Home / General / Erik Visits an American (Abroad) Grave, Part 281

Erik Visits an American (Abroad) Grave, Part 281


This is the grave of Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas.

Born in 1874 in Pittsburgh into a pretty wealthy Jewish family, Stein spent a year in Europe as a youngster and then her father became the head of San Francisco’s streetcar system. She was shuttled a bit between family members as a teenager, but in short became a highly educated elite intellectual. She graduated from Radcliffe in 1898 and studied with William James, conducting stream of consciousness experiments under his guidance. James encouraged her to attend medical school and she did at Johns Hopkins, but she hated it and dropped out. She followed her brother, the artist Leo Stein, to London in 1902. They moved to Paris a year later.

Gertrude and Leo lived together for the next decade, putting together a large art collection in their Paris apartment. Leo became much more known as an art collector and critic than artist. Basically, they used their large trust fund to fund all of this, which sounds like rich Americans in Europe today. They were buying Cezanne and Matisse and Picasso paintings just as these artists were becoming big. Leaders of the modernist movement, their collection received a lot of attention from American art critics.

Even as a teenager, Stein was interested in the salon style of living that the 18th century Parisian elite had popularized. So her apartment in Paris replicated this. She knew everyone, French, English, or American, and they all showed up, from Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Pound to Picasso and Matisse and Wilder. She believed that 18th century Paris was the greatest time in world history and wanted to recreate that, which as happens to lots of people who romanticize the past, led her to be really cranky about the present and pessimistic about the future.

Stein also started writing in Paris. While a leading modernist writer, in the end, her biggest influence on the world was probably as the leading light of the American expat community in postwar Paris than through her own writings, but many were significant. 1909’s Three Lives was her first book and a very popular one. The Making of Americans, written over a long period stretching over a decade, was less well-received. 1912’s Tender Buttons is another key book in her writings.

Her most popular book was 1933’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, a memoir told from her partner’s perspective and very much intended as a money-making exercise, which caused a good bit of controversy within the art community. Thisbrings us to her long-term partner. Stein met Toklas in 1907, on the first day the latter moved to France. Toklas was from a middle-class Jewish family in California They became close immediately. Stein had already realized she was a lesbian while at Johns Hopkins and being in France allowed to her live the life she wanted with much less opprobrium than in the U.S. Toklas moved in with the Steins in 1910 and this began causing great tension and she and Leo Stein did not get along. In fact, Leo moved out in 1914 and they split their famed art collection. In their relationship, Stein was definitely the dominant figure, with Toklas doing much of the cooking and secretarial work and many people remembered her as a distinctly quite background figure. In the aftermath of the book’s success, Stein and Toklas visited the United States. For the former, it was for the first time in 30 years. She was a star, met Eleanor Roosevelt and Charlie Chaplin, and gave lectures around the country, returning to Paris in 1935.

Unfortunately, Stein’s politics, outside of her support for feminism, were pretty awful. She hated FDR and the New Deal and repeatedly criticized what had happened to the United States. Much worse, even though Jewish, she maintained her freedom in Nazi-occupied France because she was so favorable to Vichy France. They moved to their country house and maintained their friendship with leading French rightists who had ties to the Gestapo. She had already publicly praised Franco during the Spanish Civil War and supported the American racial color line. She loved Marshall Petain and praised his policies repeatedly, even though the town she lived in during the war had its Jews deported to Auschwitz while she was in town. Obviously, in Nazi-occupied France, you do what you have to do, but there’s plenty of evidence that she genuinely believed these things. Her defenders have pushed back on this, but it seems a weak case to me.

Immediately after the end of the war, Stein came down with stomach cancer, dying in 1946. Toklas had a hard life after Stein’s death. While Stein left her the art collection, Stein’s family did not recognize the relationship and successfully sued to gain control of her assets so they could sell the art. That left Toklas poor. In 1954, she published a famous cookbook that became known for its recipe for marijuana brownies and in 1963, she published her own autobiography. This helped her a bit, but her last years were rough. She lived to be 89, dying in 1967 in Paris.

Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas are buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, France. Their names are on opposite sides of the tombstone and with the sun affecting my photographs, that’s why they look different at the top of the post. No one said I had any photography ability.

If you would like this series to visit other members of the Paris expat community during the early 20th century, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Hemingway is buried in Ketchum, Idaho and Fitzgerald is in Rockville, Maryland. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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