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Wickedly Wonderful Widow

Staying on Alone: Letters of Alice B. Toklas

edited by Edward Burns, with an introduction by Gilbert A. Harrison
Liveright, 426 pp., $11.95

No bouquet of letters by Alice Toklas could fail the reader; she was such a vivid character, vivid and voluble. So voluble indeed that after thirty-eight years with Gertrude Stein, for Toklas a time of relative reticence, during the next twenty she fulfilled herself in words, both spoken words and epistolary, to a degree hardly less than Stein herself had done.

She gave out published articles and three books, two on cooking and one a memoir. But what she wrote for print she wrote for money; naturally it does not vibrate like her letters. These, virtually identical with talk, could fill volumes and no doubt will. Especially if some active scholar should one day trace down all the stories, plots, and intrigues that with their dramatis personae make up the content.

The present assemblage begins on the day of Miss Stein’s death, July 27, 1946. The loss, voluntary destruction, and general nonavailability of Miss Toklas’s earlier correspondence with California family and friends, as well as the meagerness, during their years together, of her communications with Gertrude’s particular associates, seem to have made those last years alone the best field for a first coverage. During that time she poured out her voice to friends, enemies, tradesmen, lawyers, agents, and publishers with virtually no withholding of facts and no more distortion of them than might be expected from a lady whose private life had become a matter of public interest.

The theme of that later life was responsible widowhood. Though never reconciled to Gertrude’s death, she accepted the fact of it and undertook at once its sacred duties. These comprised the getting into print of Gertrude’s unpublished writings (eventually eight volumes), the advancement of her literary fame, and the preservation of her picture collection.

The publication, aided at the Yale University Press by Thornton Wilder and Donald Gallup, editorially by Carl Van Vechten, was subsidized through the sale of all her Picasso drawings, pornographic and other. The post-humous fame was encouraged by Alice’s praise or discouragement of authors wishing to write about Miss Stein. Her usual tactic was to be difficult of access, then less difficult, then to broadcast through visitors and correspondents her blessing on the essay or her distaste for it. Donald Sutherland’s Gertrude Stein: A Biography of Her Work (Yale, 1951) received and continued to receive her highest hymning. When This You See Remember Me: Gertrude Stein in Person by W. G. Rogers (Rinehart, 1948), though it brought minor scoldings, was warmly welcomed. John Malcolm Brinnin’s The Third Rose: Gertrude Stein and Her World (Little, Brown, 1959) she tended to disapprove, though she was aware of its favorable influence. On the other hand, Elizabeth Sprigge’s Gertrude Stein, Her Life and Work (Harper and Brothers, 1957) she never forgave. She did not specify her objections, but her scorn was intense. And she continued for years to speak of its author in a tone of invective generally reserved for Ernest Hemingway, whom she hated as one can only hate people to whom one has been unjust.

Alice’s love and dislikes, as a matter of fact, she did not deign to argue; she would declare them in a ukase, backing this up, if at all, by stories of kind attentions or by denigrating remarks. And I do not imagine that either her highly emotional attacks on people or her gushing approval of them actually influenced Gertrude’s fame as a writer. This was rising when she died, and it continued to rise, Alice serving chiefly as rooter for the home team, out for victory every day or, if that failed, to fire a manager, kill an umpire.

With Leon Katz, a scholar who had achieved access at Yale to the early fiction (scandalous for its time, every piece of it) and to the diary-like notebooks which Gertrude had kept from 1902 to 1911, she was in the end cooperative, so eager was she to get a look at the notebooks whose very existence she had not known. When she also expressed hope that they not be published right away Katz reassured her. Actually her examination by him and of them took place more than twenty years ago, and still their annotated version has not appeared. The deal struck was simple and fair. Alice was to answer all questions in return for being shown the transcript (the books themselves being still at Yale). Her only demurrer was that she need not volunteer information not directly asked for. In this way Alice learned what Gertrude had been doing and thinking for the five years preceding her own arrival (1907) and for the four that followed. And Katz became the world expert on Gertrude’s life and work, at least through 1911, the year she wrote Tender Buttons.

Alice’s dream of keeping the picture collection intact produced the poverty which dominated her last years and to which, had not friends formed a small committee for keeping her alive and for struggling with three batteries of lawyers—American, French-American, and French—our heroine might well have succumbed—old, bed-ridden, and blind—to despair if not outright starvation.

Alice had been left for her lifetime Gertrude’s income from all sources, plus the right to dispose of properties as she saw fit, including the pictures. But her reluctance to grant the eventual heirs (Gertrude’s brother Michael’s three grandchildren) any control over her possible dissipation of their fortune produced some lack of confidence. And on her side, distrust of the guardians grew into such bad will that war became inevitable and continuous; no peace-making effort on either side provoked any act of generosity. Or of justice either, since Alice, when several million dollars in picture-capital had been sequestered, could not even pay her char; and the heirs themselves, with Alice surviving, had to wait more than twenty years before touching any part of that capital. Alice, about the pictures, had been tactless, probably illegal; but neither was I aware at any time, following the affair closely, of a single one of the estate lawyers being anything but dilatory, secretive, and obstructionist.

Had Alice, after selling off drawings to pay the Yale Press, continued to raid the collection, even for her own comfort (which had certainly been Gertrude’s wish), then, should the heirs have come to protest, bargained with them toward anticipating a settlement, it is possible all parties might have benefited. And certainly Alice’s treatment of the heirs’ parents, Allan Stein and his wife Roubina, though in the early years of her usufruct this had been courteous enough, left open later very few possibilities of arrangement. In no circumstance would she countenance any sale from the collection for their benefit, though at least once she secretly disposed of a minor Picasso for her own.

All that is part of a story which eventually, I presume, will be fairly told. In these letters we hear it only through Alice’s plaints. Nor do we sense it even then with amplitude. In fact, it has not been the practice of the present editor to annotate the sorrows or the accusations in a way to make them convincing, beyond the basic facts of the bereavement and of the survivor’s faith in her loved one’s genius. These come through; everything else is suspect, on account of Alice’s penchant for excessive statement, whether of thanks, praise, or distrust.

Did Alice really “like” Thornton Wilder, for instance? I doubt it. She was grateful to him; he had been useful to Gertrude in Chicago and regarding Yale. But he kept putting off writing a preface for Four in America; it had to be insisted on and wangled for. She confessed to Mildred Rogers that he “has such a seeing eye and then what he doesn’t see he has felt and the combination has always made me a little afraid of him.” But how she butters Wilder’s sister! With unctuous compliments for the two of them and constantly little recipes, homefolks recipes involving short cuts, substitutes, and easy ways out. These are not, as cuisine, serious; nor are in general those she sent to Mildred Rogers and some others. To a publisher’s wife she did tell how to make hollow fried potatoes (the round ones, not the flat pommes soufflées), but unless I am quite wrong about those deep-butter delights she forgot to say that they require clarified butter.

When agitating for another sacred assignment, which was the liberation of a French friend convicted of wartime collaboration, she could be devoted without letup. But I have no evidence, in the letters or elsewhere, that she was of help, even though the final solution of his plight was favorable. Since I was involved myself in certain efforts toward improving the situation of this friend (for a longer time mine than Gertrude’s) it may be of interest to show here through my own correspondence a fuller picture.

In an undated letter from the fall of 1946, written the day after his condemnation, she wonders, “Is it the moment for the intervention of…?” and suggests another possible course of action.

Twice during December she wrote me again about the case. On December 28, 1946, “There has been no news of your friend—but it is neither surprising nor discouraging. There is—it would appear—more danger in appealing the case than the lawyer is ready to risk—but there are several other things to do and any one is possible to succeed if it can be pushed far enough.”

After a devoted friend of the victim had consulted Washington concerning possible pressures from there, I wrote to Alice that the American government seemed at that moment not inclined to ask of France favors for “a minor collaborator.”

This tactless phrase drew anger; on January 25, 1947, she wrote:

I was aghast at your attitude to[–––] and the verdict. You haven’t lived in France lately or you couldn’t feel as you do—only[–––’s] personal enemies believe him capable of such crime as you believe he committed. And we know with what positive pleasure he collected enemies. No—you have some Frenchmen on your side but they were always his personal enemies—or the French who passed the Occupation in New York possibly. Please do not ever let us speak of it again. My memory is not as good as it was so all this won’t trouble me as long as it would have in the old days. Didn’t you once quote Madame Langlois—“How astonishing that such a corrupt person [‘un garçon aussi corrompu‘ had been her phrase] should write such pure music.” I’m sure the music for The Mother of Us All [at that moment about to be completed for a spring premiere] is pure if you want it to be pure and that it is intriguing, vital, and beautiful. For your music I will make any confession of faith you want—but for what it is surrounded by—Dieu m’en garde. What do you nourish it on? You may well answer that you are not a pelican of course. I don’t agree with Madame Langlois’ mot. It’s not the corruption that puts me off—it’s the being mistaken. You see so clearly in your music. Perhaps the rest of us see any thing clearly because we haven’t your gift. Let it go at that.

Would you for Gertrude’s sake not mention [–––’s] name to a living soul until his situation has changed. I could under that condition easily be

as ever
Alice

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