The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein

By Emmy Lee | Posted on June 22nd, 2012

I recently installed Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore at the Vancouver Art Gallery and spent a lot of time thinking about these two avant-garde sisters who bought directly from the studios of then unknowns like Picasso and Matisse. They were also great friends with the legendary writer Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo and I got to thinking about The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, a book by Stein wrote as a memoir in the guise of Alice Toklas who was her lover and companion for almost 40 years. I first read this riotous and vibrant account of Paris in the early part of the 20th century when I was there for the summer, hopping between the Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots, experiencing ennui. It brought the city to life for me, describing its colourful historical inhabitants and vividly portraying their genius as well as their petty spats and amusing predilections:

“Matisse was irritated by the growing friendship between Picasso and Gertrude Stein. Mademoiselle Gertrude, he explained, likes local colour and theatrical values. It would be impossible for any one of her quality to have a serious friendship with any one like Picasso.”

Written in an anecdotal style, you feel privy to the inner circle in the early part of the 20th century in Paris since Stein and Toklas reigned at the centre of the whirlwind of creative activity there. Stein is said to have perfectly captured Toklas’ conversational style and her unpretentious and matter-of-fact account of her life as Stein’s companion is delivered in her specific voice, as if she is speaking directly to you, giving the text a feel of intimacy and candour. Reading this now, more than a decade after my first pass, it’s still as hilarious and fresh as ever.


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