Alice Babette Toklas moves in permanently with Gertrude Stein.
The two could not have come from more different households. Stein was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania on February 3, 1874, the youngest of five children; Toklas was born in San Francisco on April 30, 1877, the first child and only daughter of a family of merchants. Stein was raised in a non-observant Jewish household; the men of Toklas’ family served on the boards of synagogues. Stein graduated from the Harvard Annex (the precursor to Radcliffe College), where she studied psychology with William James, and went on to Johns Hopkins Medical School for a year; Toklas served as a housekeeper to the male members of her family for ten years after her mother’s death.
But both longed to escape. Neither felt they could fulfill the roles of wife or mother that were prescribed by society. Both had unrequited feelings for other women that exacerbated their sense of isolation from others. Stein described the tumultuous emotions she fell into as her “red deeps.”
Stein was the first to break away, joining her brother Leo first in London in 1902, then Paris in 1903, residing in a flat at 27 rue de Fleurus in the Montparnasse district. Joining a community of artists, writers, and intellectuals seeking to redefine the arts, Stein tentatively began to develop her own distinctive style. Though Leo had no admiration for her writing, she found an enthusiastic critic when Toklas arrived on the scene in 1907. Toklas later claimed that a bell rang for her each time she encountered a genius, and she heard distinct chiming when she met Gertrude Stein. Toklas moved into the flat in 1910, Leo moved out, and a legendary partnership was born.
The two women turned their Parisian home into an important artistic and literary salon for almost thirty years, where they collected art and entertained Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, Anais Nin, and many others. Stein’s literary experiments with language, perspective, and time flourished in her novels, poetry, and plays, including Tender Buttons (1914), Four Saints in Three Acts (1929), and Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights (1938). Toklas kept the household running smoothly, typed all of Stein’s work, helped to publicize and publish her writing, and served as gatekeeper to weed out friend from foe.
When Stein decided to write her memoirs in 1933, she wrote about herself through the voice of her closest companion, titling the book The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. It was a sensation, enabling Stein to return to America for a triumphant literary tour full of reporters, photographers, and throngs of supporters in her audience.
The two survived World War II in France, but Stein died of stomach cancer on July 27, 1946. Toklas only began to write after Stein’s death, producing The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook in 1954 and What Is Remembered in 1963. She died on March 7, 1967. The two women are buried side by side in the Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris.
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Alice Babette Toklas moves in permanently with Gertrude Stein.." (Viewed on March 3, 2021) <https://jwa.org/thisweek/sep/09/1910/alice-babette-toklas-moves-in-permanently-with-gertrude-stein>.