Watching the Flowers of Friendship Fade

Gertrude Stein with Virgil Thomson. A rare moment of not gossiping.

Gertrude Stein was creative not only in her writing but also in establishing and defining her relationships. Her social circle was forever fluctuating; associations changing often with the exception of her life-time partner, Alice B. Toklas. The women enjoyed the company of artists, literati and their wives at their Saturday night salons. Wanting to establish the couple at the heart of the art movement, Gertrude transforms their relationship into a mythical status when she writes as Alice, “[N]ow I will tell you how two Americans happened to be in the heart of an art movement of which the outside world knew nothing about” (Stein 26). While their presence and contributions cannot be questioned, one can question their sensitivity. Gertrude told Ernest Hemingway that he must quit journalism to become a proper writer. This sounds a little callous coming from a woman with a trust fund. However, not having to work allowed Gertrude the freedom to write, pose, and purchase art. In doing this, she created and established her legacy to literature and the art world.

Gertrude was a self-declared gossip and cultivated relationships with other like-minded individuals. At times a gossip-mongering group, they reveled in supporting one another while later talking behind each other’s backs. Or so it seems; Gertrude was not the only one to edit her friendships; other artists altered and then recorded their relationships in letters and books adding to the Modernist canon. Hemingway wrote a memoir, F. Scott Fitzgerald based his novels on his life with his wife, Zelda, and Gertrude wrote the autobiography of Alice. Even though their relationships changed, they still savored their celebrity identities and referenced one another through art and/or gossip. They were the creative celebrities of their day and used one another’s lives as fodder for their writing.

Matisse was a good gossip and so was [Gertrude Stein] and…they delighted in telling tales to each other” (Stein 63).

Matisse and Picasso...became friends but they were enemies. Now they are neither friends nor enemies. At the time they were both” (Stein 60).

“[Picasso] said that Jean Cocteau was getting…so popular you could find his poems on every table of any smart coiffeur” Later, it was translated into French and Picasso avoided Cocteau and only retracted the statement after Cocteau’s mother guilted him (Stein 209).
Although friends, they can never completely trust the compliments given by their contemporaries:

Gertrude “thinks Fitzgerald will be read when many of his well known contemporaries are forgotten. Fitzgerald always says that he thinks Gertrude Stein says these things just to annoy him by making him think that she means them, and he adds in his favorite way, and her doing it is the cruelest thing I ever heard” (Stein 206).

Everyone is eager to be declared at the forefront of the new artistic movement. Accusations are rampant among artists poaching other people’s style. Everyone claims responsibility for the other’s success:

“As [Picasso] once remarked, when you make a thing, it is so complicated making it that it is bound to be ugly, but those that do it after you they don’t have to worry about making it and they can make it pretty, and so everybody can like it when the others make it” (Stein 22).

After being quoted in one of his stories, Gertrude tells Hemingway that “remarks are not literature,” which he includes in A Moveable Feast and she also relates in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (72).

Hemingway “liked all his contemporaries except [E.E.] Cummings. He accused Cummings of having copied everything, not from anybody, but from somebody” (Stein 205).

Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson are very funny on the subject of Hemingway.... [He] had been formed by the two of them and they were both a little proud and a little ashamed of the work of their minds. Hemingway, at one moment, when he had repudiated Sherwood Anderson and all his works, written him a letter in the name of American literature which he, Hemingway, in company with his contemporaries was about to save, telling Sherwood just what he, Hemingway thought about Sherwood’s work, and, that thinking, was in no sense complimentary” (Stein 203).

Gertrude describes Hemingway: “He looks like a modern and he smells of the museums” (Stein 204).

And while there was no cross-pollination within the group, there was of course, always the hint of it and a one-sided desire:

Hemingway wrote that Gertrude “used to talk to me about homosexuality and how it was fine in and for women and no good in men and I used to listen and learn and I always wanted to fuck her and she knew it” (Malcolm 215).

Like a quarreling family, they gave each other the silent treatment while presenting a unified front to outsiders:

“This was the time when Gertrude Stein and Picasso were not seeing each other. They always talked with the tenderest friendship about each other to anyone who had known them both but they did not see each other” (Stein 183).

Picasso and Gertrude fight and give each other the silent treatment for a year until they run into each other at “some picture gallery and Picasso came up and put his hand on Gertrude Stein’s shoulder and said, oh hell, let’s be friends. Sure, said Gertrude Stein and they embraced” (Stein 179).

"Later on when things were difficult between Stein and Hemingway, she always remembered with gratitude that after all it was Hemingway…. She always says, yes, sure I have a weakness for Hemingway. After all he was the first of the young men to knock at my door” (Stein 203).

And then there were the outcasts that were never allowed to return to the fold:

Ezra Pound, a poet and facist, was initially respected by his peers who later took to insulting him in various ways. After falling off a chair in their living room, Pound asked to call on Gertrude and Alice again. Stein responded, “I am so sorry but Miss Toklas has a bad tooth and we are busy picking wildflowers” (Stein 190).

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald named their dog Ezra Pound.

Regardless of their tempestuous relationships, these artists are forever connected by their history and collaborations. They gave each other the silent treatment and poked fun at one another but they were friends at one point, and literature reminds us of that.

Image Credit: Mabel Thérèse Bonney, Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein, c. 1929, modern digital print from scan of original negative. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

Sources
  • Hemingway, Ernest. A Moveable Feast. New York: Touchstone, 1992.
  • Malcolm, Janet. Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.
  • Milford, Nancy. Zelda: A Biography. New York: Perennial, 2001.
  • Stein, Gertrude. “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.” Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein. Ed. Carl Van Vechten. New York: Vintage Books, 1990. 1-237.


About the Author
Melanie Samay studied literature at Fordham University in New York and received her Masters in English literature from San Francisco State University. Currently she works in marketing for the Contemporary Jewish Museum. She spends her time reading, walking around the city, sitting in the park with friends, and hanging around dark spaces at night listening to loud music. Read more from Melanie on her blog about books and book-nerdom: http://soifollowjulian.com

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Stanley Kubrick: A Jewish Story

Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition on view at The Contemporary Jewish Museum

A Conversation with Kota Ezawa