Bumper Cars
The Steiny Road
to Operadom with
Karren LaLonde Alenier

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14Leaving no Stein, uh stone, unturned, the Steiny Road Poet traveled to San Francisco to talk with Renate Stendhal, author of Gertrude Stein In Words And Pictures, about developing an audience within the women's community for the work-in-progress opera Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On. Making more connections related to Stein, the Poet also met or spoke with Stein aficionados Hans Gallas and Paul Padgette and representatives of the newly developing International Museum of Women.


The literary salons of the feminists in Paris during the 1970s marked the time when Renate Stendhal began to deeply appreciate Gertrude Stein. Stendhal, who grew up in Germany but sought refuge in Paris from her country's Nazi past, was part of the first generation of post-war rebels who believed "85% of all grand German culture had been created by Jews." Some of these young protestors, including Stendhal, learned Yiddish and contemplated conversion to Judaism. In the small circle of intellectuals and artists who raged against Germany and their own parents for remaining silent about the Nazi past, Gertrude Stein was one of the few admired women writers. Stendhal as a schoolgirl was drawn physically to Gertrude Stein: her "huge wet-nurse body," "Caesar haircut," and androgynous appearance. Yet no one seemed to know or say at that time that Stein was Lesbian.

Stendhal "tried on this and that text" but could not read Stein. However, the soon-to-be translator in German of Stein's Blood on the Dining Room Floor lived with Stein as a source of energy as Stein "spooked around in [Stendhal's] interior landscape always beckoning." Initially Stendhal identified with Stein because she was a "multiple outsider" who was "hard to codify" and who had to struggle for her survival. In Paris, Stendhal hooked up with a group of English-speaking feminist poets who were well versed in Stein texts and who helped her find her way in reading Stein. From this experience, Stendhal learned to love Stein's "chutzpah, naughtiness, and sense of play."

Today, Stendhal reflects that Stein's sense of self-assurance and unshakable belief in herself as a writer came from her "alliance with Alice Toklas." This commentary, plus Stendhal's remark about Stein's recorded reading of her portrait of Picasso being "pure Rap," prompted the Steiny Road Poet to wonder out loud if Toklas' training to become a concert pianist during her youth in San Francisco might have been the source of Toklas instantly becoming the perfect reader for Stein. Stendhal nodded appreciatively and added, "Alice saved Gertrude's sanity and became the indispensable reader every writer longs for."

Turning back to the subject of the literary salon, Stendhal mentioned Gloria Orenstein who, with four other feminist writers, organized and led the Women's Salon in New York City from 1975 to 1985. Here, the Steiny Road Poet had a eureka moment realizing the "at home" literary parties she organized in the late 1970s and early 1980s in Washington, DC, were part of a larger contemporary trend. From her studies of French literature, the Poet knew about Madame de Stael's salon in the late 1700s in Paris and, of course, she knew about the one held by Gertrude Stein. Under the initial influence of the Word Works founding director Deirdra Baldwin, the Poet annually held a salon on February 3 to celebrate Gertrude Stein's birthday. What the Poet had not realized was that women had been organizing literary and artistic salons consistently in every century, especially in France, since the seventeenth century and that these salons were significant in shaping the world of literature until the Twentieth Century when mass media, especially newspapers, seemingly overtook the need for the literary salon.


Renate Stendhal originally wrote Gertrude Stein In Words And Pictures in German and had the book published in 1989 in Germany. In Germany, her readings from the book attracted hundreds of eager Gertrude Stein fans. Much to the author's surprise, the English version, published in the United States in1994, earned rave reviews and a Lambda Award, but did not trigger a Stein renaissance as it had in Germany. There seemed to be no "fertile ground to receive a photo biography of Stein."

Asked about women's reception of opera, Stendhal thinks that the women's community (comprised of both Lesbians and feminists) in the United States tends to be "very politicized, activist, and party-happy." On the one hand, Stendhal thinks gay men would "more likely adopt Stein as an icon" [over gay or feminist women] and, on the other, Stendhal believes that Stein has the "great love story with Alice and the mythical radiance that would touch a large segment of the women's community." However, Stendhal shrugged her shoulders and offered, "What do I know? I'm not much of an activist these days. I'm a hermit writer, not a party girl."


Scratching her head, the Steiny Road Poet asked, "Who are the popular leaders of the American women's community—who do they look up to?" With no hesitation, Stendhal answered, "The comediennes—Margaret Cho, Ellen DeGeneres, Lily Tomlin—there's a long list. There are still great feminist leaders like Gloria Steinem and writers like Dorothy Allison. Also women's music is huge and with a huge impact." To understand these predilections better, the Steiny Road Poet suggests the reader visit singer/songwriter Margie Adam's website where she lists others contributing to women's music such as Betty, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Holly Near, and Janis Ian.


Knowing that. Stendhal is co-author of a book on the coloratura mezzo-soprano Cecelia Bartoli and because what the women's community likes does not seem far afield from Gertrude Stein's humor and musical sounding texts, the Poet, undaunted, asked Stendhal what she would hope to experience in an opera about Gertrude Stein. Brightening and with a certain look of mischief in her eyes, Stendhal said, "two things—all the famous things we know [about Stein] but also something that takes off in Steinese fashion but is not faithful." "Woman after my own heart," the Poet blurted unabashedly. Stendhal said she was tired of the "sweet, well-intended plays that lack any kind of daring and brilliance." She countered that a writer writing about Stein couldn't show what a brilliant person Stein was unless that writer was also brilliant.


Because the community that promotes Stein is small, eventually everyone will meet. This said, the Steiny Road Poet glosses this statement—that is, provided toes have not been stepped on in the scramble to publish books, produce theatrical works, or mount exhibitions that relate to Gertrude Stein. Before arriving in Ms. Stendhal's office, the Steiny Road Poet enjoyed a lunch that undoubtedly Ms. Toklas would have fondly approved at Bizou's with Hans Gallas. Mr. Gallas collects memorabilia associated with Stein and Toklas. His next event taking place at the San Francisco Public Library on October 24, 2004, "A Life in Food: A Celebration of the 50th Anniversary of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook 1954-2004" will include readings, recipes, and a film starring ABT herself! Over an arugula salad accented with mint, prosciutto, pecorino cheese, and figs, we exchanged CDs and books on Stein as well as discussed a new project that he is developing for 2007 that will celebrate the 100th anniversary of Stein and Toklas' first meeting. In fact his first planning session would include Renate Stendhal and Paul Padgette and oh, by the way, could I manage a production of the Stein opera in San Francisco? Sans doubt dear Reader, you shall hear more about Mr. Gallas, his project, and how the Stein opera will interface. Could a rose by any other name smell as sweet?

Certainly the Poet's trip to San Francisco meant networking and collecting more contact information to expand the reach of the Stein opera. Gallas and Stendhal made the Poet aware of Paul Padgette who selected and introduced the dance photography of Carl Van Vechten. Van Vechten who named himself Papa Woojums with Alice dubbed Mama Woojums and Gertrude, Baby Woojums — names the trio used in World War II to confound the censors, was appropriately Stein's promoter in the United States and finally her literary executor. Padgette, while searching for information on Stein, unexpectedly met and became longtime friends with Van Vechten. Supposedly Carlo first encountered Gtrude, and she him, at the premiere of The Rite of Spring where the audience erupted in riotous condemnation of Stravinsky's new work. The Poet, eager to talk about the veracity of that meeting, also availed herself of the opportunity to ask Padgette for more contacts. How fortuitous for the Poet to find a rose without thorns!

The final rose in the San Francisco Stein garland was a research historian who is working on the development of the International Museum of Women that will open in 2006. The Poet met Jill Jensen by accident in a vegetarian restaurant last year when the Poet traveled to San Francisco Opera's production of The Mother of Us All .  Jensen had helped mount an exhibit on women's suffrage in the lobby of the SFO and was talking about Stein when the Poet heard the conversation and was overcome with extreme curiosity.  

Not knowing what might transpire this year, the Poet asked Ms Jensen if she would like to meet. Jensen, seeing an opportunity to promote the new museum, suggested meeting in the offices currently housing the museum staff. Long story short, the museum is now entertaining proposals for activities and projects. Without further ado, the Poet reached into her backpack and produced the archival CD recording of the second Stein opera workshop made at the Manhattan School of Music and which the Poet had just jumped through many hoops to produce before leaving home for San Francisco to promote said opera. Rose is a rose is a rose. The Steiny Road Poet hears all sorts of doors into the women's community opening for Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On.


©2004 Karren LaLonde Alenier

For prior installments, click here

Karren LaLonde Alenier, an award-winning Lindy Hopper,
is the author of five collections of poetry,
including Looking for Divine Transportation,
winner of the 2002 Towson University Prize for Literature.
Much more at
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