All I Know About Gertrude Stein

Jeanette Winterson

In 1907 a woman from San Francisco named Alice B. Toklas arrived in Paris. She was going to meet a fellow American living there already. She was excited because she’d heard a lot about Gertrude Stein.

In 2011 a woman from London named Louise was travelling by Eurostar to Paris. Louise was troubled. Louise was travelling alone because she was trying to understand something about love.

Louise was in a relationship; it felt like a ship, though her vessel was a small boat rowed by herself with a cabin for her lover. Her lover’s ship was much bigger and carried crew and passengers. There was always a party going on. Her lover was at the centre of a busy world. Louise was her own world; self-contained, solitary, intense. She did not know how to reconcile these opposites – if opposites they were – and to make things more complicated, it was Louise who wanted the two of them to live together. Her lover said no – they were good as they were – and the solitary Louise and the sociable lover could not be in the same boat.

And so Louise was travelling alone to Paris.

I am Louise.

I took the Metro to Cité. I walked past Notre-Dame and thought of the hunchback Quasimodo swinging his misshapen body across the bell-ropes of love for Esmeralda. Quasimodo was a deaf mute. Cupid is blind. Freud called love an ‘overestimation of the object’. But I would swing through the ringing world for you.

Alice Toklas had no previous experience of love.

Her mother died young – young for the mother and young for Alice – and Alice played the piano and kept house for her father and brothers. She ordered the meat, managed the budget, supervised the kitchen. And then she came to Paris and met Gertrude Stein.

Gertrude Stein’s mother died young too – and you never fully recover from that – actually you never recover at all; you take it with you as an open wound – but with luck that is not the end of the story.

Gertrude had a modest but sufficient private income. She and her brother Leo had long since left the USA to set up house in Paris in the rue de Fleurus. Gertrude wrote. Leo painted. They bought modern art. They bought Matisse when no one did and they bought Picasso when no one did. Pablo and Gertrude became great friends.

But Gertrude was lonely. Gertrude was a writer. Gertrude was lonely.

I find myself returning again and again to the same familiar condition of solitariness. Is it sex that makes this happen? If it were not for sex, wouldn’t we each be content with our friends, their companionship and confidences? I love my friends. I am a good friend. But with my lover I begin to feel alone.

A friend of mine can be happy without a lover; she will have an affair if she wants one, but she doesn’t take the trouble to love.

I do very badly without a lover. I pine, I sigh, I sleep, I dream, I set the table for two and stare into the empty chair. I could invite a friend – sometimes I do – but that is not the point; the point is that I am always wondering where you are even when you don’t exist.

Sometimes I have affairs. But though I enjoy the bed, I feel angry at the fraud; the closeness without the cost.

I know what the cost is: the more I love you, the more I feel alone.

On 23 May 1907 Gertrude Stein met Alice B. Toklas.

Gertrude: Fat, sexy, genial, powerful.

Alice: A tiny unicorn, nervous, clever, watchful, determined.

When Gertrude opened the door to the atelier of 27 rue de Fleurus, Alice tried to sit down but couldn’t, because the chairs were Stein-size and Alice was Toklas-size and her feet did not reach the floor.

‘The world keeps turning round and round,’ said Gertrude, ‘but you have to sit somewhere.’

I sat opposite you and I liked your dishevelled look; hair in your eyes and your clothes a strategic mess. We were both survivors of other shipwrecks. You looked sad. I wanted to see you again.

For a while we corresponded by email, charming each other in fonts and pixels. Did you . . . do you . . . would you like to . . . I wonder if . . .

Every day Miss Toklas sent a petit bleu to Miss Stein to arrange a walk in the Luxembourg Gardens or a visit to a bookshop or to look at pictures.

One day Alice was late. Gertrude was so angry. Alice picked up her gloves to leave but as she was walking across the courtyard Gertrude called out, ‘It is not too late to go for a walk.’

We went walking on Hampstead Heath. We walked for two hours straight ahead going round in circles. The circles were the two compass-turns of your desire and mine. The overlap is where we kissed.

The Stein and Toklas love affair was about sex.

They went on holiday together – the dripping heat of Italy and Gertrude liking to walk in the noonday sun.

They talked about The Taming of the Shrew – that play by Shakespeare – the one where Petruchio breaks Kate into loving him – a strange play. Not a poster-play for feminism.

gertrude: A wife hangs upon her husband – that is what Shakespeare says.

alice: But you have never married.

gertrude: I would like a wife.

alice: What kind of a wife would she be?

gertrude: Ardent, able, clever, present. Yes, very present.

alice: I am going back to San Francisco in ten days.

gertrude: I have enjoyed your visits every day to the rue de Fleurus . . .

And they walked in silence up the hill into the crest of the sun and Alice began to shed her clothes – her stockings, her cherry-red corset. Alice began to undress the past. At the top of the hill they sat down and Gertrude did not look at her.

gertrude: When all is said one is wedded to bed.

It was the beginning of their love affair.

I met my lover two years ago and I fell in love. I fell like a stray star caught in the orbit of Venus. Love had me. Love held me. Love like wrist-cords. Love like a voice from a long way off. I love your voice on the phone.

Below me on the quai there’s a skinny boy singing to his guitar: All You Need is Love. Couples holding hands throw him coins because they want to believe that it is true. They want to believe that they are true.

But the love question is harder to solve than the Grand Unified Theory of Everything.

If you were Dante you’d say they were the same thing – ‘the love that moves the sun and the other stars’.

But love is in trouble.

Women used to be in charge of love – it was our whole domain, the business of our lives, to give love to make love to mend love to tend love.

Men needed women to be love so that men could do all the things you can’t do without love – but no one acknowledged the secret necessity of love. Except in those dedications: To My Wife.

Now we have our own money and we can vote. We are career-women. (No such word as career-man.) We are more than the love interest. More than love. We are independent. Equal.

But . . . What happened to love?

We were confident that love would always be there, like air, like water, like summer, like sun. Love could take care of itself. We didn’t notice the quiet tending of love, the small daily repairs to the fabric of love. The faithful gigantic work that kept love as regular as light.

Love is an ecosystem like any other. You can’t drain it and strip- mine it, drill it and build over it and wonder where the birds and the bees have gone.

Love is where we want to live. Planet Love.

When we met, the most surprising and touching thing to me was that you always answered your phone when I called. You were not too important to be available. You are important but you recognized love as more important.

I started to believe you. I started to believe in you. Love has a religious quality to it – it depends on the unseen and it makes miracles out of itself. And there is always a sacrifice. I don’t think we talk about love in real terms any more. We talk about partnership. We talk about romance. We talk about sex. We talk about divorce. I don’t think we talk about love at all.

Alice Toklas never went back to San Francisco. She never saw her family again. Gertrude’s brother Leo soon moved out of the rue de Fleurus and Alice moved in. They were together every day for the next forty years. Shall I write that again? They were together every day for the next forty years . . . And they never stopped having sex.

Gertrude Stein liked giving Alice an orgasm – she called it ‘making a cow come out’. Nobody knows why – unless Alice made moo noises when she hit it. Gertrude said, ‘I am the best cow-giver in the world.’ Gertrude Stein liked repetition too – of verbs and words and orgasms.

We love the habits of love. The way you wear your hair. The way you drink your coffee. The way you turn your back on me in the mornings so that I will shift to fit myself round you. The way you open the door when you see me coming home. When I leave I look up at the window and I know you will be watching me, watching over me go.

And at the same time love needs to be new every day. The fresh damp risen-up feel of love.

Gertrude Stein said – There is no there there – at once refusing materiality and consolation.

I am lonely when I love because I feel the immensity of the task – the stoking and tending of love. I feel unable, overwhelmed. I feel I can only fail. So I hide and I cling all at once. I need you near me, in my house, but I don’t want you to find my hiding place. Hold me. Don’t come too close.

I decided to walk to the Musée Picasso because the Picasso portrait of Gertrude Stein was on loan there from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. It is a famous picture. Gertrude is massy in the frame, her head almost a kabuki mask. It doesn’t look like her but it couldn’t be anyone else. Picasso took ninety sittings to paint it and couldn’t get the head right. Gertrude said, ‘Paint it out and paint it in when I am not there.’

Picasso did that and Gertrude was very pleased. She hung the picture over her fireplace, and during the Second World War she and Alice took it to the countryside for five years, wrapped in a sheet, in their old open-topped Ford.

Gertrude said to Picasso, ‘Paint what is really there. Not what you can see, but what is really there.’

How can I trust myself like that? To see through the screens that shield me from love and not be so afraid of what I see that I break up, break off, or settle for the diluted version?

I have done all those things before.

And when I am not doing those things I am telling myself that I am an independent woman who should not be limited by/to love.

But love has no limits. Love seems to be a continuous condition like the universe. But the universe is remote except for this planet we call home, and love means nothing unless it is real and in our hands.

Give me your hand.

There’s a school party at the museum. They are not looking at Picasso; they are giggling over an iPhone. Poor kids, they’re all on Facebook posting themselves at a party. They are all having sex all the time because fucking is the new frigid. Look at their Facebook faces, defiant, unhappy. The F-words. Facebook, fucking, frigid, faking it.

Gertrude Stein called the generation between the wars ‘the lost generation’. We are the upgrade generation. Get a new model; phone girlfriend car. Gertrude Stein hated commas. You can see why when car phone girlfriend are the same and interchangeable. Why would I work with love when I can replace the object of love?

Men still trade in their women – nothing feminism can do about that. Now women trade in themselves – new breasts, new face, new body. What will happen to these girls giggling over their iPhones?

They are the upload generation. Neophytes in the service of the savage god of the social network.

Fear. F is for fear.

In this bleak and broken world, what chance is there for love? Love is dating sites and bytes of love. Love is a stream of body parts. But if we part, I want to know that love had time enough. It takes a long time to be close to you.

Gertrude Stein could not be rushed, although she did not like to be kept waiting. Her time was her own. She had a big white poodle called Basket and she walked herself and her poodle round Paris.

Sometimes Basket went in the car with Gertrude and Alice and Alice went into the shops – and she liked that – and Gertrude stayed in the car – and she liked that. She wrote things in her notebook. She wrote every day but only for half an hour.

It takes a lot of time to write for half an hour,’ said Gertrude.

She wrote unpublished for thirty years. And then, in 1934, written in six weeks, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein became a huge best-seller. Gertrude and Alice boarded the SS Champion and sailed for New York. Alice got a fur coat. Gertrude got a leopard-skin cap. Their travelling suits were made by Pierre Balmain. He was just a boy in those days.

When they and their outfits arrived in New York City, the ticker tape in Times Square tweeted:

gertrude stein has landed in new york.

As if we did not know it . . .’ said Alice.

The pressmen surrounded the Algonquin Hotel. The vendors selling frankfurters and pretzels watched from across the street.

vendor 1: The fat one built like a boulder, that’s Gertrude Stein.

vendor 2: The thin one cut like a chisel . . .

vendor 1: That’s Alice B. Toklas.

The press bulbs flashed like they were movie stars.

pressman: Hey, Miss Stein, why don’t you write the way you talk? (Laughter.)

gertrude: Why don’t you read the way I write?

Everyone is laughing. Gertrude loves fame. Fame loves Gertrude.

vendor 2: Where’s the husbands?

vendor 1: They got no husbands. (He passes a frankfurter through a pretzel and nods significantly.)

vendor 2: (low whistle) No kidding? But ain’t they American gals?

vendor 1: Sure, but they been living in Paris.

Living with you would be the ultimate romance. I am a romantic and that is my defence against the love-commodity. I can’t buy love but I don’t want to rent it either. I would like to find a way to make the days with you be ours. I would like to bring my bag and unpack it.

You say we will fail, get frustrated, fall out, fight. All the F-words.

But there is another one: forgive.

In 1946 Gertrude Stein was suddenly admitted to the American Hospital at Neuilly. She had stomach cancer.

Only a few months earlier they had come back to Paris, in 1945 – the war over at last – to find the seal of the Gestapo on their apartment. Their silver and linen had been taken and the pictures were packed up ready to be removed to German art collections – that’s what happened if you were a Jew.

Alice had been so upset, but Gertrude wanted to get her portrait by Picasso hung over the fireplace again, sit down in their two armchairs either side of the fire, and have some tea.

The apartment is here. You are here. I am here,’ she said.

At the hospital the doctor came into the room. They administered the anaesthetic. Gertrude had been advised against an operation but she did not believe in death – at least not for her. She did not believe in the afterlife either. There was no there there. Everything was here. Gertrude Stein was present tense.

She held Alice’s hand. She said to Alice, What is the answer? But Alice was crying and only shook her head. Gertrude laughed her big rich laugh. ‘Then what is the question?’

The trolley bearing Gertrude was wheeled away. Alice walked beside her lover as though she were walking beside her whole life. Gertrude never came back.

The question is: How do we love?

It is a personal question each to each, intense, private, frightening, necessary. It is a world question too, angry, refusing, demanding, difficult.

Love is not sentimental. Love is not second best.

Women will have to take up arms for love.

Take me in your arms. This is the Here that we have.

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