Brain Pickings

How One of Literature’s Greatest Loves Began: The Fateful Meeting of Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein

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“She had remarkable eyes, very large and lively, the kind that seem to send off sparks, that sometimes look glowing with an inner fire.”

Alice B. Toklas, born on April 30, 1877, is remembered for two things: being Gertrude Stein’s great love and writing her unusual, revered memoir-disguised-as-cookbook chronicling their life together. On September 8, 1907, her first day as an American expat in Paris, Toklas met Stein. The two fell instantly in love and remained together for the next 39 years, until Stein’s death. Stein often referred to Toklas as her “wifey” and addressed her as “baby precious.” Writing late into the night, the author liked to leave notes next to the pillow for Alice to find in the morning, signed “Y.D,” short for “Your Darling.” In an ideal, civilized world of human rights and equality, theirs would have been a marriage — and it would have been one of the happiest and most exemplary in literary history.

In her memoir, What Is Remembered (public library), Alice relays the fateful encounter, conveying with admirably few words the immense, intense mesmerism of their relationship:

It was Gertrude Stein who held my complete attention, as she did for all the many years I knew her. I knew her until her death, and all these empty ones since then. She was a golden brown presence, burned by the Tuscan sun and with a golden glint in her warm brown hair. She was dressed in a warm brown corduroy suit. She wore a large round coral brooch and when she talked, very little, or laughed, a good deal, I thought her voice came from this brooch. It was unlike anyone else’s voice — deep, full, velvety, like a great contralto’s, like two voices.

In the foreword to the Folio illustrated edition of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, M. F. K. Fisher paints an expressive portrait of Toklas, which seems to begin rather ungenerous but quickly turns lovable, bewitching even:

Her face was sallow, her nose was big or even huge, and hooked and at the same time almost fleshy, the kind that artists try not to draw. And she had a real moustache, not the kind that old women often grow, but the sturdy kind, which started when she was first going into adolescence. I don’t think she ever tried to shave it, or have it plucked out or removed chemically or with hormones, as a woman might do today. She wore it unblinkingly, as far as I can tell, although of course as a person of unusual awareness she must have known that some people were taken aback by it. A friend of mine who admired her greatly, and often traveled with her in her last years, wrote that Miss Toklas wore her close-cropped hair, which stayed black well into her eighties, in bangs “faintly echoed by a dark down on her lip.” This amuses me. It is typical of the general reaction to something that would have been unnoticed except for her obvious femaleness. Another friend said more aptly, or at least better for my own picture, that her strong black moustache made other faces look nude.

She had remarkable eyes, very large and lively, the kind that seem to send off sparks, that sometimes look glowing with an inner fire. Probably people who were intimidated at first by her fixed upon them with relief … that is, until they forgot their shyness in the deft, supple way she moved and talked.

She was a tiny person, not five feet tall, I think, and she dressed with a studied daintiness, except for the clunky sandals on her pretty feet. … She loved dramatic hats, and after Miss Stein’s death she wore them oftener in rare gaddings … big extravagant creations with feathers and wide brims, and always the elegant suits and those clunky sandals. Nobody has ever written, though, that she looked eccentric. Perhaps it was because of her eyes. . . .

Slim and simply worded yet incredibly moving, What Is Remembered endures as a projection of Toklas herself, one that stays with you long after the lights have gone out.

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