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Miss Toklas Alone

ISSUE:  Autumn 1976

When I first went to live in Paris, a few years after World War II, I went as the proverbial young pilgrim in the footsteps of Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I firmly believed that Paris was where all good Americans went when they died—but that it was even better to get there beforehand. I was steeped in the literary lore of the ‘20’s and ‘30’s, and of course Gertrude Stein’s salon at 5 rue Christine played no small part in my imagination.

As I embarked from New York, a college friend, a tall and bony young man who had passed the war successfully in Europe, gave me a letter of introduction to Alice B.Toklas. Like quite a few of the more presentable young American soldiers left knocking about in Paris after its liberation, he had found his way to the Stein-Toklas menage. He had gone often to the open houses which Gertrude held for young American G.I.s, Brewsie and Willie was the result of Gertrude’s knowing these young men. My friend was neither the Brewsie nor the Willie type. He told me that as he had entered the drawing room for the first time, Gertrude had said dramatically, “Don’t move! Stand right there! Look, my friends, at last a perfect Greco!”

Regrettably, by 1949, Gertrude Stein was dead, but Alice B. Toklas, he told me, still lived at 5 rue Christine and occasionally received friends of friends. My El Greco friend, who was an entertaining and faithful letter writer, had kept in close touch with her.

“She’s quite a person herself,” he said.

I am moved to write this slim remembrance of my brief acquaintance with Miss Toklas because of another account of her which I’ve recently read in Anais Nin’s journal of those times. Of course Miss Nin met Alice B. Toklas many years before I did, and in the company of Gertrude Stein. But our impressions are so antithetical that I can only conjecture that either the years had done a lot for Miss Toklas by the time I met her—or that she was stoned on Brownies the one afternoon Miss Nin came to call. This latter possibility I seriously question and only bring it up because of the Peter Sellers film, / Love You, Alice B.Toklas, That film, in my opinion, just may have given the wrong impression of Miss Toklas to a whole new generation, thanks to one recipe in her cookbook which calls for marijuana. If there is anything Miss Toklas was not, it was a Peter Sellers type swinger.

At any rate, Miss Nin has written in her journal that on the occasion of her visit, Miss Toklas would not speak to her, glared menacingly at her, and at one point actually plopped herself down on the sofa between Gertrude and Anais in a heavily symbolic manner.

I most certainly can’t square Miss Nin’s picture of Miss Toklas with the woman of subtlety and sense whom I met. I was 21 at the time—no innocent—and it must have been somewhere in my consciousness that Gertrude and Alice had been “married.” But such was my literary zeal that I can’t remember this knowledge playing a very large or tantalizing part in my curiosity.

After getting settled in Paris, I wrote to Miss Toklas and received, amazingly quickly, an answer. Her meticulous courtesy is still one of my most vivid memories of her. Her handwriting was minuscule, spidery, and elegant—in brown ink on a piece of tissue paper that had been carefully torn from a larger sheaf. Obviously Miss Toklas was a paper saver. She apologized for the two-day delay, explaining that “the sweet Basket” had been ill but had now been returned from the doctor’s to the flat, “woefully thin” but himself again. “Woefully thin” delighted me, as did her gesture of including me, a stranger, so immediately and interestingly in her life. Basket, of course, was the celebrated poodle—he would have been Basket III or IV, a replacement of the original Basket. I remembered that in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein claimed that it was Basket I who had taught her to recognize the difference between sentences and paragraphs. This insight had come to her “while listening to the rhythm of his water drinking,”

I was invited for tea the following Wednesday at five o’clock.

By four o’clock on Wednesday, I had managed to produce in myself a bad case of stage fright. In my exclusively literary interest, I had completely forgotten about the famed collection of paintings which would be hanging on the walls. It suddenly occurred to me that I might be expected to say something extraordinary or profound about them. I knew that I inevitably managed to enrage my artist friends with my comments on paintings since I “always tried to find a story in them, for Christ sake,”—a cardinal sin—and what if I should do this to Matisse? Or Picasso? I’m sure that if I had read Anais Nin’s account of Miss Toklas as a tigress, I might never have shown up, As it was, I paused at a small bar on the corner of the rue Christine, downed a cognac for courage, and rang the bell to Number 5,

I was admitted by an aged maid into a narrow hall lined with pictures, and Miss Toklas and Basket came to greet me.

Basket was much larger than I had imagined, and Miss Toklas much smaller. There have been many descriptions of Miss Toklas; from these and my own experience I can only guess that she never changed her appearance nor deviated from her apparel of a beige blouse, wool skirt, stout brown wool stockings, and sandals which were the soul and essence of all sandals. I later learned that the sandals were designed by Raymond Duncan, Isadora’s brother, but they were so uncompromisingly primitive that I first assumed they had been put together by Miss Toklas herself. Her famous fringe jutted from her forehead, her dark Byzantine eyes looked at once kind and saddened—as if they had seen many strange distant views of the psyche and that this vision had been disenchanting.

She was not at all sad herself, however. She was bursting with news of what she termed, “a delightful dividend.” It seemed that not only did we have our Greco friend in common but she had just heard from one of her absolutely dearest friends in America that I had once been a pupil of hers. I mentally reviewed the raft of dull lady teachers I had had in my life, and I was certain Miss Toklas must be mistaken.

But no, Miss Toklas pronounced the name of the scourge of my girlhood—a woman of such intense bitchery that even today there are emotionally scarred middle-aged women who can recite her abysmal poems (which she coyly signed “anonymous” and made us memorize) from beginning to end. I had been a scholarship student at an exclusive school for young ladies and had received more than my share of this woman’s critical attentions, since obviously I needed more polishing than the other students. If Miss Toklas was going to premise her tea party on our mutual love of Miss Pritchett, my sincerity was in real trouble,

Miss Toklas must have seen the disappointment or bafflement on my face (just how she of international fame and an obscure, charmless old-maid school teacher ever could have gotten together was beyond me, for she immediately dropped the subject and led me into the drawing room. From my jaundiced view in the seventies, I have wondered—for the fun of it—if enthusiasm for Miss Pritchett might have been a whole set of signals which I in my denseness did not pick up. If I had, would I have then been welcomed into the world of Lesbos, tortured relationships, and hashish in wholesome cookies?

As it was, Miss Toklas sat very straight on her sofa opposite me and neither smoked nor drank, although she urged some Turkish cigarettes on me and had the maid present me with a trolley brimming with multi-colored bottles of liqueurs and sweetmeats. I chose, with consistency, a Remy-Martin cognac and a small piece of Turkish Delight. No tea ever showed up, and it passed through my mind that perhaps long experience with American writers in Paris, beginning with the masters, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, had taught her how disinterested the breed is in tea with lemon or milk.

Basket, a most dignified and intelligent animal, placed himself at her feet, with the result that I had two pairs of dark brown eyes regarding me from under fringes. Picassos, Juan Grises, Modiglianis, and Matisses hung on the walls behind them. In order to get the paintings over with, I remarked on the famous Picasso portrait of Gertrude . . .”You will look like that, Gertrude, you will” . . . and Miss Toklas at once shared with me her indignation over the Metropolitan Museum’s hesitation about accepting the painting because it was too contemporary. Gertrude had willed the portrait to the Metropolitan. We commiserated on the stuffiness and lack of vision of the curators. The Museum of Modern Art was hoping to get it. That over, then we plunged into what I can only term a gossip fest. If I had expected Miss Toklas to be reticent about her experiences with the great and near great, I was happily surprised. I soon began to feel that there was almost no question that I could not ask.

“That man!” she said of Hemingway. “Everything about him was exaggerated. As Gertrude and I agreed, even the holes in his trousers were too big.”

I remembered that Hemingway, after his success, had, like Peter, denied Gertrude—or at least the extent of Gertrude’s influence on him.

“He was a nice enough young man in the beginning, and I can remember that the nicest he ever was, was a time when he came and sat all day without saying a word. Then at the end he stood up and said, “I’m too young to be a father,” and left. That was how Gertrude and I learned that he and Hadley were to have their first child.

“I suppose you know he was intensely jealous of Scott. Gertrude and I will never forgive him for what he tried to do to Scott. Ernest feared, quite rightly, that Scott’s was much the finer talent, and he was always encouraging Scott to drink. Hemingway could drink—he had the temperament and the constitution—but not poor Scott.”

I asked about F. Scott Fitzgerald, expressing my great admiration for his writing and what a tragedy his lack of production was—or production of writing not worthy of him.

“Oh yes! But you see he had to make so much money. Later, he liked to think that it was Zelda who had needed all the money for the style of life she enjoyed, but when we first knew them, before Zelda’s illness, Scott was enjoying it very much too.”

“What were they like?” I asked, “when you first met them.”

“He was truly Prince Charming come to life—and I use the term advisedly. There has never been a more beautiful young man. He had a magic quality and a wonderfully intimate way with him.” She paused.”His manners were exquisite.”

From the way she said this, I got the distinct impression that Fitzgerald was one of the few who did not relegate Alice B.Toklas to the function of “sitting with the wives.”

She seemed to read my mind. “He was delightful to talk to—he and Gertrude could talk and laugh for hours about anything. Zelda was rather silent but very striking with her burnished hair and, as we always said, the profile of an Aztec—very straight and severe; the Gibson Girl photographs of her at the time always tried to soften it.”

Gertrude Stein opens her book, Wars / Have Known, with the sentence, “I do not know whether to put in the things I do not remember as well as the things I do remember.” In trying to remember all that Miss Toklas said to me that first afternoon, I seem faced with the same problem. But I do remember an unfocused, quite puzzling element in our conversation. Miss Toklas said so many things that had an oddly familiar ring—not in content (that was to be expected) but in style. Coming away from 5 rue Christine, I was enchanted, but I also had a disturbing sense of déjà vu which I then attributed to my having read so much about the times and personalities.

She had warmly urged me to come back again, setting a time for the next week, and of course I did. Since the pictures on the wall were no longer a threat to me—actually Miss Toklas had seemed glad that I did not want to stand in front of them and marvel—I did not pay a visit to the little bar on the corner of rue Christine before arriving, with the result, no doubt, that my perceptions were sharper. Also, I had done my homework and re-read The Autobiography of Alice B.Toklas.

Miss Toklas was even more cordial, the scene was the same, the cornucopian trolley, Basket’s brown stare, the two fringes, the marvelous pictures on the walls behind them.

I remarked that I had enjoyed what she had had to say about Hemingway—that her account of him made him seem less of a tough customer than his usual image implied.

“Oh no,” she said. “Hemingway was very fragile; whenever he did anything sporting something broke, his arm or his leg or his head. And he used to get quite worn out walking from his house to our house.”

There it was! What I had vaguely suspected was startlingly true. Miss Toklas was repeating word for word whole passages from the Autobiography. Still disbelieving, I asked about Ezra Pound—with the same result. Then Sherwood Anderson; the same, But what a marvelous memory, and what a consummate actress. She delivered her lines with unquestionable sincerity in her dark eyes, with such a natural air of confiding to me in a real face-to-face, one-to-one coziness. I began to have an uncomfortably eerie feeling.

I brought up Djuna Barnes, since to the best of my memory she had not been mentioned in any of Gertrude Stein’s writing. Miss Toklas dismissed her—”Yes, they used to come to visit; two stunning women dressed most elegantly”—and seemed uninterested in her writing. Perhaps Miss Barnes, a woman writer and contemporary of Gertrude’s, was a sore point, so I did not press my admiration. But with my mention of any of the personalities who did appear in the Autobiography, we were back again to whole quotations—with no acknowledging footnotes.

These word-for-word flights, lifted in toto from the Autobiography, and particularly Miss Toklas’s uncanny delivery of them as her own, puzzled, saddened, and, in a way, even frightened me. Did Miss Toklas know what she was doing? Sitting there opposite me, with that fine, warm manner of confiding, was she all the time greatly enjoying the hoax? If so, I would not have called her on it in a million years. Or was it the ventriloquist voice of the monumental Gertrude, manipulating from the grave this charming, clever, sad-eyed little old lady who so graciously was entertaining me? Or—at the most cynical level—I calculated that Miss Toklas had had hundreds of visitors just like me, who undoubtedly asked my very same questions. How tired she must be of them. Then was Miss Toklas’s bare-faced plagiarism a way of resting while talking? But why did she invite me again then? She had no obligation to invite me, to talk to me, or to tell me anything. She had done what was not even her duty with her first invitation. I was not remotely famous, nor of impressive connections, and I did not even like Miss Pritchett. All I had to offer her was my young obscurity and interest.

What I hoped that it was not— for this strange behavior of hers had caused me to become instantly fond of her—was that Alice B.Toklas had so demeaned herself for so many years, that now, alone, she felt she had nothing of herself to offer that was of any worth.

As I left, with another invitation pressed on me for the following week, I could only conclude that whatever else it was, Miss Toklas was, to my amazement, lonely. It was my first lesson that famous people could be very lonely, too, and I regret to this day that it did not sink in very deeply. I was too young, egocentric, and mesmerized by the fascinating world she had seen. I don’t think I ever asked her one single thing about herself or her daily life since Gertrude’s death.

My last visit, and not quite the last time I ever saw her, was exactly the same in setting, gracious cordiality, and this fine air of formal intimacy, I again, rather wistfully, brought the subject around to F.Scott Fitzgerald, saying that my visits to her had inspired me to re-read Tender Is the Night, and what a haunting lovely book it was.

She said, “Yes, I feel Gertrude was really responsible for his writing it. He was very low.The Great Gatsby had not been the success he felt sure it would be, Zelda was very ill, and he didn’t know where to turn. Gertrude told him, “You must write your real story, your own story, Scott.” “

This was familiar too, but then she began to speak of a Christmas day she and Gertrude had spent with them when Zelda, not institutionalized but still very ill, was seeing no one—yet felt safe enough to be with them for a little while. How Zelda came down from her bedroom, “like a wraith,” touching the Christmas tree; how Scotty was an enchanting and enchanted little girl; how Scott, not drinking, was very sweet and careful with them both—sad, yet with flashes of his old gaiety and sense of absurdity which Gertrude always brought out in him. As I listened to Miss Toklas, I felt that here was solid ground—that she had really loved the Fitzgeralds and that they in turn must have loved her for herself.

I came away bemused but with a clear, bright image of that gentle broken Christmas day—of a simple realness and kindliness that, thinking about it, does not appear at all in the pages of the intriguing, irreverent Autobiography.

I had left with a promise to return the next week, and now I have an even shabbier confession to make.

It was late spring, and with the youth that is wasted on the young, I met and abruptly fell in love with a young American who can’t have been all that interesting. Again from the distance of years, I can only judge that it was more the entrancing idea of it all. We immediately began to live together in a tiny picturesque apartment under the eaves of a tall curlicued building on the rue de la Cherche Midi—the Street of the Sundial—and yes, there were geraniums on the window ledge. Through my head continuously went the poignant strains of the Manon duet, “Nous vivrons d Paris, tous les deux, tous les deux. . .” All literary interests, including tea with Miss Toklas, fled from me, and it was not until two weeks after I was to have gone to tea with her again that I remembered the date. I believe I agonized for another week over what I would say to her. Time has mercifully blotted out whatever lie I constructed, but it must have been good, for when I finally telephoned her, her understanding and friendship were there. Unfortunately, she said, she was off to the south of France within the week to stay with friends for the summer, but we would, she promised, get together again in the fall.

That should have been the end of it, for my plans changed during the summer and I returned to America in July.

But two days after I had telephoned my apologies, my Manon partner and I were on the bus going to the Place de la Concorde when Miss Toklas climbed aboard.

She was so out of context—away from the brocade sofa, the paintings, and Basket, that I was momentarily taken aback. She saw me and joined us on the wicker seat opposite us. She was carrying a string shopping bag and had that pleased no-nonsense air of a French housewife out to bring back the very best. She was of course in her brown wool stockings and sandals. I introduced my young man to her, and if it is possible to acknowledge courteously an introduction while simultaneously cancelling out that person’s existence, this is what she managed to do. We conducted a three, yet two-way, conversation as a green Paris unfolded outside the bus window. She was on her way to Fe’lix Potin’s to buy a special pate to take to her friends in the south—thus we would all descend together, although there we would part, since we were bound for the Embassy and she toward the Madeleine. Although we were not bound for the Embassy, she told us this.

It was a very short ride. When the bus stopped with a lurch on the far side of the Place, my young man stepped down from the high back step and offered a hand up to Miss Toklas.

“No thank you, young man,” she said sternly, “I prefer to leap.”

And leap she did.


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