By Wanda M. Corn
Alice Babette Toklas met Gertrude Stein in the fall of 1907. She had come to Paris from San Francisco with her next-door neighbor, Harriet Levy, and had enough money to last her a year, although she hoped an inheritance from her grandfather’s estate would allow her to stay longer. Little did she know that she would remain in Paris for the rest of her life and see San Francisco briefly only one more time, 28 years later.
Toklas had reason to seek adventure abroad. She had enjoyed a comfortable childhood — a trip abroad when she was eight, a few years in Seattle — but when her mother was diagnosed with cancer and then died in 1897, her personal life atrophied.
At 20, unmarried, Toklas was deemed by her father mature enough to raise her 10-year-old brother and take over her mother’s job of managing the household, duties she had already undertaken because of her mother’s illness. The threesome moved into [822 O’Farrell Street, near Van Ness Avenue] the home of her grandfather Levinson, her mother’s father, now widowed, and Toklas ran a household of three men, with relatives dropping by for meals.
Harriet Levy, a friend from the house next door, was appalled to see how hard Alice worked and how little she was appreciated. “In spite of her youth she existed to them only as a housekeeper,” she recalled, a “provider of food and of general comfort. Any opinion that she might venture at table was ignored or sponged out by a laugh. . . . Each night she sat at the long table, unnoticed among the repetition of relatives. . . . Alice was odd, they said, and forgot her.”
In 10 years, the “odd” Toklas acquired the consummate skills in housekeeping, meal planning and managing servants that she brought with her to Paris and to the homes she shared with Stein.
Toklas and Levy looked up the Steins, with whom they both had connections, when they visited Paris, as did several other young Jewish women from the San Francisco Bay Area. Harriet Levy had studied art with Sarah Stein at the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art, and Toklas’s cousin Annette Rosenshine had accompanied Michael and Sarah Stein when they returned to France after a quick trip to San Francisco in 1906 to assess earthquake damage [to rental flats they owned at Washington and Lyon Streets in Pacific Heights].
When Toklas arrived, she found her cousin closely attached to Gertrude, who had volunteered to be Annette’s psychological counselor. In exchange, Annette was typing Stein’s manuscripts and joining her on afternoon walks. Annette had already shown Stein some letters to her from her cousin Alice; these were Stein’s first introductions to the woman who would change her life.
Struck by her appearance, Picasso painted a small gouache study of Alice’s head within the first months of her arrival in Paris. The Steins had introduced Picasso and his circle to Toklas and Harriet Levy, who then hired his lover, Fernande Olivier, to tutor them in French conversation three mornings a week.
Gertrude was not taken with Alice at first, but by the summer of 1908 they were in love. When the Steins made their summer sojourn to Fiesole, Levy and Toklas went with them, renting and setting up their own housekeeping unit in a nearby villa. Stein was 33 and Toklas 30 years old. Toklas was the first woman who fully returned Stein’s love; for Alice, it was a greater love than she had ever experienced, including the one she seemed to have then been sharing with Harriet Levy. Alice began to replace her cousin Annette on Gertrude’s daily walks, to type Stein’s manuscripts and to prepare American dinners for her on Sundays, the cook’s night off.
At first there was the three-way love entanglement between Alice, Harriet and Gertrude that had to be resolved. Toklas and Levy shared quarters in Paris for two and a half years, and only when Levy returned to San Francisco with Michael and Sarah Stein, in July 1910, was Alice free to move into 27 rue de Fleurus.
When Gertrude and Alice got the surprise news that Harriet was returning to San Francisco, they made a special trip to Venice to celebrate their union, posing in their summer hats for a tourist photographer in Saint Mark’s Square, their first formal portrait together. Stein and Toklas’s gendered poses are those they would perform for the rest of their lives: Gertrude, as the dominant figure in the relationship, in the foreground, and Alice modestly behind her.
— Excerpted from Seeing Gertrude Stein, published by the University of California Press, the catalog for the exhibition of the same title at the Contemporary Jewish Museum at 736 Mission Street. It continues through September 6.
Read more: “Michael and Sarah Stein: from Pierce Street to Paris“