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

Alice B. Toklas
Alice B. Toklas; drawing by David Levine

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 These comprised the getting into print of Gertrude’s unpublished writings (eventually eight volumes), the advancement of her literary fame, and the preservation of her picture collection.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…

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