On March 7, 1967, Alice B. Toklas, the lifelong lover, companion and muse of writer Gertrude Stein, died, in penury in Paris, at the age of 89. Toklas not only devoted the two decades that she lived after Stein to overseeing publication of her manuscripts and perpetuating her memory: she also brought out some books of her own.
Alice Babette Toklas was born in San Francisco on April 30, 1877, the daughter of Polish-born merchant Ferdinand (or, Feivel) Toklas, and the former Emma Levinsky, whose family had also come from Poland.
Ferdinand owned stores in both San Francisco and Seattle. When Alice was 13, the family moved from the former to the latter, where she attended the private Mount Rainier Seminary. That was followed by the University of Washington, where she studied music.
Alice was a talented enough pianist that she was contemplating a concert career. But after the death of, first, her mother, in 1897, and then her music teacher, Otto Bendix, in 1904, she seems to have lost her nerve. Instead, she stayed at home and cared for her father, a position that became increasingly uncomfortable as she became aware of her attraction to women.
Fateful trip to Paris
Alice’s opportunity to escape came after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. The following year, family friends Michael and Sarah Stein returned from Paris to inspect their property, and Alice heard from them about life in the City of Lights.
She decided to travel there herself, and on her first day there, September 8, 1907, she met Michael’s sister, Gertrude.
At the time, Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) was living with her other brother, Leo, a painter and art collector, in an apartment at 27 Rue de Fleurus.
The two women quickly became a couple, and Alice moved in with Gertrude, filling the roles of lover, housekeeper, cook and secretary, as well as cheering section. Toklas believed in the experimental writing done by Stein, who at age 33 was still largely anonymous. She established Plain Edition Books to publish Stein’s work, and was the largely quiet hostess who attended to the artist and writer friends – who included Picasso and Matisse, and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway –and their wives and lovers, who frequented what became a lively salon.
It was with her 1933 memoir, which she playfully called “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas,” that Gertrude Stein became a best-selling author, although she always considered it among her least serious works. It also made Toklas, or at least her name, well-known among readers. She also made appearances in much of Stein’s other work, where details about their life together were revealed.
Admiration for Hitler
During World War II, Toklas and Stein, both of Jewish heritage and both American, nonetheless remained in France, moving from Paris to a rented home in Bilignin, in the Rhone-Alpes region. There, they were protected by their good friend Bernard Fay, a translator of Stein’s who was a Vichy collaborator.
Fay was also instrumental in preventing the German confiscation of Stein’s art collection, which included numerous works by Picasso and Matisse. Stein also made a number of public statements expressing admiration for Hitler and support for Marshal Petain, but it should be added noted that she often spoke and wrote ironically.
When Stein died, in 1946, she made explicit provisions in her will for Toklas to be provided for from her estate, allowing for the sale of paintings if necessary, to pay Alice’s expenses. But Stein’s extended family, which was to inherit what remained once Toklas had died, confiscated the art from her home when she was away.
Although Alice B. Toklas wrote or edited books of her own in the last decades of her life, including a memoir called “What Is Remembered,” and “The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook,” which was a collection of recipes – including the famous formula for “Haschish Fudge,” which years later, played a role in the Peter Sellers film “I Love You, Alice B. Toklas” – from the couple’s artist friends, she ended up penniless, and cared for by a few friends.
In 1957, having been told by a priest that it might be possible to be reunited with one’s beloved in heaven, Toklas converted to Catholicism. She died on this day in 1967, and was buried next to Gertrude Stein, in Pere-Lachaise cemetery, in Paris.
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