Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas | The Relationship At The Heart Of Modern Art

This week I am joined by Kelly Cricchio (aka The Art Herstorian) to discuss the relationship between literary icons Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas – a pair who shaped the world of modern art from their home in the heart of Paris, the city of love.

Holly: Hello, and welcome back to Past Loves – the new weekly history podcast that looks at affection, infatuation and attachment across time to bring you the lighter side of history and to touch romance to daily life. Welcome back. I hope that you are doing well. It is looking like it’s going to be an absolutely glorious day here by all accounts. So I hope that this episode greets you with equally blissful weather. I can’t quite believe that it has got to the end of June. I started this series back in May and the fact that we are two months down the line is insane. I’d like to thank you so much. If this is the first episode you’ve listened to, if you’ve listened to all, your support means everything and I have just thoroughly, thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed this journey. Today we’re going to be speaking about a couple who’s lasting legacy in the art world is frankly insane. They cultivated the most incredible environment for 20th century artists in Paris. So, it may be episode eight, but we have finally got to the city of love and I’m very, very excited. Today we are talking about Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas. They are one of the greatest literary couples of all time. And they, as I mentioned, really created this home, this place of discussion, this place of expression for some of the most important artists of the century – Picasso, Matisse, literary icons like Hemingway. The list is seemingly endless, and I am so looking forward to discussing their relationship which was desperately important in creating this foundation for the landscape of 20th century art. My guest talking to me today is Kelly Cricchio, who is a Master’s graduate in art history but she runs the blog, The Art Herstorian which is dedicated to celebrating fascinating women from the history of art that you’ve never heard of, but you should have. And I admit, I kind of knew who Gertrude Stein was. I didn’t know who Alice B Toklas was, and so to be able to discover their love story has been an otter joy. I think they are remarkable and I hope from this episode, you feel really immersed in their world in Paris. I think what Kelly does really well is she brings in lots of primary resources that we can use to build out this picture of what their life was like in Paris and there are some beautiful descriptions that they give of each other – it helps when you’re both immersed in this literary world to be able to leave these really evocative descriptions of each other, of the place where they were living – and it really does feel so special. I’m so grateful for Kelly that she came and spoke to us today about this pair whose legacy should never be underestimated.

Welcome, Kelly. And thank you so much for joining me.

Kelly Criccho: Thank you for having me. I’m so excited.

Holly: Yes, because we’re going to talk about Gertrude and Alice and I had never really heard their story before. So it was incredible to learn about these two women. Shall we start by talking about Gertrude because she was quite a remarkable lady. What was her childhood like?

Kelly: So Gertrude Stein was born on 3rd February 1874, in Allegheny Pennsylvania, and she was the youngest of five children, and she came from a prosperous middle class family of German and Jewish descent. When Gertrude was six months old, her family travelled abroad for four years and she actually lived in Vienna and Paris. But when her family returned to America, they settled in Oakland, California, when Gertrude was seven years old, and she lived there until she was 17. And actually of her time in Oakland, Gertrude famously remarked, ‘there is no there there’. Because there she found very little cultural stimulation, which she countered by reading authors such as Shakespeare, Mark Twain, George Eliot and much more. And although she had four siblings, Gertrude was only really close to her older brother Leo.  She considered him to be her best friend and they were always together. She spent much of her youth following Leo around the United States and Europe. So in 1893, while Leo attended Harvard, Gertrude studied psychology at Radcliffe college, which was the lady’s branch of the University at that time. And in 1897, her and Leo both enrolled at Johns Hopkins where she was admitted to the School of Medicine. However, neither of them completed their programs and in her fourth and final year of medical school, Gertrude actually dropped out, or probably more likely flunked out and she didn’t continue on.

gertrude stein education
Johns Hopkins University | Credit: Johns Hopkins University

Holly: No, so I find it so interesting the relationship that they had, because he was a very significant driving force and their ending up in Paris as well.

Kelly: Yes, definitely. So after leaving Johns Hopkins in 1902, Gertrude and Leo first went to Italy. And then they briefly moved to London before settling in Paris. 

Holly: Oh my gosh, very decadent.

Kelly: And so actually, Leo arrived in Paris first and the following spring Gertrude meant to only visit him for the summer. But I mean, really, who can resist Paris?

Holly: I know!

Kelly: So the City of Light as they say, or I guess love, in our case, became her permanent home.

Holly: And they kind of started to create this initial flat on the Rue de Fleurus, which became quite a place of art.

Kelly: It did and it became a very influential place for modern art and literature in the early 20th Century. And actually, so when they first started, when they first moved to Paris actually, they started collecting artists who were nobody at the time and they actually have a budget but then later on their apartment does become this really great mecca of artistic thought, and really modern art would be very different if they didn’t have this salon and place where people can meet and express their ideas.

gertrude stein and alice rue de fleurus

Holly: Yeah. And so whilst she was in Paris, obviously as you said, the city of love and it was because that’s where she met Alice. How did they meet? 

Kelly: They met when Alice was on her very first day in Paris. So she arrived on Sunday 8th September 1907 and she found herself in the living room of Michael Stein, Gertrude’s eldest brother and his wife Sarah, and there surrounded by paintings and large windows, large furniture and Persian rugs was Gertrude. In Alice’s memoir, she remembers that ‘It was Gertrude Stein who held my complete attention as she did for all the many years I knew her. She was a golden brown presence burned by the Tuscan sun and with a golden glint in her warm brown hair. She was dressed in a warm brown corduroy suit, she wore a large round coral broach and when she talked very little, or laughed, a good deal, I thought her voice came through this broach. It was unlike anybody else’s voice.’

Holly: I just love that quote so much because it’s so evocative of their first meeting and it’s so rare to have such a detailed description of what it was like it really seems like it was love at first sight. 

Kelly: It does and thank goodness that they were both involved in literature so we have all these things recorded. So I think for Alice, not only did Gertrude’s physical presence capture her attention, but she also heard bells ringing in her head and thought that it was proof that she was in the presence of a genius. And part of this genius laid in Gertrude’s eyes, which Alice thought reflected the richness of her inner life. And I think though, as you pointed out, when we were talking earlier that the best way to answer this question though, is that Gertrude says in her most famous work The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas that their meeting was in this way ‘how her full new life began.’

gertrude stein relationship
Gertrude Stein, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1935
Alice B. Toklas, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1949

Holly: Yeah, it’s so lovely and I really find it lovely seeing pictures of them as well because they have such specific looks. You know, when she’s talking about Gertrude, what Gertrude looked like. There are so many pictures of dress quite masculine, and then with Alice with her famous I think she has a famous moustache. I feel like that…

Kelly: They think she did.

Holly: But she looks very different to Gertrude. And I just love seeing them together. And I love that quote, because it feels like you, you could be there. You could just see them falling in love. And I, I love that it’s quite unusual that they met in Paris though, because they both came from California, didn’t they?

Kelly: It did and actually, they grew up relatively close to one another, too. So Alice was born in San Francisco, which is just across the bay from Oakland. So today, the cities are actually connected by the Bay Bridge, and it’s only about a 15 minute car ride. Well about without traffic, of course. So I’m actually from this area too, so it’s exciting for me to talk about them.

Holly: See I had no idea that it was actually like that close because my American geography is very lacking. But that’s so nice that they were so close to each other. 

Kelly: They were 

Holly: So her father was a businessman, wasn’t he in San Francisco?

Kelly: Yes, he was so well in Seattle actually. So he established a wholesale store in Seattle, and that was called Toklas Singerman and Company. So I think he becomes one of the most prosperous merchants on the west coast. So, Alice was born in San Francisco and she spent a great deal of her time there. But in 1890, her father’s warehouse was burnt down. There was a fire that swept throughout Seattle’s commercial district. And so in order to rebuild his business, he thought that it would be best that they moved to Seattle. So, for a time, Alice does end up in Seattle and in 1893, at the same time that Gertrude is entering into college, Alice also enrols to study music at Washington University. She’s only able to attend for one year because her mother actually gets diagnosed with cancer, and her father decides that ‘okay, we should move back to San Francisco to be a family at this time.’

gertrude stein san francisco

Holly: Yeah, her mum’s a really interesting character, isn’t she?

Kelly: She is. And I think we see a lot of Alice in her later. She loved to garden and to cook and she really is a traditional caretaker. And I think those are qualities that Alice takes on later in life, both kind of forced, as we’ll talk about a little bit, and then what she wants to do in a relationship where she feels free.

Holly: Hmm. So what was it like for her when her mom did pass away in 1897?

Kelly: So her father and her brother and her moved in with their grandfather – actually her mother’s father. This is when she was 20 years old. So her life completely changes and she’s had to come back from college and so her path changes a lot. And as she put it she becomes the responsible granddaughter in a house filled with men, and that included her immediate family, and also her grandfather, and then a procession of visiting uncles and cousins. And so she became their caretaker and so she was given an allowance to cover household expenses. And she basically took over caring for her brother and cooking for her mostly male relatives. Actually, her cousin has a great quote, you know, she recounts about Alice’s life so we get a little bit more about just how her life was changed and when her cousin was over for dinner, she said that ‘I most keenly felt the stultifying pall that hung over the dining room. The stale smell from the chair of after dinner cigars that were smoked during these discussions, clung tenaciously to drapes and carpet and seems to saturate the wood of the chairs. Alice and I sat meekly swallowing our food, never attempting to venture our opinion nor were we encouraged to do so. Quickly, we fled at the first opportunity to Alice’s room to re-establish our lost identities.’ So you can only imagine that Alice is, you know, left craving more from life at this point and really wants to get out of San Francisco. But at the time, she has no money and had really no reason or place to go.

Holly: Yeah, it’s such an incredible shift from this artistic studying music to being at home, being the one who’s responsible for the household, and not even having her mother there as a guidance through that as like a solace just seemingly on her own. So how does she get the idea of moving to Paris?

san francisco earthquake alice b toklas
The 1906 San Francisco earthquake as photographed by Arnold Genthe, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Kelly: It starts with in 1906 San Francisco was quite literally rocked by estimated 7.9 magnitude earthquake and so soon after that devastating fires broke out throughout the city. Although Alice’s family home was not badly damaged, about 80% of the city was destroyed, led to Michael Stein and Sarah to come back to San Francisco because they needed to inspect the damages to their rental properties. The houses that they owned, which were actually in the same district that Alice lived, formed the basis of the entire Stein’s family income. And Sarah was actually originally from San Francisco and when they came back to San Francisco, she brought with her three paintings by Henri Matisse and tales of Paris. It’s so exciting. And Alice’s friend Harriet Levy grew up with Sarah and so one day she took Alice with her to view the paintings. So that is how Alice gets her introduction to the Stein family and while they’re there viewing the paintings Alice tell Sarah how interested she is to go to Paris. And so Sarah actually ended up inviting her and Harriet to travel back to Paris with her. But unfortunately, Alice felt like at that time, she couldn’t go because she still had no money, and she felt she was still responsible for the care of her younger brother. But about five months later, you can tell Paris was still on her mind. And she ended up telling her friends ‘at worst, it would be more diverting to sit behind a window in Paris and see life go by than observe it from an apartment in San Francisco.’ So in September of 1907, when she’s 30 years old, Alice and Harriet, finally set sail for Paris.

Holly: And it’s impressive how quickly things change for her in Paris as well. It’s another big life shift because she very quickly moves in with Gertrude doesn’t she?

Kelly: She does. So they arrive in 1907 and by 1909, she had begun staying with Gertrude and her brother Leo in their famous apartment that we talked about a little earlier. And by 1910, Alice has already moved in and soon after Leo moves out, and then Gertrude and Alison end up taking over one of the most famous salons in Paris. This salon was hosted on Saturday evenings, because Gertrude could work and not be interrupted by visitors who wanted to see these paintings at all hours of the day. And she attributes the beginning of these evening salons to Matisse saying that he brought people and everybody brought people and they came any time of the day and it began to be a nuisance. All types of people visited their salon – painters, writers, collectors, dealers, tourists and most notably, like I said earlier, it brought together these individuals that would define modernism in art and literature which included Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Francis Picabia, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ezra Pound, just to name a few. And on a typical Saturday evening, when Gertrude and Alice took over, you could find Gertrude sitting in a high backed Renaissance style chair. And she would be conversing with most of the male guests and then Alice would host the wives and girlfriends of the geniuses that she said should talk just to Gertrude.

gertrude stein salon
Credit: Pinterest

Holly: Ah, gosh, I mean, the idea of being at one of those salons is, I bet like to us it would be like a dream because it would be insane all of these people who are now so part of the cultural lexicon were just there mingling.

Kelly: I know it would have been an incredible experience to have, and even just to see their art collection in one place. So their art collection was why people came to their salon. Their collection included paintings, and watercolours by Sezane, they had the early works of Matisse and Picasso. And they also had paintings by Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Delacroix, Gauguin and Renoir and the walls of their salon were just hung floor to ceiling with these now famous paintings that you go to see in a museum. And even the double doors to their dining room were described as having these sketches by Picasso all over them. And so literally, their apartment was an early modern art museum. And in fact, their collection was one of the most remarkable private collections of Modern Art ever assembled.

Holly: Wow. I mean, I also just love the idea that as a couple they were nurturing this new generation of artists and writers. They put so much of their energy into these next icons of our culture.

Kelly: Yeah, they really did.

Holly: And so they were creating this incredible atmosphere at the beginning of the 20th century in Paris. And perhaps we can talk a bit more about their actual personal relationship rather than their, you know, professional legacy, as it were. So what was their marriage like was a happy marriage? 

Kelly: Oh, it definitely was. And while they weren’t legally married, Alice and Gertrude regarded themselves as married. They had a very happy marriage. From the very first day that they met in 1907, they were never apart until Gertrude’s death 39 years later. They loved to travel and almost every year they vacationed for extended periods in Europe. They spent many summers exploring Spain and they rented a home in the French countryside for over 10 years. And a very significant trip was their first in 1908. They spent their first summer together in Fiesole, which is a small town outside of Florence. And they spent their summer exploring the Tuscan countryside, piazzas, Roman ruins. They had lunch in Florence and they visited all these wonderful small towns. I mean, I couldn’t really think of a more romantic summer for your first vacation.

gertrude stein florence

Holly: It’s the summer we all dream of having.

Kelly: Yes, and everyday they went on these long walks. And it was on one of these walks that Gertrude proposed when they were in the midst of this lovely little garden. And Gertrude confided to Alice that it was her intention to win her bride and that she intended to love Alice like nobody else had before. And in their relationship Gertrude, you know, was to be the husband and Alice the wife. And understandably after this, Alice could not contain her excitement enough. Her friend Harriet also came along with them and she recalled that Alice just wept and wept, day after day she wept because of this new love that came into her life. 

Holly: Oh, so I read a few of the little notes and letters that particularly Gertrude wrote to Alice and they are just so charming 

Kelly: They are. So these are like their private correspondences, but now we have because they were very private about what they did in their relationship while they were alive. When Gertrude passes, most of her writing went to the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University. And so they’ve since published these love letters that they have and, in a lot of them Gertrude called Alice her wifey and she addresses her as baby precious and almost without exception she signs her letters YD for your darling. And in the correspondences we have where actually Alice responded – because there weren’t as many – she calls Gertrude husband or lovey, or this one I like Mr. Cuddle Buddle.

Holly: That’s a good one. 

Kelly: Yeah, so sometimes when Gertrude would write late into the night, she would leave notes next to the pillow for Alice to find in the morning and one of them she wrote ‘my dearest because I did not say good night and I miss it so. Please know how much I miss you, Gertrude dearest good night.’ And actually, if you’re interested more in their love letters, there’s a book called baby precious always shines that has more of their love letters from the Beinecke. And actually outside of their love letters, they both wrote about their relationship in some of their published work. So for Gertrude, you could find a little bit more about them in the autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Ada, Lifting Belly and Tender Buttons and for Alice it was in her memoir What is Remembered that she wrote later in her life. And while these notes all paint this very romantic picture in their travels through Europe, they definitely had their ups and downs. Harriet recounts this one occasion between Alice and Gertrude when one night at dinner, Picasso attempted to flirt with Alice by squeezing her hand under the dinner table. When Alice told her this, Gertrude abruptly dropped her fork and asked and what else and you can see here that Gertrude had some insecurities that surfaced a little bit as she’s trying to analyse this gesture, and Harriet says, and I’m going to summarize this just a little bit, but she says ‘it might have been a mere transient casual act, but it may have been a more important sign, squeezing her hand might have been the beginning of a permanent feeling. It might even have been love.’ And Harriet kind of funnily thinks that in some way even though Alice did look a bit terrified by Gertrude’s response, Perry it says that ‘in some ways, all the fun of Picasso’s squeeze had been squeezed out.’

Holly: Oh, yes, I mean, it really must have bought the end to any kind of conversation that kind of response.

Kelly: That awkward silence that probably surfaced.

Holly: Yeah, everyone just sitting there like nobody move. I find the way in which they interacted so interesting because they did take on these quite, as we would consider them traditional roles, from wifey and husband and can you explain those roles further, like how did they fall into them?

Kelly: Yeah, so I mean, we’ve seen since Gertrude proposed in Italy they regard themselves more in this traditional sense as husband and wife. Even in their nicknames for each other, and how they presented themselves to friends and visitors at their Saturday salon, Gertrude conversed with the men will Alice entertained with their wives. But I think that it’s important to point out that their roles were a little bit more fluid than just Gertrude was the genius and Alice was the housewife. Alice was certainly much more than just this housewife or this muse for Gertrude. She was the manager of their lives, their household and Gertrude’s his career. From the day she met Gertrude till her last breath Alice devoted her life to encouraging and preserving Gertrude’s genius, and she alone typed and edited Gertrude’s manuscripts and worked tirelessly to get her published. And she was also largely responsible for Gertrude’s success later in her life, as well as the preservation of her legacy after her death. It was also Alice, who decided who exactly could come to their Saturday salon. So if she did not approve, a guess was turned away. So Alice was kind of known to be a little vengeful and also jealous on her own. One instance is that she just drew the line at Hemingway. She was not a fan, and really one of her greatest triumphs. She thought that they liked each other. But more importantly, she thought he was an opportunist. And he was concerned only with creating and nurturing his own legend. So at the end of the day, able to convince Gertrude that he is all of these things, and so they actually end up splitting ways. And so Alice was very influential in her Gertrude’s life in many ways, but I don’t think her control was this point of contention in their relationship. In fact, I think that it was something that Gertrude embraced. She knew that because Alice freed her from domestic chores that she was able to concentrate on her work. And more importantly, Alice was the first person that truly believed in Gertrude. So when Gertrude’s brother moves out their whole life they’ve been so close but he stops believing in her work. He thinks that her writing is horrible basically, and that’s one of the reasons why they part terms and he moves out because she feel the support from him. And so with Alice, she finally has this support and of Alice she sweetly writes once that ‘she is very necessary to me, my sweetie, she is all of me.’ Actually behind closed doors, it seems that their roles were even more reversed in other ways.

Holly: Yes, we have a little insight into the bedroom don’t we?

Kelly: We do. 

Holly: I mean, it’s kind of coded. It’s up for discussion of exactly what they’re talking about. But there are a few nods to what happens in the most intimate part of that relationship.

Kelly: Yeah, so scholars debate, and I think most of them agree that they think when Gertrude writes about cows in her writings that she’s actually using that as a code word for Alice’s orgasms. And one scholar, Ulla Dydo, she thinks that after analysing much of Gertrude’s writings that their roles were really reversed in that it was Gertrude who did more of the labouring in their private life. Or that Alice was more on the receiving end of their pleasure than Gertrude. You know, I think that it would be easy for us to say that their relationship was unequal – and there have been many that I read have – but I agree with Kay Turner who edited the volume that I mentioned earlier Baby Precious their love letters. She says that Alice and Gertrude really engaged in this radical reconstruction of gender by questioning what it meant to be male and female or masculine or feminine, or even husband and in wife. And she continues with ‘certainly Gertrude always was hubby and Alice was always wifey, but they use male and female standards, not as dyes or moulds, but as templates which could be repositioned and re-fired day by day, night by night and in the domestic kiln of their radical love.’ 

Holly: Oh, what a beautiful way to put it I think I agree because they do think they are far more complicated than saying that they subscribed to purely traditional because they no one subscribes to those levels of traditional relationship anyway. So to thrust it upon them is unfair. I find it really interesting that Gertrude’s success comes through the voice of Alice. So it comes when she writes The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. And that was a real turning point for Gertrude wasn’t it?

Kelly: It was so that was the first time that she was able to finally achieve literary stardom and she’d working towards that with her writing for nearly three decades. But the thing that was different about her autobiography of Alice B Toklas was that it was written in a style that was accessible to the general public, which is something that her earlier works are not. They also wrote this with the intent of making money. Alice just tired in general of selling their paintings to pay for private publishing because they had a hard time getting Gertrude published because she had such a small audience for her writing. And so here Gertrude sent off to write a best seller for Alice. And that’s exactly what she did. And the first printing of the autobiography, sold out of its initial 5400 copies nine days before it was officially released. In the next two years there is four reprints, and it eventually was translated into French and into Italian. And like you said, the most interesting thing about this is that it really is the story of Gertrude’s life, but written in the style of Alice in her voice. It was written so much like how Alice would speak that their friends thought that Alice actually collaborated with Gertrude on this, but she says that she did not. And the autobiography chronicles their life with the who’s who of the Parisian avant garde in the 20s and the 30s And their life was really made for a best seller. Like we talked about earlier, just the characters and the personalities that were in their salon. It’s a great book.

Holly: Yeah, I listened to it and I found it just so entertaining. And I completely understand why when she was wanting to write a bestseller, she wrote about all of these people in a very effervescent way. But she wrote about people people wanted to know more about and she clearly knew what she was doing.

Kelly: It’s a bit like a gossip column.

the autobiography of alice b toklas

Holly: It is. They ended up going back to America to do this really big tour, didn’t they?

Kelly: They did. In 1934 they went on a six month lecture tour in the United States, and they visited 23 states and 37 cities actually. The American public was fascinated by Gertrude and when they arrived in New York, actually a billboard in Times Square announced that Gertrude Stein is here. And so, she got this red carpet treatment pretty much the whole time she’s travelling around for her lecture tour. So they ended up having tea at the White House with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. They went to a celebrity packed dinner at Charlie Chaplin’s house in Beverly Hills. They went to the raven society in Edgar Allan Poe’s old room at the University of Virginia. They got to ride around with a homicide detective in Chicago and you know that even when they made their way back to their hometown to San Francisco, Gertrude was actually given a key to the city by the mayor.

Holly: Wow, that is a big change from when they both left.

Kelly: Yes. What a great homecoming after 30 years.

Holly: Absolutely. So, this was obviously quite a glamorous affair. It was quite a big event in their lives but really their salon and then this success was bookended both by war. And in the second world war in particular, obviously, there was Nazi occupation in Paris. So what was the war like for them after they’d enjoyed all this success with the autobiography of Alice B Toklas?

Kelly: Well they landed ended up spending the war in South Eastern France first at their summer home in a tiny village outside of Belley, and then another house in a nearby village in Culoz. As two American Jewish women, they decided that it was in their best interest to leave Paris and keep a low profile after the Germans occupied France, and life was much different for them going forward. But still, they tried to keep and maintain, you know, the sense of normalcy. But one area that things changed quite dramatically was that during the occupation, food was strictly rationed and items such as milk, eggs and butter were hard to come by. By the time that German soldiers had requisitioned supplies, there was really little for everybody else to have. But luckily, Alice had an established garden at their summer home, so she had no shortage of fresh fruits and vegetables, and she had stocked up their pantry, and most importantly, they had a cellar with wine.

Holly: Very important.

Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, The New York Public Library. (1934). Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, November 4,1934. 

Kelly: Those are the necessities you know, fruits, veggies and wine. They were only allowed a quarter pound of meat each week, and when fishing was banned, a local butcher actually ends up supplying them with crawfish, which is not something that I think was part of their normal diet before. But this soon becomes the main course at once parties they serve, because not so surprisingly, they were still entertaining even in occupation. But many of these cooking ingredients were not available. So one of the ways that Alice passed her time was by passionately reading elaborate recipes, and then she would cook them in her mind. Yes, and later on, she was able to obtain some more scarce cooking ingredients in what she called the blessed black market, where she was able to find eggs, flour and a variety of other meats to supplement the food that they already had. So that’s in their summer house that they already were established in. They knew their community. So life wasn’t too different. They’ve been going there for many years, but they end up having to move because they didn’t own that house, they just rented and they switch houses and they go to a nearby village. This is where the reality of war starts to really surround them in their daily lives. So passing through this town were trains for prisoners and civilians weren’t even allowed to walk into the mountains because the Germans said that they would be shot if they did so. And they also were in danger of being shot if they were out past curfew, which was at six in the evening. And at that time, they had to board up the windows in their homes that face the street, and they had to keep them blacked out until seven in the morning. And, you know, this is a time in Gertrude’s life – the only time in her life well, first time I should say in her life – that she bought a watch and understandably so. And actually, when they left Paris, they brought Sezane’s portrait of his wife and Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude.

Holly: So it’s a very famous painting, isn’t it that Picasso did of Gertrude?

Kelly: It is and she actually famously, they say she sat for 90 times and then Picasso decided that he didn’t like her face. So he wipes to clean and he finishes it last. And he’s very inspired by masks, Iberian masks at this time. And so people said ‘that does not look like Gertrude at all’. And, so she wasn’t as well received. It must have meant quite a bit to her. I mean, Picasso was one of her greatest friends in Paris. So that was, understandably, one of the paintings that she took with her. They lived from their money that was coming in from America from Stein’s properties and they ended up actually having to sell one of their paintings. So they drove to Switzerland in 1942 and they sell the Sezane and later, Alice actually tells her friends that they ate the Sezane.

Holly: What a nice way to put it!

Kelly: I think her friends were more surprised that they didn’t stay in Switzerland than that they sold the painting because they could have been more safe in Switzerland. But Alice and Gertrude were convinced that they were going to be safe because of their relationship with Bernard Fay. Their relationship with him has been highly scrutinized but it was because of him that Alice and Gertrude and their art collection survived the war. So Bernard Fay was a collaborator with the Vichy regime and he had connections with the gestapo. In August 1944 he stopped the gestapo for confiscating their art collection. You can imagine that it’s a little odd to think of a Jewish woman’s being such good friends with someone who was associated with such a terrible regime.

Holly: Yeah but I mean France was their home.

Kelly: It was and they weren’t able to return home to Paris until 1944 but when they did it was exactly how they left it – and I mean lucky for us later on that we’re able to enjoy it now too.

Holly: Yeah it’s a testament to how much the art meant to them and the cultural significance that it had that they made this pact and found a way to make sure that it was safe. 

Kelly: Yes definitely.

Gertrude Stein relaxes with Bernard Faÿ, who later was a Vichy bureaucrat, at her home in the village of Bilignin, France, in 1937. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Holly: So they move back to Paris and it’s so sad that they only really had a couple more years in Paris.

Kelly: Yeah actually two years so they didn’t get enough time together. Unfortunately for Alice, Gertrude dies unexpectedly – she dies of stomach cancer – and poor Alice, she ends up with very little property after living this life with Gertrude. Gertrude wrote her will on 23rd July 1946 and she did leave her money and the paintings in the collection to Alice but only for her use for life. Gertrude’s nephew Allan and his children were to receive everything that was left of Gertrude’s estate after Alice’s death. One of the unfortunate challenges that Alice faces now is that she was not able to get her monthly stipend on time so she many times had to get her lawyer to mediate so that she could just get her money to survive. For example in the winter of 1946, she could barely afford to keep one room of her house warm and she wrote to a friend that ‘we ate Mme. Sezane but I don’t want to figuratively burn a Picasso.’ She just didn’t have the funds to keep her house warm. She eventually starts writing, like Gertrude, so that she can have some supplemental income so that she can survive. While Gertrude had intended for these paintings to maintain and support Alice throughout the remainder of her life, they clearly did not. Part of this was because Alice was reluctant to sell any of the paintings because she really wanted to preserve Gertrude’s legacy and sell the collection in its entirety to a museum as the Gertrude Stein Collection. Even when her house was falling apart and later when it was up for sale, she wouldn’t sell any of these paintings to remedy her situation. And this leads to her being evicted from her home in 1963. So she sells a few drawings by Picasso to fund publishing Gertrude’s writings and she does sell one painting. That was Picasso’s green still life which she sold for $60,000 and that was just to cover her allowance because it had been late for three months and she had doctor’s bills to pay and she needed money to insure the paintings. But she was very reluctant to sell any other works which if she had she might have lived a little more comfortably. Another obstacle that Alice faced after Gertrude passed away was that she was met at every stage with resistance from Allan Stein and his heirs. Where Alice wanted to honour Gertrude, Gertrude’s heirs they were only interested in making money. In fact, in April 1961 when Alice was away caring for her arthritis in Italy, her entire painting collection was seized from the apartment. Allan’s wife claimed that the paintings were not safe during Alice’s absence and she legally had them removed. She took them from the apartment and stored them in the vault of the Chase Manhattan Bank in Paris. So I mean, I can’t even imagine, coming home and finding only outlines of paintings on the wall. This was really one of her last physical connections to Gertrude so it really breaks my heart. Poor Alice. And she dies 6 years after these paintings were taken from her and I can only imagine how much more lonely her life got.

Holly: I think that the way in which she acted after Gertrude’s death is a testament to her devotion to pursuing Stein’s legend, making sure that that is perpetuated past her death because the cookbook that she writes – it’s a thinly veiled as a biography of their relationship – so I guess that was another way of her again continuing that story about who Gertrude was.

Kelly: Yes. She wrote the cookbook when she was 75 so this was about 20 years after Gertrude’s death and she used recipes to recount her and Gertrude’s adventures together. I can’t help but think that every time she cooked or wrote a recipe down that she thought about Gertrude – kind of in the way you look at photographs as memories. And food was very important in their relationship; Alice was always cooking, critiquing food, collecting recipes and this really worked out for Gertrude because Gertrude really liked to eat. In one of the recipes that I just thought was so funny, she gives the recipe for hot chocolate. This was given to wounded soldiers in the First World War and in the First World War, Alice and Gertrude volunteered by driving supplies around France. And when she’s telling this recipe or giving this recipe she talks about how Gertrude was a horrible driver and how she could never master backing their car up. I just think that’s so funny.

alice b toklas and gertrude stein france
enry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, The New York Public Library. (1934). Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein on the Terrace at Bilignin, June 13, 1934.

Holly: I love those little insights and I found her cookbook so interesting because some of the recipes are odd to say the least.

Kelly: And it’s an innovative way to tell your story through recipes rather than pictures.

Holly: Absolutely. So Alice was finally laid to rest next to Gertrude. What would you consider their lasting legacy as a couple?

Kelly: Well I just want to mention one thing more about their final resting place?

Holly: Yes please do.

Kelly: Just really quick. So Alice was buried in the same tomb as Gertrude but the thing is though, she had her name and her dates placed on the back of Gertrude’s tombstone and I think it’s so sweet – I mean we are talking about death here – but it’s so sweet because for all of eternity Alice is supporting her to the very end and I thought that was one great last way in which she could honour Gertrude and their relationship. But what is their long term legacy as a couple? I think that Gertrude and Alice really teach us something profoundly beautiful about the art of love. And as you put it love is love is love. For the LGBTQ and related communities, their story is a testament to the fact that no one should be discriminated against for who they love or how they express their gender. Theirs is a story of two people finding their identities and fully living their lives after they meet each other.  In Alice, Gertrude finally found encouragement and support and in Gertrude, Alice finally found her freedom. Alice and Gertrude really show us that love really knows no bounds and I think that it’s also important to point out that if their union had been legally recognised Alice might not have struggled so much financially in later life and would have been more successful in preserving Gertrude’s art collection in the way that she thought would have most honoured her. What ends up happening after Alice’s death, Gertrude’s collection actually gets sold for $6 million and then dispersed to collectors and museums.  But also I think that their story is important for representation of different identities in the history of art. For so long it has been told from the viewpoint of, and the system of, influential white men who are at the core of shaping culture. But here we have a lesbian woman and her partner who in their home nurtured and inspired the careers of some of the most influential artists and writers in the 20th Century. In some cases they practically made some of their careers through their art patronage. So I just think it would be very hard to imagine modern art without Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.

Holly: Well I think that’s the perfect way to end as a testament to their relationship. Thank you so much for talking to me today, I’ve so enjoyed learning more about Gertrude and Alice.

Kelly: Ah thank you so much for having me it was a pleasure.

Holly: And thank you for listening. It was so lovely to be able to talk to Kelly today about Gertrude and Alice. They really are a remarkable pair and I think they deserve so much recognition for the influence that they have had over modern art. If you are interested in Kelly and her blog The Art Herstorian you can find her at I will of course leave the links in the show notes including the links to her social media. She’s got Facebook and Instagram and Twitter – so go follow her everywhere. If you enjoyed this episode please rate, review and subscribe to Past Loves wherever you are listening to it now and I would highly recommend reading, or listening as I did to, Gertrude’s biography of Alice B. Toklas which is just terribly charming and will give you the feeling of their life together in Paris. If you do let me know over on Instagram because if Past Loves has become your current love be sure to come follow me over on Instagram @pastlovepodcast. It is the best way to continue the conversation and I would love to know if you have been inspired by this remarkable pair. Again, thank you so much for listening. I am looking forward to the next episode where again we have a couple going to law to legitimise and formalise their love – until soon.

Listen to this episode on iTunesSpotifyPodbeanTuneIn & Stitcher.


Levy, Harriet Lane. Paris Portraits: Stories of Picasso, Matisse, Gertrude Stein, and Their Circle. Forward by Deborah Kirshman. Berkeley, CA: Heyday, 2011. 

Morris Jr., Roy. Gertrude Stein has Arrived: The Homecoming of a Literary Legend. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019.

Robillard, Evie. A Portrait in Poems: The Storied Life of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Illustrated by Rachel Katstaller. Toronto, ON: Kids Can Press Ltd., 2020. (Great book for kids!)

Simon, Linda. The Biography of Alice B. Toklas. New York: Avon Books, 1977.

Stein, Gertrude. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Illustrated by Maira Kalman. New York: Penguin Press, 2020.

Stein, Gertrude, and Alice B. Toklas. Baby Precious Always Shines: Selected Love Notes Between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Edited by Kay Turner. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

Souhami, Diana. Gertrude and Alice. New York: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2010.

Toklas, Alice B. The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book. Forward by M. F. K. Fisher. New York: Harper Perennial, 1984.

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