When people envision the life and times of Gertrude Stein, it is often in the context of 1920s Paris. Her home at 27 rue de Fleurus was a fabulously bohemian outpost, where she, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and writers, including Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, discussed the merits of art. It was the type of salon that makes writers, artists and historians swoon, “If only I were a fly on the wall.” Perhaps that is why Woody Allen transports his time-traveling character there in his latest film, Midnight in Paris. Gil, a modern-day Hollywood screenwriter portrayed by Owen Wilson, asks Stein (with Kathy Bates in the role) to read his fledgling novel.
From This Story
The story of the writer’s “salon years” is a familiar one, after all. Stein popularized that interlude in her most successful book, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. But it is entirely fresh stories, as relayed by Wanda M. Corn, a leading authority on Stein, that we encounter in the Stanford art historian’s “Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories,” an exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery on view through January 22.
One of the five threads, or chapters, of Stein’s life featured in the show is her triumphant return to America for a six-month lecture tour in 1934 and ’35. Crisscrossing the country for 191 days, she gave 74 lectures in 37 cities in 23 states. The visit, highly publicized at the time, is little-known now, even though, as Corn asserts, “It is the trip that creates her solid, American celebrity.”
During the 1920s and ’30s, Stein’s friends proposed that she visit the United States, suggesting that the journey might allow her to gain an American audience for her writing. Stein had departed California (after years of living outside of Pittsburgh, Baltimore and elsewhere in the country) for France in 1903 at age 27 and hadn’t returned in nearly three decades. “I used to say that I would not go to America until I was a real lion a real celebrity at that time of course I did not really think I was going to be one,” Stein would later write in Everybody’s Autobiography.
For years, publishing houses regarded Stein’s writing style, replete with repetition and little punctuation (think: “rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”), as incomprehensible. But in 1933, she at last achieved the mass appeal she desired when she used a clearer, more direct voice—what she’d later call her “audience voice”—in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. In the States, in four summer issues, the Atlantic Monthly excerpted the best seller, a fictive memoir supposedly written from the perspective of Stein’s partner, Alice. In the winter of 1934, Stein delivered another success—the libretto to American composer Virgil Thomson’s opera Four Saints in Three Acts, which premiered in Hartford, Connecticut, and made a six-week run on Broadway.
“People were buzzing about who she was,” says Corn. Vanity Fair even published a photograph of Stein on its letters page with a plea: “Please, Miss Stein and Miss Toklas, don’t disappoint us: we do be expecting you!”
Arriving in New York
Stein and Toklas disembarked from the S.S. Champlain in New York City on October 24, 1934. When her ocean liner docked, the writer was thronged by a group of curious reporters eager for a firsthand look at the author. “She might have been a name prior to her coming on this trip, but it was a name without substance, because very few people had actually seen her,” says Corn. Front-page articles carried by nearly every newspaper in New York City described her stocky stature and eccentric accoutrements—masculine shoes and a Robin Hoodesque hat.
Though journalists may not have held many preconceived notions about her appearance and demeanor, “What they did know is that she was a very difficult writer,” says Corn. “So they were pleasantly surprised when she arrived and talked in sentences and was straightforward, witty and laughed a lot.” Bennett Cerf, president of Random House, who would later become Stein’s publisher, said she spoke “as plain as a banker.”