Scene4 Magazine-inSight

July 2012

Scene4 Magazine-The Steiny Road  To Operadom
with Karren Alenier

Questions and Answers and... Questions

In her quest to understand Gertrude Stein and opera, the Steiny Road Poet has interviewed many people who said up front that they had limited time—people who indicated in some way that they were wary of talking to an out-of-the-mainstream poet-journalist. Notables like tenor and opera director Plácido Domingo, poet and librettist J. D. McClatchy, composer and memoirist Ned Rorem, New York Times music critic and Virgil Thomson biographer Anthony Tommasini, and professor Barbara Will, author of the controversial book Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard FaĂż, and the Vichy Dilemma have talked, without suffering negative fallout, to the Steiny Road Poet who called them directly. Therefore, being properly introduced (albeit by a mutual friend who telephoned ahead to pave the way) to a writer who knew Alice B. Toklas, the lifelong partner of Gertrude Stein, and maintained a friendship with this iconic cookbook author from 1947 until Toklas' death in early 1967 did not seem to indicate a different strategy for talking to this person versus any other notable the Steiny Poet had been eager to interview.


In the first phone call to this writer whose name the Steiny Poet will withhold at this time, they agreed to talk on June 9, 2012. The Writer stated, "I'm not a big talker; I'm a writer." She suggested that the Steiny Poet find and read her short memoir on Toklas that was published in a prominent culinary magazine some months after Toklas died. The Poet immediately found the well-written essay populated with so many vivid details that she felt like she was walking in with the Writer to the 5, rue Christine apartment where Toklas continued to live after Stein died. 

"Did you read my article on Toklas?" This was the first point of engagement after the Steiny Poet's hello, is this still a good time to talk? Before the Poet could say much more than yes, I really enjoyed, the Writer interrupted and said, "I don't know exactly what you would like to know because that article was pretty full." While the Poet answered, yes, I understand, the Writer interrupted again raising her voice in urgency, "Hurry! Hurry up and ask the question."

The Steiny Poet decided to skip ahead to a freighted subject, realizing the opportunity to talk and build rapport was not an option. Toklas mentioned you [as potential replacement] in relation to a failed agreement with someone else she had picked to work on her memoir… The Writer interrupted to say Joe Barry introduced the Writer to Toklas, followed by, "In the beginning, she [Toklas] did not accept me because she really didn't like women."

Here the interview picked up at a faster pace, did you visit her when she was staying in a convent in Rome? "No, I visited her in a nursing home—Ville d'Avray [Seine et Oise]."


Alice Toklas converted to Catholicism and took First Communion in late 1957 [according to Nadine Hubbs inThe Queer Composition of America's Sound: Gay Modernists, American Music and National Identity]. OldAlice-crAs noted by letters published in Staying on Alone: Letters of Alice B. Toklas edited by Edward Burns, Toklas went to Monastère du Précieux-Sang in Rome for an extended period of health-related treatments starting in the summer of 1960 and by the time she got back to Paris in the spring of 1961, Roubina Stein, Allan Stein's second wife, had gotten a court order that removed the entire art collection to a bank vault, including artwork that belonged to Toklas. Allan Stein was Gertrude's nephew by her oldest brother Michael. Gertrude named Allan her heir with provisions for Alice, but Allan died January 1951 and by Gertrude Stein's will, Allan's children were next in line. Roubina wanted to make sure her two children by Allan would benefit from Aunt Gertrude's estate. By late summer 1961, Toklas suffered a fall during which she broke her kneecap and subsequently landed in the Ville d'Avray nursing home.

What initially peaked the Steiny Road Poet's interest in talking to someone who knew Toklas well was to understand how Toklas' growing interest in Catholicism, fanned by the encouragement of Bernard FaĂż who had vigorously tried to convert Stein [Stein had no interest], played into what was done with Stein's remains after she died. Backing up a little further, the Poet recently got a copy of Stein's death certificate, which indicated that after Stein died (27 July 1946) at the American Hospital located in the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, her body had been embalmed and then transferred to the Mortuary Chapel of American Cathedral, Church of the Hotel Trinity in Paris.  

Jewish burial practice is to bury the deceased as quickly as possible. The only obstacle is if death occurs hours before the Sabbath, because no burials are permitted during these sacred 24 hours. Observant Jews (Stein was an assimilated non-observant Jew) believe that embalming desecrates the body and impedes the return of the soul to God. One exception to the ban on embalming is if the body was going to be buried in Israel and required additional time to get there.

The Steiny Poet asked the Writer if she knew what happened after Gertrude died—was there a funeral? What about Alice's death? The Writer interrupted to say she had no idea because as a rule she never went to funerals.

The Steiny Poet called Stein's Baltimore cousin Julian Stein and asked him if he knew that Gertrude's body had been embalmed and stored in a church. He didn't. steingertrudeGraveStone-crDid he know who attended Gertrude's funeral and subsequent burial at Père Lachaise Cemetery? No, he didn't know but he was interested in knowing more. That's when the Poet delved into Staying on Alone and quickly found answers to those questions. On 2 August 1946, Alice wrote in a letter to Papa Woojums (Carl Van Vechten), "It is most likely that our Baby Woojums (Gertrude Stein) will stay in Paris that she loved so much—at Père Lachaise—with friends and amongst the French great. I hope you think that that is right—she never said anything about any such thing it couldnt [sic] and didnt [sic] interest her at all— dead is dead—you remember in The Makings [Stein's novel, The Making of Americans]…The French law will make things drag on but it all will be beautiful." In another letter dated 22 October 1946, to Papa Woojums, Toklas wrote that Allan, his wife, "ten of Baby's intimates," and Toklas heard Dean Beekman read prayers. (According to Toklas, Beekman was someone Stein knew and liked.) Then only Allan, his wife, and Toklas followed the body to Père Lachaise.


The wrap up to the walk-on-hot-coals interview included the Writer asserting that she knew little about the troubles Alice Toklas had with the Edgar Allan Poe lawyers handling Gertrude's estate and that Alice was "subservient to Gertrude," and intent on maintaining the relationships Gertrude had had before she died but that, indeed, "Alice came out as a personality on her own after Gertrude died." The Writer also emphasized that it was "a human relationship, period. I would drive her to some place [she wanted to go]."

In talking with Julian Stein, the Steiny Poet was reintroduced to the conservative Baltimore father-son lawyers who were descendants of the poet and horror-tale author Edgar Allan Poe. Julian said adamantly that Poe should have sprung into action on Alice's behalf when Roubina raided 5, rue Christine and had the French court remove all the artwork there. Toklas' letters detail many of the problems she had with the senior Poe and later with his son.


What the Steiny Road Poet walked away from the interview with the Writer was a fresh understanding of how difficult Alice Toklas was. In the initial contact, the Writer reported, as others have done, that Alice "as unmistakable as she was" would go to her door and tell the person standing there asking for her, that the mistress of the house was not home. While the Writer believes that Alice didn't like women, the Poet has been kicking this thought around, not quite convinced. The Poet, who has been researching the life and work of Jane Bowles, knows that Jane's friendship with Alice was freighted with Alice's concern that Jane write. Jane found Alice very judgmental. Like the Writer, Jane Bowles met Alice after Gertrude was gone. It seems one had to earn a friendship with Alice Toklas, particularly after Gertrude died, since Alice had a lot of time to make up for as Gertrude's shadow. However, Alice was intent on keeping the genius of her partner alive and that meant putting in considerable time to maintain Gertrude's friendships.

The Steiny Poet also reached out to Christopher Blake whom she had the pleasure of interviewing last month, asking him if he thought Alice did not like women, preferring like Gertrude to interact with men. He provided this vignette that he said he would never forget:

"Alice, Gertrude and I were at Pierre Balmain's, where Gertrude was being fitted for the gown Pierre had designed for her.  I believe Gertrude was in the back trying it on. In the meantime, some of Pierre's beautiful mannequins were doing their thing and Alice grabbed me by the arm, nearly twisting it off and in all excitement said: 'Chris, look at the legs on that girl.'

"I would say that Alice, indeed, had a roving eye given the chance."

Then there is one last detail about Alice Toklas that also came up in exchange with Chris Blake. Toklas made her childhood friend Louise Taylor executor of her estate. Despite the definitive fight Stein had with Blake, Toklas wrote a letter of introduction for Blake to Louise Taylor who had married a British artist named Redvers Taylor. Blake said Louise was very kind to him on the occasion of his visit to London and that Alice understood why he had written such a "nasty letter to Gertrude." Blake added that he took this action by Alice as indication she was "able to be her own person."

Perhaps the Writer, whose name you may have guessed by now is Naomi Barry, should she care to spend the time reading this essay, would find the musings of the Steiny Road Poet insufferable and say, See I told you I had nothing to add beyond the memoir I wrote myself. The Steiny Poet thinks Ms. Barry did a fine job channeling Alice B. Toklas and she [the Steiny Road Poet] is grateful for the contact.

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©2012 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2012 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier
Karren LaLonde Alenier is the author of five collections of poetry and, recently, The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas and she is a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
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July 2012

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