay longer than was needed to one being quite a gay one. They were both gay then there and both working there then.
They were in a way both gay there where there were many cultivating something. They were both regular in being gay there. Helen Furr was gay there, she was gayer and gayer there and really she was just gay there, she was gayer and gayer there, that is to say she found ways of being gay there that she was using in being gay there. She was gay there, not gayer and gayer, just gay there, that is to say she was not gayer by using the things she found there that were gay things, she was gay there, always she was gay there.
They were quite regularly gay there, Helen Furr and Georgine Skeene, they were regularly gay there where they were gay. They were very regularly gay.
Although Miss Furr and Miss Skeene are based on a couple other than Stein and Toklas, the passage could apply to any Lesbian couple who lived openly with each other, whose orientation was no secret to their circle of friends, but whose public performance would not overtly reveal their sexual orientation (thus “regular in being gay, regular in not being gay”), which in the case of Stein would include her published writings. In 1922, gay was still a code word used mostly within the Gay community. But Stein’s constant repetition of the word may have been cathartic for her in that, by repeating the word to the point where it became meaningless, she could talk about same-sex orientation, as she says in the final line of the story, “telling them quite often, telling them again and again.”
Images, Monuments, and Memorials
Pablo Picasso did a portrait of Stein with her hair back in a bun (she in turn wrote a poem, “If I Told Him: A Complete Portrait of Pablo Picasso” in 1923 and a book, Picasso, in 1938). She sat for the portrait over eighty times, but Picasso would finish it on his own, telling her, “I can’t see you any longer when I look.” When she said that she did not look like the woman in the picture, Picasso is said to have answered, “You will” (alternative version: somebody said it did not look like Stein, and Picasso answered “She will”). There is also a bronze statue of Stein in Bryant Park, Manhattan. Based on a model made by Jo Davidson, the statue features Stein, also with long hair in a bun (later in her life, she wore her hair short), dressed in a blouse and long skirt, and sitting with her hands between her knees.
The Lesbian Avengers, an activist performance group, placed a statue of Alice B. Toklas next to Stein’s statue in Bryant Park during their 1993 “Valentine’s Day Action.” Stein and Toklas’ gravesite in Paris is a place of pilgrimage for literary fans and LGBTQ people.
Attributed to Toklas, from “Forward by M.F.K. Fisher” in The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook:
…anyone could whip up [Haschich Fudge] on a rainy day… This is the food of Paradise… it might provide an entertaining refreshment for a Ladies’ Bridge Club or a chapter meeting of the DAR [Daughters of the American Revolution]… Euphoria and brilliant storms of laughter; ecstatic reveries and extensions of one’s personality on several simultaneous planes are to be complacently expected. Almost anything Saint Theresa did, you can do better…
From What Is Remembered by Alice B. Toklas:
By this time Gertrude Stein was in a sad state of indecision and worry. I sat next to her and she said to me early in the afternoon, What is the answer? I was silent. In that case, she said, what is the question? Then the whole afternoon was troubled, confused and very uncertain, and later in the afternoon they took her away on a wheeled stretcher to the operating room and I never saw her again.
From Everybody’s Autobiography by Gertrude Stein:
That is really the trouble with an autobiography you do not of course you do not really believe yourself why should you, you know so well so very well that it is not yourself, it could not be yourself because you cannot remember right and if you do remember right it does not sound right and of course it does not sound right because it is not right. You are of course never yourself.
From “Love Song of Alice B.” by Gertrude Stein:
I caught sight of a splendid Misses. She had handkerchiefs and kisses. She had eyes and yellow shoes she had everything to choose and she chose me.
Malcolm, Janet. Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice. New Haven: Yale University, 2007.
Turner, Kay. Baby Precious Always Shines: Selected Love Notes Between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. New York: St. Martin’s, 2000.
Simon, Linda. The Biography of Alice B. Toklas. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska, 1991.
Stein, Gertrude. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. New York: Vintage, 1990 (1933).
Toklas, Alice B. The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook. Kent Town, Australia: Wakefield, 1995 (1954).
Toklas, Alice B. What Is Remembered. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1963.