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Lesbianism Never?

In response to:

A Very Difficult Author from the April 8, 1971 issue

To the Editors:

I have been following with increasing amazement the flow of strange writings about Gertrude Stein. There was Virgil Thomson’s article (NYR, April 18) followed by a letter from Paul Padgette in the issue of July 1 with a reply by Virgil Thomson, to say nothing of Professor Bridgman’s book Gertrude Stein in Pieces. Much of this writing seeks to explain Gertrude Stein’s work in terms of her alleged perverse sexuality. Because I feel strongly that the motivation behind all this is destructive, I feel it necessary to write and put forward a few items which are worth considering.

First, let us look at the title Tender Buttons, the subject of much devious speculation. Surely all those learned gentlemen, so long exposed to the work of Gertrude Stein, must know that she used to keep a box full of buttons and that she loved to sort through them. Anyone who, as a child or even as an adult, has had any feeling at all for collecting particular objects understands the pleasure in this. The title Tender Buttons derives from the tender feelings she had for these buttons and, by extension, the objects she was describing in the book. Yes, it really is as simple as that. “Be simple,” said Gertrude Stein, “and you will understand.”

Then we come to the vexed problem of Gertrude Stein’s alleged lesbianism. What are the facts? Gertrude Stein grew up in a lonely way with only an elder brother for company. As a result she, understandably, developed a strong emotional attachment to him, thus making it extremely difficult for her to relate sexually to any man. Add to this her hostile feelings for her patriarchal father and also the social period during which she was of a marriageable age. It was still the time of spinsters and maiden aunts and any woman of Gertrude Stein’s intellectual capacity and emotional background would not easily find a suitable mate. Note: having a strong emotional attachment to someone of the same sex or to a sibling does not in any way imply sexual relations. There is a great divide between the two. Virgil Thomson tells us that Gertrude Stein admitted “her complete lack of sexual occasions with any man.” However, about her alleged “lesbian vocation” he says she indulged “we presume in its practice….” Presumptions are simply not good enough. With whom did she indulge? Alice Toklas. Ridiculous. Totally ridiculous even to contemplate it but I shall nevertheless do so.

Alice Toklas emerges as a prudish spinster. Gertrude Stein summed her up soon after they began living together. In What Is Remembered, Alice Toklas’s autobiography, Alice tells of an incident which occurred and which was clearly disturbing to her. One day, Gertrude Stein came into the room and told Alice what she had concluded about her. She told her she was “an old maid mermaid.” Think about what a mermaid is. Gertrude Stein had just told Alice Toklas that she was totally unaware of herself from the waist down. Alice says in the book that it hurt her but it passed away after a while. Alice didn’t forget it however because she felt the need to tell it close on fifty years later. Of all the things that Gertrude Stein must have said to her she particularly remembered this one and she didn’t at all know what it meant. But Gertrude Stein was right—that is what Alice Toklas was—an old maid mermaid.

What about Gertrude Stein herself. Just before she died, she was operated on and found to have carcinoma of the stomach as well as a calcified uterus. A calcified uterus. Let us consider that. The following may be speculation, but I would very much doubt if any woman who had experienced any kind of pleasurable genital activity during her adult life, even masturbatory, would develop calcification of the uterus. Unlike Alike Toklas, and because she was a powerful, creative artist, Gertrude Stein thought a great deal about everything, including sex. However, because of her complex emotional upbringing, she withdrew feeling (energy) from the genital and expressed it all through her intellectual capacities. It’s called sublimation.

I repeat, there is a great divide between emotional attachments and active sexual relationships. That is to say, they do not automatically coexist. Simply stated, Alice and Gertrude made a home for themselves with an emotional attachment as the bond that kept them together. But lesbianism—never….

Patricia Meyerowitz

New York City

Virgil Thomson replies:

Among all sexual aberrations,” said Rémy de Gourmont, “chastity remains the most astonishing.” And crediting this poverty of experience to either Gertrude Stein or Alice Toklas seems to me no less “destructive” than to admit the lesbian practice that has long been known to have characterized their friendship, also in the case of Miss Stein to have achieved innumerable covert references in her writing.

This fact was not much mentioned publicly, if at all, until well after the death of Miss Toklas. As to its being a fact, Miss Stein’s early novella Q.E.D., published in 1950 under the title Things As they Are, quite frankly treats a lesbian theme; and the characters in it, including Miss Stein, have now been identified from her own diaries. (See Leon Katz’s preface to Fernhurst, Q.E.D., and Other Early Writings by Gertrude Stein, New York, Liveright, 1971.) And many persons still living have received personal confidences from both women that leave no doubt about the matter and that indeed help no end toward elucidating many a difficult passage in Stein’s work.

The title Tender Buttons has long been a hard one, and no pornographic explanation has yet convinced me that it can apply to the book’s content. Equally inadequate seems Mrs. Meyerowitz’s suggestion that it reflects Gertrude Stein’s pleasure in fingering through her button box. Actually she liked pretty buttons and often had them joined as cufflinks for her shirtwaists. But the sections of Tender Buttons are entitled “Objects—Food—Rooms,” a still-life undertaking that no mere button box tenderly viewed seems sufficient to encompass. I prefer to consider the title as possibly a punning translation of tendres boutons (“young buds”), which at least gives a view of the whole, and without pornography either, which Gertrude abhorred.

Mrs. Meyerowitz’s willingness to diminish two women of high temperament to the status of sentimental spinsters is not, however, without precedent, since exactly that was once tried out through pique and skilled malice. A longtime woman friend, herself a writer and a self-declared “amazon,” being incensed with Miss Stein over a verbal indiscretion, declared at her own dinner table that the famous friendship was “not really serious” but “wholly innocent,” hence by inference innocuous and its participants comical. Also, and herein lay her defense against Stein’s indiscretion, untrustworthy in speaking of lesbian matters.

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