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Meeting Gertrude Stein . . . a miscellany of first encounters
compiled by Dana Cook

1. Harold Acton Literary Madame Blavatsky

When ... Gertrude Stein was in England, I invited her to address the 'Ordinary' and she accepted in her generous scrawl. (...)

(...) Gertrude had left all her nervousness at Cambridge: it was a fine summer day and she was ready to enjoy herself. Her audience was even larger than I had anticipated and many had to stand. Owing to the critics, the popular conception of Gertrude Stein was of an eccentric visionary, a literary Madame Blavatsky in fabulous clothes, the triumph of the dream and escape from life personified, with bells on her fingers as well as on her toes, or a mermaid swathed in tinsel, smoking drugged cigarettes through an exaggerated cigarette holder, or a Gioconda who had had her face lifted so often that it was fixed in a smile beyond the nightmares of Leonardo da Vinci. One was aware of the rapid deflation of these conceptions, as Gertrude surpassed them by her appearance, a squat Aztec figure in obsidian, growing more monumental as soon as she sat down. With her tall bodyguard of Sitwells and the gipsy acolyte, she made a memorable entry,

(Oxford, England, early 1920s)

2. Mortimer Adler 'Don't call me Miss Stein'

(...) Bob and Maude Hutchins gave a dinner party for her during her visit ... (...)

As we took our places at the table -- and certainly before we had been fortified by coffee and cognac -- Gertrude turned on Bob and said, "Where have you been, Hutchins, and what have you been doing?" A little weary at the end of the day, Bob was taken aback by the abruptness and forcefulness of the attack (the energy Gertrude exuded in a small room hit one like Niagara Falls). Bob replied, as briefly and effortlessly as possible, "Miss Stein, Mr. Adler and I have been teaching the great books." Gertrude pounced on him again and with even more vigor. "Don't call me Miss Stein," she said; "call me Gertrude Stein. What are the great books?" Bob tried to explain the basic educational idea in reading and discussing great books with college students, but he kept forgetting how she insisted upon being addressed, and so he was forever being interrupted by Gertrude's peremptory injunction "Don't call me Miss Stein; call me Getrude Stein."

At one point I decided to come to Bob's rescue by going downstairs to my briefcase and getting out the list of the great books. I showed it to her. She scanned the list quickly and just as quickly asked, "Do you read these books in their original languages or in English translations?" Huthcins explained that our freshman [University of Chicago] students did not have competence in Greek and Latin or Italian and French, and were finding it difficult enough to read the books in English. This infuriated Miss Stein, I mean Gertrude Stein. She laid it down as an unchallengeable axiom that great literature was essentially untranslatable. Hutchins and I then tried to argue with her, pointing out that we were concerned mainly with the ideas that were to be found in the great books. She might be right, we admitted; fine writing suffers in translation, but idea somehow transcend the particular language in which they are first expressed.

(Chicago, 1930s)

3. Cecil Beaton Standing for humanity

Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas have returned to Paris from their refuge in the mountains near Aix. Gertrude is much thinner and shrunken -- Toklas fatter and more hirsute. Alice Toklas said, re difficulties of buying food and other scarce essentials: 'Nowadays one doesn't buy with money but with one's personality.' She described a scene in the Rue St Agustin when she and Gertrude went to buy vegetables, and suddenly some GIs shouted: "Miss Stein, Mr Picasso wants you,' and Pablo appeared, laughing, and they all got together with the butcher in the street and he gave them extra bits of meat as a celebration.

Gertrude talks about the hordes of GIs who come to see her and Picasso. "Why do they come to us?' She explains that for some reason she and Pablo stand for humanity: the two of them have always had the courage to fight for, and uphold, the things that they think are important. (...)

(...) ... he [Pierre Balmain] has opened a [women's clothes] shop in Paris. At his first showing to the Press Gertrude and Alice arrived with their huge dog, 'Basket'. Gertrude in a tweed skirt, an old cinnamon-colored sack, and Panama hat, looked like Corot's self-portrait. Alice, in a long Chinese garment of bright colours with a funny flowered toque, had overtones of the Widow Twankey (...)

(Paris, 1944)

4. Sylvia Beach To my bookshop

Not long after I had opened my bookshop, two women came walking down the rue Dupuytren. One of them, with a very fine face, was stout, wore a long robe, and, on her head, a most becoming top of a basket. She was accompanied by a slim, dark whimsical woman: she reminded me of a gipsy. They were Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.

(Paris, 1919)

5. Paul Bowles Just like her photographs

(...) One of the first things I did was to go around to 27 rue de Fleurus and find Gertrude Stein's door. When I rang the bell, a maid answered and said Mademoiselle was busy. I could hear the sound of women's voices coming down from the stairwell, and I said I had just arrived from America and must see her, if only for a moment. The girl made me wait outside. Soon Gertrude Stein appeared, looking just as he did in her photographs, except that the expression of her face was rather more pleasant. "What is it? Who are you?" she said. I told her and heard for the first time her wonderfully hearty laugh. She opened the door so that I could go in. Then Alice Toklas came downstairs, and we sat in the big studio hung with Picassos. "I was sure from your letters that you were an elderly gentleman, at least seventy-five," Gertrude Stein told me. "A highly eccentric elderly gentleman," added Alice Toklas. "We were certain of it." (...)

(Paris, 1931)

6. Bennett Cerf Selling me her books

(...) I spent an hour in the famous studio of Gertrude Stein, with Miss Stein and Miss Toklas, surrounded by countless paintings of Picasso and Matisse. Gerty was very pleasant and very voluble, and when she got around to trying to sell me the 4 or 5 hundred copies she had left of her early books (published by herself with the imprint "Plain Editions"), she reminded me very much of Edna Ferber. While this negotiation was in progress, Miss Toklas' imposing mustachio

quivered with emotion, the while she interposed nervous comments intended to help drive the bargain home. (...)

(Paris, 1934)

7. Tom Driberg Seemingly nonsense

One ... exciting event was the arrival in Oxford of Gertrude Stein and her delivery of a lecture entitled 'Composition as Explanation.' I do not think that we all found the explanation pellucidly clear, but I can still recall the thrill of watching this massive, short-haired woman -- rather like a German Hausfrau or a good plain cook -- declaiming in a completely matter-of-fact American voice statements which, to most of those present, seemed complete nonsense; the thrill, too, of knowing that here among us, in our conservative university, was one of the many stars of the Left Bank and transition: the revolution of the word in person. (...)

(Oxford, England, mid-1920s)

8. Edna Ferber Love as a cure for war

Gertrude Stein, at the extreme opposite end of the non-combatant war-picture, trudged the streets of her Paris, which was home to her, looking like a massive ambulatory Buddha. Accompanying her, on a leash, was a gray-white sheepdog the size of a pony. The eccentric American-born playwright and poet had adopted the entire United States Army. As the striking and somewhat macabre duo of massive woman and monster dog roamed the Paris streets -- Place Vendôme, the Rue de Rivoli, the Left Bank, the Tuileries Gardens, the Ile St. Louis, Gertrude Stein stopped and talked with every man, young or old, in the uniform of the United States. She, like Mike Todd, had a formula. Hers was not baseball. She argued that the cure for war was love. If everybody loved everybody there would be no war. You couldn't argue this. As we stood talking on a street corner I agreed that her theory was a highly reasonable one but that it might be difficult to make it realistically workable. Miss Stein didn't see why, and I'm glad she didn't. She asked me to come to her apartment to tea and to look at her picture collection which was fabulous ... (...)

(Paris, early 1940s)

9. John Glassco Late Roman Empire

The room was large and sombrely furnished, but the walls held, crushed together, a magnificent collection of paintings -- Braques, Matisses, Picassos, and Picabias. I only recovered from their cumulative effect to fall under that of their owner, who was presiding like a Buddha at the far end of the room.

Gretrude Stein projected a remarkable power, possibly due to the atmosphere of adulation that surrounded her. A rhomboidal woman dressed in a floor-length gown apparently made of some kind of burlap, she gave the impression of absolute irrefragability; her ankles almost concealed by the hieratic folds of her dress, were like the pillars of a temple: it was impossible to conceive of her lying down. Her fine close-cropped head was in the style of the late Roman Empire, but unfortunately it merged into broad peasant shoulders without the aesthetic assistance of a neck; her eyes were large and much too piercing. I had a peculiar sense of mingled attraction and repulsion towards her. She awakened in me a feeling of instinctive hostility coupled with a grudging veneration, as if she were a pagan idol in whom I was unable to believe.

Her eyes took me in, dismissed me as someone she did not know, and returned to her own little circle.

(Paris, 1929)

10. Lillian Hellman Flattered Hammett

Miss Stein arrived in America and said that there were two people that she wanted to meet. They were both in California at that time -- Chaplin and Dash [Dashiell Hammett]. And we were invited to dinner at the house of a friend of Miss Stein; Charlie Chaplin, Dash and myself, Paulette Goddard, Miss Toklas, our host and hostess and another man. There was this magnificent china and lace tablecloth . Chaplin turned over his coffee cup, nowhere near Stein, just all over this beautiful cloth, and the first thing Miss Stein said was, "Don't worry, it didn't get on me." She was miles away from him. She said it perfectly seriously. Then she told Dash he was the only American writer who wrote well about women. He was very pleased.

(Los Angeles, late 1930s)

11. Ernest Hemingway Like a museum

... we ... loved the big studio with the great paintings. It was like one of the best rooms in the finest museum except there was a big fireplace and it was warm and comfortable and they gave you good things to eat and tea and natural distilled liqueurs made from purple plums, yellow plums or wild raspberries. (...)

Miss Stein was very big but not tall and was heavily built like a peasant woman. She had beautiful eyes and a strong German-Jewish face ... she reminded me of a northern Italian peasant woman with her clothes, her mobile face and her lovely, thick, alive immigrant hair which she wore put up in the same way she had probably worn it in college. She talked all the time and at first it was about people and places.

Her companion had a very pleasant voice, was small, very dark, with her hair cut like Joan of Arc ... and had a very hooked nose. She was working on a piece of needlepoint when we first met them and she worked on this and saw to the food and drink and talked to my wife. She made one conversation and listened to two and often interrupted the one she was not making.

(Paris, 1923)

12. Matthew Josephson Old Roman senator

Miss Stein, a solid block of a woman, was there in the midst of the crowd, talking with many of us, taking everything in with her characteristic aplomb. She was elegantly-dressed, after her fashion, in a simple gray costume; her finely shaped, masculine head with its short-cropped grizzled hair and expressive blue eyes gave her the appearance of an old Roman senator. We talked about [Virgil] Thomson's music, which was very humourous; Miss Stein allowed that it was decidedly spiritual, and described, with amusing touches, her collaboration with the composer. She was very well-spoken, carried herself with poise, and her keen eyes now regarded her interlocutor closely or now roved about the room. A formidable woman, in short, and with quite an ego.

(Paris, 1927)

13. James Laughlin Charisma

(...) I stayed there a month. It took me that long to get these [press] releases [promoting an up-coming American lecture tour] done to her satisfaction. The two of us sat out on the terrace in the mornings, working. Then in the afternoon we'd tour the countryside in her little Ford with Gertrude, who drove, sitting in the front seat and with Alice B. Toklas, while I sat in the back with those two awful dogs -- Basket, who was a white poodle, and Pepe, who was a nasty little black Mexican nipper. Trying to control the pair of them back there, I saw very little of the Savoie countryside. (...)

Gertrude had great natural charm, tremendous charisma. Marvelous head. Those wonderful flashing eyes. A deep, firm voice. So I couldn't help but be very much impressed by her at times, except that often she'd erupt with crazy ideas. She thought Hitler was a great man ... this before the war, of course, but how a Jewess could be attracted to such a notion at any time is difficult to understand. She was certainly a woman of strong opinions -- indeed to the point of megalomania. She felt she had influenced everyone. We had a big fight one day when I mentioned I was reading Proust. She said, "How can you read junk like that? Don't you know, J., that Proust and Joyce both copied their work from The Making of Americans?" She finally cooled on me. I simply didn't accept everything she said. That was disrespectful.

(Bilignin, France, mid-1930s)

14. Frederic Prokosch No giantess

She sat in a red plush armchair, her knees far apart. She was smaller than I expected (I had expected a giantess) and her voice was less sonorous, her manner less intimidating. In fact, there was something very delicate about her. Her face looked coarse and furrowed, like that of an Alpine climber, but at the same time it looked civilized and gently speculative.


Gertrude and Alice crossed the lawn to look at the baby radishes. I remember them both leaning over to look at the radishes. All I saw was their behinds -- that of Gertrude broad and imponderable, that of Alice very narrow and anxious and vulnerable. I was touched and reassured by the sight of their behinds.

(Paris, late 1920s; Bilignin, France, mid-1930s)

15. Eric Sevareid Didn't understand Fascism

I went to see Gertrude Stein one day, expecting to be amused, and was not only amused but deeply impressed by the finest flow of talk I had ever listened to with the possible exception of that from Schnabel, the pianist. She has a remarkably lucid and germinal mind and disguises a profound understanding by a simplicity of rapidly flowing speech that misleads the casual listener. A conditioned mind like mine, trained to the conventional formulae of expression, could retain her ideas clearly but was quite unable, later, to reproduce her own words. They were too basic, too simple. In written form her words seem bizarre and difficult to follow, but when she herself reads them aloud it is all perfectly lucid, natural, and exact. She had just finished her own version of Faust. She walked heavily up and down her study in front of her dark Picassos and read the script aloud to me, carried away by her own words and breaking off into ringing laughter which so overcame her at times that she would stop to wipe her eyes. She was a warm and wonderful person. When I published the story of her rewritten Faust, it was reprinted all over the world, and she was delighted as a child. Like most artists she though in terms of the human individual and was quite lost when she considered people in groups. She could not think politically at all. Thus she assured me: "Hitler will never really go to war. He is not the dangerous one. You see, he is the German romanticist. He wants the illusion of victory and power, the glory and glamour of it, but he could not stand the blood and fighting involved in getting it. No, Mussolini -- there's the dangerous man, for he is an Italian realist. He won't stop at anything." She did not understand Fascism; she did not understand that the moods and imperatives of great mass movements are far stronger and more important than the individuals involved in them. She knew persons, but not people.

(Paris, mid-1930s)

16. William L. Shirer Megalomaniac

She was so bulky that, as a note I jotted down reminds me, I thought she looked like a full-blown Irish washwoman. But this first impression soon changed. Above her heavyset body was a face that reminded you of a Roman emperor, masculine and strong and well chiseled, and her eyes were attractive and intelligent. Her hair was closely cropped, like Caesar's. She greeted me in a low, mannish but pleasant voice. She wanted to talk about, it developed, her recent lectures at Cambridge and Oxford, which, she said, had been a great success and which had not been reported fully in the American newspapers in Paris. In fact, I did not recall that they had been mentioned. This had surprised her, she said, because besides being acclaimed by the students and faculty at the great Britiish universities, she was, after all, the greatest living writer in the English language. It had to be an American, she explained, and it had to be she. Just as England had made our literature from the sixteenth through the nineteenth century, America had made it in the twentieth.

"You know the Big Four in American literature, don't you?" she went on. "Ending with me?" Before I could express my ignorance she answered her question. . "There is a natural line of descent. Poe to Whitman to Henry James to myself. I am the last. The only living one."

... my God, I suddenly thought, I have landed in the presence of a megalomaniac. (...)

(Paris, 1925)

17. Gertrude Stein One of three geniuses

... I went to see Mrs. Stein who had in the meantime returned to Paris, and there at her house I met Gertrude Stein. I was impressed by the coral brooch she wore and by her voice. I may say that only three times in my life have I met a genius and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken, and I may say in each case it was before there was any general recognition of the quality of genius in them. The three geniuses of whom I wish to speak are Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and Alfred Whitehead. I have met many important people, I have met several great people but I have only known three first class geniuses and in each case on sight within me something rang.

(Paris, 1907)

18. Allen Tate Prolific

Early in September, not only were we in Paris again, but Miss Stein and Miss Toklas were back at 27 rue de Fleurus from their summer in the Midi, and I was asked with some other people to drop by for tea, although it was not Thursday. She said to me. "Tate" -- I was always Tate and she Miss Stein, for an obscure inhibition stopped Gertrude at my epiglottis --"Tate," she said, "it's too bad you've stopped writing poetry." (I thought I had scarcely begun.) She pointed to a thick stack of typewriter paper, possibly two hundred sheets, and said: "A few poems I wrote this summer." I envied her fluency -- or would it be fluidity?

(Paris, 1929)

19. Alice B. Toklas Golden brown

In the room were Mr. and Mrs. Stein and Gertrude Stein. It was Gertrude Stein who held my complete attention, as she did for all the many years I knew her until her death, and all these empty ones since. 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 brooch and when she talked, very little, or laughed, a good deal, I thought her voice came from this brooch. It was unlike anyone else's voice—deep, full, velvety like a great contralto's, like two voices. She was large and heavy with delicate small hands and a beautifully modeled and unique head. It was often compared to a Roman emperor's, but later Donald Sutherland said that her eyes made her a primitive Greek.

(Paris, 1907)

20. William Carlos Williams Into the fire

... tea at Gertrude Stein's. I had looked forward to this with great expectation. A small place to which we were admitted by someone, probably Miss Toklas, to find that two or three others had preceded us, Miss Stein herself coming forward to greet us and find chairs for us beneath that astonishing wall of Picasso's paintings, largely of the "blue period," in three tiers above us. It was a good-sized, very high room more or less cubical in shape -- the lot of us sitting around, where we could, facing a small cabinet at the end wall with doors that opened right and left.

We looked at the paintings. Who could not have done so? It was one of the sights of Paris. Tea was served, after or during which Miss Stein went to the small cabinet, opened it and began to take out her manuscripts, one at a time, telling us the titles and saying that she hoped some day to see them printed. I can't remember the exact sequence of what followed, but one way or another she asked me what I would do were the unpublished books mine and I were faced with the difficulty she was experiencing.

It must have been that I was in one of my more candid moods or that the cynical opinion of Pound and others of my friends about Miss Stein's work was uppermost in my mind, for my reply was, "If they were mine, having so many, I should probably select what I thought were the best and throw the rest into the fire."

The result of my remark was instantaneous. There was a shocked silence out of which I heard Miss Stein say, "No doubt. But then writing is not, of course, your métier."

That closed the subject and we left soon after.

(Paris, 1927)

Dana Cook is an independent scholar in Canada who collects Literary Encounters.

Copyright Dana Cook 1998.

Comments to Dana Cook.


1. Acton, Harold. Memoirs of an Aesthete. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1984. p. 161.

2. Adler, Mortimer J., Philosopher at Large: An Intellectual Autobiography. New York: Macmillan, 1977. pp. 256-57.

3. Beaton, Cecil. Diaries 1944-48: The Happy Years. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1972. pp. 28-29.

4. Beach, Sylvia. Shakespeare and Company. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1956. p. 27.

5. Bowles, Paul. Without Stopping. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1972. p. 106.

6. Cerf, Bennett. At Random. New York: Random House, 1977. p. 102.

7. Driberg, Tom. Ruling Passions. London: Jonathan Cape, 1977. p. 68.

8. Ferber, Edna. A Kind of Magic. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1963. p. 209.

9. Glassco, John. Memoirs of Montparnasse. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1973. p. l70.

10. Plimpton, George. The Writer's Chapbook. New York: Penguin, 1989. pp. 349-50.

11. Hemingway, Ernest. A Moveable Feast: Sketches of the Author's Life in Paris in the Twenties. New York: Scribner's, 1964. pp. 101-2.

12. Josephson, Matthew. Life Among the Surrealists. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962. pp. 324-25.

13. Prokosch, Frederic. Voices: A Memoir. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1983. pp. 19, 93-94.

14. Plimpton, George. The Writer's Chapbook. New York: Penguin, 1989. pp. 350-5l.

15. Sevareid, Eric. Not So Wild a Dream. New York: Atheneum, 1978., pp. 89-90.

16. Shirer, William L. 20th Century Journey: A Memoir of a Life and Times. Volume I, The Start: 1904-1930. New York: Bantam, 1985. p. 289.

17. Stein, Gertrude. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. New York: Vintage, 1961. p. 5.

18. Tate, Allen. Memoirs and Opinions 1926-1974. Chicago: Swallow Press, 1975. pp. 58-59.

19. Toklas, Alice B. What Is Remembered. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winsston, 1963. p 23.

20. Williams, William Carlos. The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams. New York: New Directions, 1967. pp. 253-54.

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