What was it like post World War II in Paris for Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas? The Steiny Road Poet has been talking in depth to the American writer and G.I. Christopher Blake about the year he spent as a close friend of this celebrated literary couple.
CATCHING A WOOD-BURNING TAXI TO PARIS
In mid December 1944 (V-E Day came later on May 8, 1945), Stein and Toklas returned to Paris after spending the war years (beginning June 1940) in the southeastern countryside of France near the Swiss and German borders. In The Third Rose, John Malcolm Brinnin, reports that the women, fortified with American K rations (crackers, candy and a "touch of lemon"), made the trip back over icy roads in a wood-burning taxi followed by a truck with their household goods. Food, gas, and services were rationed and foreign travelers eager to enter France were restricted. While the French government abolished food rationing in October 1945 to promote national optimism before Constituent assembly elections, they reinstituted bread rationing in December 1945. In a country that equates cuisine with national identity, rationing from the beginning of WWII was extremely hard on the French. Once back in Paris, Stein, ever resourceful, cultivated the friendship of American soldiers who had access to supplies through the military Post Exchange stores (PX).
BLAMING THE FALL OF FRANCE ON GERTRUDE STEIN
Chris Blake, whom Stein would name Chris the Citizen in her opera libretto The Mother of Us All, met Stein July 12, 1945. At the end of the war, he had been sent from Germany to France because he spoke fluent French and was eligible to enroll at the Sorbonne for a course on French culture and civilization. One day while having a drink with a fellow soldier, who, like Blake, had writing aspirations, Blake was goaded into talking to Stein on the telephone. Here's what Blake related to the Steiny Poet in an email dated July 19, 2012:
I had just come to Paris from Germany, still in uniform and someone took me to this bar. There was this officer being friendly and I must have told him that I was a writer and had written LADY WITH A JUG [a play]. I must have told him as well that I was hoping to meet her.
He proceeded to drink and the more he drank, the more he told me about how he had written this novel, gave it to Stein to read and that she returned it telling him he could not write.
He then got drunk enough to dial her phone number and proceeded to tell her off. Then he turned to me, thrust the phone in my hand and said, "Here, you want to talk with the old bitch."
I started to mumble and apologize to Stein when she said, "I like the sound of your voice, young man. Why don't you come see me."
Blake, who came to France with his unpublished, unproduced play The Lady with a Jug, in which he blamed the fall of France on Gertrude Stein, eventually got up the nerve to show this, his second, play to her. In The Lady with a Jug, Stein wears tattered clothes and lives in a dirty apartment. While Stein didn't mind that the play blamed her for the fall of France during WWII, she was aghast that Blake would depict her living in a dirty apartment.
BLAKE'S VAST TROVE OF INCREDIBLE STORIES
However, the Steiny Poet must back up a bit because talking to Blake who has a vast trove of incredible stories, almost too sensational to believe, requires constant sorting to understand how the events of his life fit together with Stein's last year of life. The fact is first he showed her his story "The Bride Chewed Gum," a piece he wrote in London in 1944. The gist of this quirky tale told in four short sections concerns a mild-mannered Irishman in the British army who is not what he seems at first glance. In fact, he is possibly preparing to marry a second wife without having secured a divorce from the first. The story, rich in details, begins as follows:
My little British friend, who is a sergeant in some Army Corps, and who wears a little black and white Panda on his sleeve, claims to be a neurotic and says he has the lowest grade mentality on record in the British Army. Well, his fingers are tobacco stained and there are times when he does make you wonder what in the world he's talking about, and he does have a habit of staring you down and half saying things, so that you're not quite sure whether he's laughing at you or admiring you. But to speak up for his mentality, he was a former school-master and used to teach French and English in some –shire school. However, this may be doing him more harm than good.
Stein and Toklas, as Blake tells it, pronounced [he] could write based on this short story. Possibly what gave this young man from Brooklyn who never knew his father the moxie to show Stein The Lady with a Jug was the praise he got from Hatcher Hughes, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who taught at Columbia University. In 1939, Blake was taking classes in an extension drama program at Columbia University and by a fortuitous mistake, his Lady with Jug play ended up getting read by Hughes who sought Blake out and told him he had talent. Subsequently, Blake, who had taught himself playwriting by reading Ibsen, Shaw, and O'Neill, studied with Hughes. Blake wrote The Umbilical Cord, his first play, at age 16. Never shown to Stein, the play, which Blake subtitles "A Fantastic Comedy in Three Acts," concerns a man who kills his mother. Here's an excerpt from Scene One:
You're not angry with me? Ma, strike me if I did anything wrong.
(He pushes the body to make sure).
You're dead now…real dead. But I'm a wonderful son. Not a son of a bitch, but a real, honest to goodness son. I shall buy you a fitting tomb, all made of the very best Italian marble. I shall say prayers for you…hundreds of them. Enough to send your soul flying out of Purgatory and with lots of candles too. And I'll pay for a Mass. I love you Ma, but I love you more now that you're deader than a door nail. I love your sweet memory more than your reality. I love the fiction more than the fact.
THE MERCURYS—ST. CHRISTOPHER, JOE BARRY
Meanwhile in October 1945 after meeting with Virgil Thomson in Paris, Stein, who was always a disciplined writer, began work on The Mother of Us All, her opera about Susan B. Anthony's fight for women's voting rights. When she completed the libretto in March 1946, she sat Blake down and read him the entire script, asking him if he was pleased that she had put him in her opera. Then on March 18, she sent the script to Papa Woojums (Carl Van Vechten) asking him to read it and then pass it along to her collaboration composer Virgil Thomson.
Van Vechten references Chris Blake as Mercury St. Christopher or St. Stanislas (Blake's middle name) in several letters published in Volume II of The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Carl Van Vechten 1913-1946 edited by Edward Burns. He also references Joe (Jo) Barry in this same fashion as Mercury Barry. Mercury was the first symbol used to represent the American postal service dating back to 1782 until that symbol was replaced in 1837 by a running pony. Van Vechten and Stein used Mercury as an encoded label for those who helped Stein send and receive her correspondence to and from the United States via the American military dispatch during this post war period in France when all kinds of services for civilians, including the French postal service, had been disrupted. By March 9, 1946, Stein reported to Van Vechten that the French civilian mail was now faster than American military dispatch.
The Steiny Poet believes that because Barry (he proceeded Blake as Stein's courier) and Blake were allowing Stein's voice to be again heard in America through her correspondence, she wanted to immortalize them so she wrote them into The Mother of Us All as Jo the Loiterer and Chris the Citizen. Edward Burns notates Stein's letter to Van Vechten dated July 6, 1945, that Barry, while a student at the University of Michigan, got arrested for picketing during a prewar political rally and because there was law against picketing, the authorities charged Barry for loitering. Most likely Barry and Blake were taking risks of reprimand for sending and receiving Stein's mail.
THE YOUNG TURK BETWEEN GERTRUDE STEIN & RICHARD WRIGHT
Another aspect of Stein's last year was the deterioration of her health. Diana Souhami in her biography Gertrude and Alice, reported that Toklas had written in a letter to Van Vechten that Stein had lost weight and complained of colitis. In their last countryside residence in Culoz, Stein had abdominal pains for which the local doctor told her to adjust how she wore her corset. Most likely, Stein refused any medicine or thorough examination since she distrusted doctors. By April 1946, her doctor in Paris told her she needed to build herself up and have an operation but she refused to consider this. Instead she bought a new car and on July 19 had Joe Barry drive her, Toklas, and her dog Basket to Bernard FaÃ¿'s country home in Sarthe. While out in the countryside on a trip to find a house for Stein to buy, she was stricken with extreme pain. A local doctor saw her and said she must see a specialist so the next day Stein, Toklas and Barry took a train back to Paris and was met by her nephew Allan Stein. As Barbara Will in her book Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard FaÃ¿, and the Vichy Dilemma, reports with reference to Stein's death certificate, Stein died of uterine cancer July 27, 1946, at the American Hospital located in the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine.
As stated by the Steiny Poet in her column entitled "The Man Who Came to Dinner," Christopher Blake had a falling out with Stein. This happened some time after Richard Wright (author of Native Son) and his family were invited to France by the French government. Keep in mind, Dear Reader, few civilian foreigners were getting into France at this time. According to Wright's biographer Hazel Rowley and letters between Stein and Van Vechten, Stein and Wright had been in touch prior to this trip and on May 10, 1946, Stein met Richard and Ellen Wright with their four-year-old daughter Julia at the Gare Saint-Lazare [train] station. She helped arrange hotel reservations in the same hotel where Chris Blake was living with his lover Bernard Poisson. She told the Wrights that if they needed anything to contact Blake.
Here the Steiny Road Poet declares a cliffhanger to give herself more time to research what happened between Christopher Blake, Richard Wright, and Gertrude Stein. Suffice it to say that the 25-year-old Blake not only had a definitive fight with the terminally ill Stein but also with Wright who had become somewhat dependent on Blake's friendship since Wright spoke no French. Maybe Woody Allen would find Blake's story a great follow up to Midnight in Paris.