Gertrude Stein publishes Alice B. Toklas "Autobiography"
American modernist writer Gertrude Stein published a memoir, ironically titled The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, on June 1, 1933. The autobiography made Stein an instant celebrity. Born on February 3, 1874, in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, Stein was raised mainly in Baltimore, MD, and Oakland, CA. In 1893, Stein enrolled at the Harvard Annex, the University's women's college; while at Harvard, Stein studied with William James, participating in experiments in automatic writing that may have influenced her later work.
After withdrawing from Johns Hopkins Medical School, Stein followed her brother, Leo, to London in 1902, and then to Paris the following year. She was to live in France for the rest of her life. In Paris, Stein hosted a flourishing salon, where she socialized with writers and artists including Thornton Wilder, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse. It was also in Paris that Stein met Alice B. Toklas, who became her lifelong companion.
During her Paris years, Stein experimented with language and writing, publishing a variety of avant-garde works in small magazines. She also published Three Lives, a collection of stories, and The Making of Americans, a novel, both loosely based on her own life. But it was Stein's Toklas memoir that made her a celebrity. Although the highest praise a New York Times commenter could find for it was that it was "less strangely titled and less strangely written then many of her other works," another called it a "record of a rich, vivid and various experience." The book offered both wit and self-importance. Writing in the voice of Toklas, for example, Stein claimed "that only three times in my life have I met a genius ... the three geniuses of whom I wish to speak are Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and Alfred Whitehead." Following publication of the Autobiography, Stein made a triumphant lecture tour in the U.S. and found herself greatly in demand for lectures and interviews. However, she worried that in winning popular acclaim she had betrayed her commitment to experimental prose.
Stein and Toklas, who was also Jewish, stayed in France during the Second World War, living in the South and probably protected by French friends with ties to the Vichy government. Stein died of stomach cancer in 1946, and is buried in Paris.
Sources: Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, pp. 1314-1318; New York Times, August 31, 1933, September 3, 1933.
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Gertrude Stein publishes Alice B. Toklas "Autobiography"." (Viewed on December 11, 2023) <https://jwa.org/thisweek/jun/01/1933/gertrude-stein>.