An Adventure in Paris with Pussy and Lovey: Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein Become Babysitters
A positively pleasing illustrated take on a true story.
By Maria Popova
The fateful first meeting of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas sparked a lifelong romance that lasted not merely until Stein’s death but, as Toklas’s moving memoir suggests, until her own death twenty years later. During their reign as the quintessential Americans in Paris, they became an epicenter of creative culture, around which such rising stars as Picasso, Matisse, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald orbited. In 1954, Toklas captured their extraordinary partnership in The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook — a delicious memoir in disguise, written in a style similar to Stein’s autobiography and peppered with warm recollections of the couple’s life and love.
Although their story is yet to join the finest picture-book biographies of great artists, writers, and scientists, a most delightful fragment of it comes to life in Gertrude and Alice and Fritz and Tom: An Artful Adventure with Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas (public library) by longtime Stein and Toklas collector Hans Gallas. Illustrated by comic artist and New Yorker cartoonist Tom Hachtman, creator of the comic strip Gertrude’s Follies, this marvelous picture book for all ages is loosely based on a chapter from the memoir of Fritz Peters, who went to a boarding school near Paris in the 1920s with his younger brother Tom and did indeed visit with Stein and Toklas one holiday.
The story begins with an affectionate primer on Stein and Toklas and their home in Paris amid “masterful modern paintings that covered the walls, floor to ceiling,” including a “positively pleasing portrait of Gertrude” by the couple’s dear friend Picasso.
Gertrude was a really remarkable writer and sometimes Alice called her “Lovey.”
Alice was a constantly creative cook and sometimes Gertrude called her “Pussy.”
One day, they receive a letter from an American friend asking them to babysit her “beautifully behaved boys, Fritz and Tom,” over Thanksgiving.
“There, there,” said Gertrude, “What to do? What to do? What to do?”
“Lovey,” said Alice, “I’ve heard Fritz and Tom can be a horrible handful. They play pesky pranks at school and are not fond of challenging chores.”
“Horrible handful? Pussy, you mean beastly brats who play pesky pranks and are not fond of challenging chores?
How beastly can the brats be? We have two dogs, Basket and Pépé.
Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”
After some deliberation over Tibetan tea and Alice’s “truly tasty teacakes,” the couple decides to let the boys visit. From the moment they arrive and begin pressing their noses against Stein’s prized art, festive chaos ensues.
After their Thanksgiving feast, appropriately reflective of Toklas’s culinary creativity, the foursome take to the streets of Paris for sightseeing and adventures in Stein’s famous car, Lady Godiva.
Eventually, the boys depart and the couple resumes life as usual.
Then, one morning, Alice discovers a sweet thank-you note from Fritz and Tom tucked behind her favorite teapot and runs to show it to Gertrude, who is enjoying one of her beloved bubble baths.
“Pussy, don’t drop it in the tub,” said Gertrude. “This is one of the nicest notes we have ever received.”
“Lovey, it is positively pleasing, and I think we would make two amusing American aunts,” said Alice B. Toklas.
“Now finish your belated bubble bath, you have some really remarkable writing to do!”
“And you have some constantly creative cooking to do!” said Gertrude Stein.
Complement the altogether positively pleasing Gertrude and Alice and Fritz and Tom with Stein’s loving “word portrait” of Toklas and Toklas’s recollection of the magical moment they first met, then revisit Lisa Congdon’s wonderful illustrated inventory of Stein’s favorite objects.
Published April 30, 2015