Regular readers of this blog will perhaps remember Alice Fitzgerald’s post on the friendship between Pratibha Parmar and Alice Walker, edited by Kathleen Dixon Donnelly. Today, Kathleen writes a post of her own for us, edited this time by Clêr Lewis. We hope you’ll enjoy it as much as we did.
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Think of ground-breaking writer Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) — a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, like me — and you automatically think of her life partner, Alice B. Toklas (1877-1967).
From the moment Stein and Toklas met, in Paris in 1906, their joint biographer, Diana Souhami, writes that they ‘never travelled without each other or entertained separately, or worked on independent projects’.
Very romantic—but, didn’t they have any woman friends?
Both were great friends with many writers—mostly male—who admired Stein’s work, including Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Female acquaintances would come to their salons on the Left Bank in the 1920s, but most were the wives of the writers.
Another American who became well known for her 1920s Greenwich Village salons was Mabel Ganson Evans Dodge Sterne Luhan (1879-1962), daughter of a wealthy Buffalo businessman, widowed and married again before she was 26. Dodge’s first husband was killed in a hunting accident, leaving her with a young son. To pry her away from an affair with a Buffalo gynaecologist, her family sent her to Paris. On board ship she met a rich Boston architect, Edwin Dodge, and they married two years later, establishing a fabulous home, Villa Curonia, in Florence.
In 1911, Dodge visited rue de Fleurus, in Paris, to meet Stein and Toklas. The Dodges in turn invited their new friends to their ornate Italian home, and there Stein began writing A Portrait of Mabel Dodge at the Villa Curonia. She developed an essay technique by adapting what Cezanne and other painters had done in the portraits that she had bought to adorn the walls of her salon. Stein wrote, ‘Pablo (Picasso) is doing abstract portraits in painting. I am trying to do abstract portraits in my medium, words.’
Stein wrote late at night, in her room next to Dodge’s. As Mr Dodge was away, his wife invited her children’s 22-year-old tutor into her bedroom. Stein incorporated overheard sounds into her portrait: ‘So much breathing has not the same place where there is that much beginning. So much breathing has not the same place when the ending is lessening. So much breathing …’ Dodge was thrilled.
Toklas was not.
Dodge had felt Stein warm to her and became a bit flirtatious. As she described in her memoir: ‘Gertrude sitting opposite me in Edwin’s chair, sent me such a strong look over the table that it seemed to cut across the air to me in a band of electrified steel—a smile traveling across on it—powerful—Heaven! I remember it now so keenly! (Alice walked out.) Gertrude gave a surprised, noticing glance … and followed.’ Stein came back to say that Toklas wouldn’t come to lunch as, ‘She feels the heat today.’
From that moment, Dodge felt that Toklas kept them apart. But for the next twenty years Dodge and Stein wrote to each other.
Back in New York, divorced from her husband, holding political salons and having an affair with radical, communist journalist John Reed, Dodge became involved with the organizers of the 1913 Armory Show, the first major exhibition of European and American modern art in the States. Dodge had had a few essays in Alfred Stieglitz’s intellectual photographic journal Camera Work, so the Armory Show’s publicist asked her to write a piece about Gertrude Stein’s avant-garde style for a special issue of Arts and Decoration magazine.
Dodge obliged with ‘Speculations, or Post-Impressionists in Prose’, comparing Matisse and Picasso’s work in paint with Stein’s in print. Stein reacted with delight: ‘Hurrah for gloire! Do send me half a dozen copies … I want to show it to everybody.’
From then on, Stein’s name was associated, both seriously and satirically, with the cubists.
When Reed went off on his communist adventures, Dodge married a painter, Maurice Sterne, following him to Taos, New Mexico, where they established an artists’ colony. By the mid-1920s, Dodge had dumped him and married a Native American, Tony Luhan. They hosted many of the decade’s leading artists and writers, including D. H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda.
Meanwhile, in Paris, Stein and Toklas were welcoming a new generation of Americans who were taking advantage of a cheap franc, cheap food and cheap wine.
Dodge helped Stein get her work published in the States, but Stein didn’t hit it big until, in six weeks in 1932, she wrote The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas because Toklas wouldn’t. American friends encouraged them to come on a US lecture tour, starting at the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan. When they arrived, newspaper headlines proclaimed: ‘Gerty Gerty Stein Stein Is Back Home Home Back.’
Dodge urged the pair to come to her in Taos. Or they could visit her home in Carmel on the California leg of their trip.
Toklas said no.
When the first volume of Dodge’s memoirs, Intimate Memories, was published in 1927, reviewing it in The New Yorker, Dorothy Parker was underwhelmed: ‘It may be in her forthcoming volume, when she gets into her stride of marrying people, things will liven up a bit.’
In later volumes, Dodge treated her friend Stein well, but described Toklas as sinister, and concluded ‘I missed my jolly fat friend very much.’
Written by Kathleen Dixon Donnelly, who runs the blog Such Friends, and is working on a book ‘Such Friends’: A Scrapbook Almanac of Writers’ Salons, 1897-1930. You can follow her on Twitter @SuchFriends.
Edited by Clêr Lewis. Clêr has an MA in creative writing from Goldsmiths, University of London, and is working on her first novel.