Gertrude Stein was born in Pennsylvania in 1874. But she was most famous for her life in Paris, during which time she held a popular salon, began a relationship with Alice B. Toklas, and cultivated and supported French artists. Much of Gertrude Stein’s fame derives from a private modern art gallery she assembled, from 1904 to 1913, with her brother Leo. She is also known for quite a few choice quotes, including the statement “there is no there there.” The context is this: Stein grew up in Oakland, California. Years later, after revisiting the city, she wrote:
“What was the use of my having come from Oakland it was not natural to have come from there yes write about it if I like or anything if I like but not there, there is no there there.”
She was apparently referring to the fact that her family home and the childhood she remembered had disappeared, but the phrase has come to mean a lack of gravitas or interest.
She is also remembered for her sentence “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” part of the 1913 poem “Sacred Emily.” In that poem, the first “Rose” is the name of a person. Stein later used variations on the sentence in other writings, and “a rose is a rose is a rose” is often interpreted as meaning “things are what they are,” now more commonly rendered as “It is what it is.”
Fans of Hemingway probably know her best for the statement “All of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation… You have no respect for anything. You drink yourselves to death.” This was quoted by Hemingway in A Moveable Feast, and he also used it as the epigraph to The Sun Also Rises.
Curiously, Stein is not remembered so much for her unexpected political leanings. In 1934, for example, she suggested that Hitler be awarded the Nobel Prize, and later she served as a propagandist for the Nazi-collaborationist Vichy regime in France.
But in Paris in the early 1900’s, she was all about supporting artists. She held a salon every Saturday evening in the atelier of the home she shared with Alice at 27 Rue de Fleurus. The walls were hung to the ceiling with now-famous paintings, and the double doors of the dining room were lined with Picasso sketches. Writers and artists regularly attending included Picasso, Matisse, Ezra Pound, Georges Braque, Guillaume Apollinaire; and in later years, Hemingway, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
In 1933, Stein published The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which was not by Toklas at all, but by Stein, and to everyone’s surprise it became a best-seller. Alice, known for being Stein’s lover, is also associated, rather accidentally, with hash brownies.
[Brief Digression: What’s the deal with those hash brownies anyway? Alice was a good cook, and she had a reputation for brownies, thanks to Stein (see the caption, above). In 1952, she signed a contract with Harper’s to write a cookbook. In order to finish on time, she solicited recipes from her artsy friends. A painter named Brion Gysin submitted “Haschich Fudge,” which contained the ingredient “canibus sativa” or marijuana. (Gysin, introducing the recipe, wrote “”This is the food of Paradise…. it might provide an entertaining refreshment for a Ladies’ Bridge Club or a chapter meeting of the DAR….”) The press, unaware this was not Alice’s recipe, went wild speculating on the role marijuana played in the lives of Gertrude and Alice. Alice’s name was later lent to the range of cannabis concoctions called Alice B. Toklas brownies. Some believe that the slang term toke, meaning to inhale marijuana, is derived from her last name.]
Stein died at the age of 72 from stomach cancer in Neuilly-sur-Seine on July 27, 1946, and was interred in Paris in the Père Lachaise cemetery. Toklas died twenty-one years later and was buried next to Stein.
Note: Looking for the recipe for “Haschich Fudge”? Here it is:
Take 1 teaspoon black peppercorns, 1 whole nutmeg, 4 average sticks of cinnamon, 1 teaspoon coriander. These should all be pulverized in a mortar. About a handful each of stone dates, dried figs, shelled almonds and peanuts: chop these and mix them together. A bunch of canibus sativa can be pulverized. This along with the spices should be dusted over the mixed fruit and nuts, kneaded together. About a cup of sugar dissolved in a big pat of butter. Rolled into a cake and cut into pieces or made into balls about the size of a walnut, it should be eaten with care. Two pieces are quite sufficient. Obtaining the canibus may present certain difficulties…. It should be picked and dried as soon as it has gone to seed and while the plant is still green.”