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The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas [NOOK Book]

Overview

Selected by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best nonfiction books of all time

'I always wanted to be historical,' Gertrude Stein once quipped. In 1932, Stein began writing the 'autobiography' of her longtime friend and companion, Alice B. Toklas. The book, an immediate bestseller, guaranteed them both a place in history. An account of their life together in Paris before, during, and after World War I, it is full of the atmosphere of the ...
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The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

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Overview

Selected by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best nonfiction books of all time

'I always wanted to be historical,' Gertrude Stein once quipped. In 1932, Stein began writing the 'autobiography' of her longtime friend and companion, Alice B. Toklas. The book, an immediate bestseller, guaranteed them both a place in history. An account of their life together in Paris before, during, and after World War I, it is full of the atmosphere of the changing life of the city and of idiosyncratic glimpses of such figures as Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Cocteau, Apollinaire, Pound, Eliot, Hemingway, and other luminaries and aspirants who were their close friends. But at the center of the narrative there is always the titanic figure of Gertrude Stein, the self-proclaimed 'first-class genius' who some dismissed as the 'Mother Goose of Montparnasse,' presiding over her celebrated residence-salon-art gallery at 27, rue de Fleurus. William Troy remarked about her: 'It is not flippant to say that if she had not come to exist . . . it would be necessary to invent Miss Gertrude Stein.'

Full of lucid and shapely anecdotes.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Largely to amuse herself, [ Gertrude Stein ] wrote The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in 1932...using as a sounding board her companion Miss Toklas, who had been with her for twenty-five years. It has been said that the writing takes on very much Miss Toklas' conversational style, and while this is true the style is still a variant of Miss Stein's conversation style. ...She usually insisted that writing is an entirely different thing from talking, and it is part of the miracle of this little scheme of objectification that she could by way of imitating Miss Toklas put in writing something of her own beautiful conversation. So that, aside from making a real present of her past, she created a figure of herself, established an identity a twin, a Doppelganger.... The book is full of the most lucid and shapely anecdotes, told in a purer and more closely fitting prose... than even Gide or Hemingway have ever commanded .... "

— Donald Sutherland

"... The record of nearly thirty years of life in a fantastically changing Paris and else where — a life passed in the most stimulating and important society."

— Louis Bromfield

"... One of the richest, wittiest, and most irreverent [biographies] ever written."

— William Troy

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679641957
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/1/2000
  • Series: Modern Library 100 Best Nonfiction Books
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 217,034
  • File size: 456 KB

Meet the Author

Gertrude Stein was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania--a fact she took perverse pleasure in--on February 3, 1874, into a family as vividly unconventional as one might expect of such a free spirit. Her grandparents were German-Jewish immigrants who had prospered in the United States; her parents, beguiled by art, languages, and educational theory, whisked the young Gertrude off to Europe (first to Vienna, then to Paris) as soon as it was safe for an infant to travel. As Stein later wrote: 'So I was five years old when we came back to America having known Austrian German and French French, and now American English, a nice world if there is enough of it, and more or less there always is.' The family's return to the United States was soon marked by yet another exotic migration: they crossed the country by train to settle in Oakland, California.

Although she received a spotty education as a child, Gertrude read voraciously. In the fall of 1893 she followed her brother Leo to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she enrolled in Radcliffe College. English instructors complained of her wayward syntax and made her rewrite papers, but she developed an abiding interest in psychology and became an outstanding pupil of William James, who persuaded her to go on to study medicine at Johns Hopkins. Yet she abandoned medical school in her senior year, claiming she 'could not remember the things that of course the dullest medical student could not forget.' In 1903 she joined her brother in Paris and took up residence in a ground floor flat at 27 rue de Fleurus.
'It was not what France gave you but what it did not take away from you that was important,' Stein later remarked by way of explaining her forty-three-year residence in Paris. Perhaps the most celebrated expatriate of her time, she officiated over a famous salon in the sixth arrondissement that became a mecca for virtually all writers and artists participating in the dawn of modernism in Europe. There she sat like a great Jewish Buddha surrounded by the paintings of Matisse, Picasso, and Braque, while the artists themselves settled at her feet. Likewise, she enjoyed literary friendships with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and other writers who flocked to Paris between the two world wars&mdashand whom she dubbed the 'Lost Generation.'

Stein's own single-minded commitment to forging new forms in literature, as well as her emphasis on the color, sound, and rhythm of words, earned her a unique place in the world of letters. She produced idiosyncratic and experimental poems, plays, 'word-portraits,' and novels-- including Three Lives (1909), Tender Buttons (1915), and The making of Americans (1925)--which admirers hailed as innovations in the use of language. Her famous line- 'A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose'--was endlessly quoted, misquoted, and even ridiculed, yet it kept the name and image of the plump, cropped-hair author firmly before the public. 'My little sentences have gotten under their skins,' she boasted. But of course it was the publication in 1933 of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which F. W. Dupee calls 'one of the best memoirs in American literature,' that forever consolidated her fame.

Stein and Toklas were spending the summer at their country residence near Bilignin in the Rhone valley when World War II broke out in September 1939. They made a hasty overnight trip to Paris to see what could be done about protecting their paintings and then returned to the country 'to await developments.' The two did not leave the region again until the end of 1944, and in her journal, Wars I Have Seen (1945), Stein offered a vivid, moving account of daily life in France during the years of German occupation. With the liberation, she returned to Paris and was grateful to find her valuable art collection had not been vandalized or stolen. Soon American GIs flocked to her apartment on the rue Christine, where she and Toklas had moved before the war. While on vacation in 1946 Stein became seriously ill and was advised to see a specialist immediately; within days she entered the American Hospital at Neuilly to undergo surgery. Gertrude Stein died firmly in character on July 27, 1946, having delivered from her hospital bed a final illustration of her searching wit. 'What is the answer?' she inquired of Alice, and getting no answer said, laughing, 'In that case, what is the question?'
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Read an Excerpt

1

BEFORE I CAME TO PARIS

I was born in San Francisco, California. I have in consequence always preferred living in a temperate climate but it is difficult, on the continent of Europe or even in America, to find a temperate climate and live in it. My mother's father was a pioneer, he came to California in '49, he married my grandmother who was very fond of music. She was a pupil of Clara Schumann's father. My mother was a quiet charming woman named Emilie.

My father came of polish patriotic stock. His granduncle raised a regiment for Napoleon and was its colonel. His father left his mother just after their marriage, to fight at the barricades in Paris, but his wife having cut off his supplies, he soon returned and led the life of a conservative well to do land owner.

I myself have had no liking for violence and have always enjoyed pleasures of needlework and gardening. I am fond of paintings, furniture, tapestry, houses and flowers and even vegetables and fruit-trees. I like a view but I like to sit with my back turned to it.

I led in my childhood and youth the gently bred existence of my class and kind. I had some intellectual adventures at this period but very quiet ones. When I was about nineteen years of age I was a great admirer of Henry James. I felt that The Awkward Age would make a very remarkable play and I wrote to Henry James suggesting that I dramatise it. I had from him a delightful letter on the subject and then, when I felt my inadequacy, rather blushed for myself and did not keep the letter. Perhaps at that time I did not feel that I was justified in preserving it, at any rate it no longer exists.

Up to my twentieth year I was seriously interested in music. I studied and practised assiduously but shortly then it seemed futile, my mother had died and there was no unconquerable sadness, but there was no real interest that led me on. In the story Ada in Geography and Plays Gertrude Stein has given a very good description of me as I was at that time.

From then on for about six years I was well occupied. I led a pleasant life, I had many friends, much amusement many interests, my life was reasonably full and I enjoyed it but I was not very ardent in it. This brings me to the San Francisco fire which had as a consequence that the elder brother of Gertrude Stein and his wife came back from Paris to San Francisco and this led to a complete change in my life.

I was at this time living with my father and brother. My father was a quiet man who took things quietly, although he felt them deeply. The first terrible morning of the San Francisco fire I woke him and told him, the city has been rocked by an earthquake and is now on fire. That will give us a black eye in the East, he replied turning and going to sleep again. I remember that once when my brother and a comrade had gone horse-back riding, one of the horses returned riderless to the hotel, the mother of the other boy began to make a terrible scene. Be calm madam, said my father, perhaps it is my son who has been killed. One of his axioms I always remember, if you must do a thing do it graciously. He also told me that a hostess should never apologise for any failure in her household arrangements, if there is a hostess there is insofar as there is a hostess no failure.

As I was saying we were all living comfortably together and there had been in my mind no active desire or thought of change. The disturbance of the routine of our lives by the fire followed by the coming of Gertrude Stein's older brother and his wife made the difference.

Mrs. Stein brought with her three little Matisse paintings, the first modern things to cross the Atlantic. I made her acquaintance at this time of general upset and she showed them to me, she also told me many stories of her life in Paris. Gradually I told my father that perhaps I would leave San Francisco. He was not disturbed by this, after all there was at that time a great deal of going and coming and there were many friends of mine going. Within a year I also had gone and I had come to Paris. There I went to see Mrs. Stein who had in the meantime returned to Paris, and there at her house I met Gertrude Stein. I was impressed by the coral brooch she wore and by her voice. I may say that only three times in my life have I met a genius and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken, and I may say in each case it was before there was any general recognition of the quality of genius in them. The three geniuses of whom I wish to speak are Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and Alfred Whitehead. I have met many important people, I have met several great people but I have only known three first class geniuses and in each case on sight within me something rang. In no one of the three cases have I been mistaken. In this way my new full life began.

2

MY ARRIVAL IN PARIS


This was the year 1907. Gertrude Stein was just seeing through the press Three Lives which she was having privately printed, and she was deep in The Making of Americans, her thousand page book. Picasso had just finished his portrait of her which nobody at that time liked except the painter and the painted and which is now so famous, and he had just begun his strange complicated picture of three women, Matisse had just finished his Bonheur de Vivre, his first big composition which gave him the name of fauve or a zoo. It was the moment Max Jacob has since called the heroic age of cubism. I remember not long ago hearing Picasso and Gertrude Stein talking about various things that had happened at that time, one of them said but all that could not have happened in that one year, oh said the other, my dear you forget we were young then and we did a great deal in a year.
Then are a great many things to tell of what was happening then and what had happened before, which led up to then, but now I must describe what I saw when I came.

The home at 27 rue de Fleurus consisted then as it does now of a tiny pavillon of two stories with four small rooms, a kitchen and bath, and a very large atelier adjoining. Now the atelier is attached to the pavillon by a tiny hall passage added in 1914 but at that time the atelier had its own entrance, one rang the bell of the pavillon or knocked at the door of the atelier, and a great many people did both, but more knocked at the atelier. I was privileged to do both. I had been invited to dine on Saturday evening which was the evening when everybody came, and indeed everybody did come. I went to dinner. The dinner was cooked by Helene. I must tell a little about Helene.

Helene had already been two years with Gertrude Stein and her brother. She was one of those admirable bonnes in other words excellent maids of all work, good cooks thoroughly occupied with the welfare of their employers and of themselves, firmly convinced that everything purchasable was far too dear. Oh but it is dear, was her answer to any question. She wasted nothing and carried on the household at the regular rate of eight francs a day. She even wanted to include guests at that price, it was her pride, but of course that was difficult since she for the honour of her house as well as to satisfy her employers always had to give every one enough to eat. She was a most excellent cook and she made a very good soufflé. In those days most of the guests were living more or less precariously, no one starved, some one always helped but still most of them did not live in abundance. It was Braque who said about four years later when they were all beginning to be known, with a sigh and a smile, how life has changed we all now have cooks who can make a souffle.

Helene had her opinions, she did not for instance like Matisse. She said a frenchman should not stay unexpectedly to a meal particularly if he asked the servant beforehand what there was for dinner. She said foreigners had a perfect right to do these things but not a frenchman and Matisse had once done it. So when Miss Stein said to her, Monsieur Matisse is staying for dinner this evening, she would say, in that case I will not make an omelette but fry the eggs. It takes the same number of eggs and the same amount of butter but it shows less respect, and he will understand.

Helene stayed with the household until the end of 1913. Then her husband, by that time she had married and had a little boy, insisted that she work for others no longer. To her great regret she left and later she always said that life at home was never as amusing as it had been at the rue de Fleurus. Much later, only about three years ago, she came back for a year, she and her husband had fallen on bad times and her boy had died. She was as cheery as ever and enormously interested. She said isn't it extraordinary, all those people whom I knew when they were nobody are now always mentioned in the newspapers, and the other night over the radio they mentioned the name of Monsieur Picasso. Why they even speak in the newspapers of Monsieur Braque, who used to hold up the big pictures to hang because he was the strongest, while the janitor drove the nails, and they are putting into the Louvre, just imagine it, into the Louvre, a picture by that little poor Monsieur Rousseau, who was so timid he did not even have courage enough to knock at the door. She was terribly interested in seeing Monsieur Picasso and his wife and child and cooked her very best dinner for him, but how he has changed, she said, well, said she, I suppose that is natural but then he has a lovely son. We thought that really Helene had come back to give the young generation the once over. She had in a way but she was not interested in them. She said they made no impression on her which made them all very sad because the legend of her was well known to all Paris. After a year things were going better again, her husband was earning more money, and she once more remains at home. But to come back to 1907.

Before I tell about the guests I must tell what I saw. As I said being invited to dinner I rang the bell of the little pavillon and was taken into the tiny hall and then into the small dining room lined with books. On the only free space, the doors, were tacked up a few drawings by Picasso and Matisse. As the other guests had not yet come Miss Stein took me into the atelier. It often rained in Paris and it was always difficult to go from the little pavillon to the atelier door in the rain in evening clothes, but you were not to mind such things as the hosts and most of the guests did not. We went into the atelier which opened with a yale key the only yale key in the quarter at that time, and this was not so much for safety, because in those days the pictures had no value, but because the key was small and could go into a purse instead of being enormous as french keys were. Against the walls were several pieces of large italian renaissance furniture and in the middle of the room was a big renaissance table, on it a lovely inkstand, and at one end of it note-books neatly arranged, the kind of note-books french children use, with pictures of earthquakes and explorations on the outside of them. And on all the walls right up to the ceiling were pictures. At one end of the room was a big cast iron stove that Helene came in and filled with a rattle, and in one corner of the room was a large table on which were horseshoe nails and pebbles and little pipe cigarette holders which one looked at curiously but did not touch, but which turned out later to be accumulations from the pockets of Picasso and Gertrude Stein. But to return to the pictures. The pictures were so strange that one quite instinctively looked at anything rather than at them just at first. I have refreshed my memory by looking at some snap shots taken inside the atelier at that time. The chairs in the room were also all italian renaissance, not very comfortable for short-legged people and one got the habit of sitting on one's legs. Miss Stein sat near the stove in a lovely high-backed one and she peacefully let her legs hang, which was a matter of habit, and when any one of the many visitors came to ask her a question she lifted herself up out of this chair and usually replied in french, not just now. This usually referred to something they wished to see, drawings which were put away, some german had once spilled ink on one, or some other not to be fulfilled desire. But to return to the pictures. As I say they completely covered the whitewashed walls right up to the top of the very high ceiling. The room was lit at this time by high gas fixtures. This was the second stage. They had just been put in. Before that there had only been lamps, and a stalwart guest held up the lamp while the others looked. But gas had just been put in and an ingenious american painter named Sayen, to divert his mind from the birth of his first child, was arranging some mechanical contrivance that would light the high fixtures by themselves. The old landlady extremely conservative did not allow electricity in her houses and electricity was not put in until 1914, the old landlady by that time too old to know the difference, her house agent gave permission. But this time I am really going to tell about the pictures.

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 14 of 13 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 27, 2012

    Format is horrible

    Will not buy with the poor formatting of the nook version. Very distracting... if you are interested definitely look at the sample first. Something is amiss with the line spacing and hard returns are embedded.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 13, 2000

    Wow, am I the first?

    I can't believe I'm the first person to write a review for this. It's a classic! Some parts are a little hard to get through, and it's hard to keep some of the characters straight, but keep going! The story of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas's life together is wonderfully written and just an inspiring story.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 27, 2012

    I Also Recommend:

    Gertrude Shines

    "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas" made Gertrude Stein a household name in America in the 1930s, and for good reason. This is Stein at her most accessible and I must highly suggest it for any first-time readers of this literary genius. The book has a light, breezy tone, interesting subject matter (Picasso & various renowned artists pop up throughout), and Stein's trademark intellectual brilliance. The device of using Toklas as an approach to Stein's life is certainly interesting and is responsible for some of the most entertaining passages. And this book is certainly entertaining, thanks to Stein's supreme wit and her clever descriptions of the people she interacts with and situations she finds herself in. I highly recommend this book, especially for those who haven't read Stein before. Her vivacity, wit, intelligence and skill are on display here in an accessible, classic work.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 30, 2000

    A WONDERFUL LITTLE BOOK

    I have never read a book that I truly could not put down. I think that phrase is very much over used. But it definitely applies in this case. Stein is a true master.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 1, 2014

    Amazing

    It amazes me of how she tries to do things other women don't think of.


    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 7, 2012

    Terrible Line Layout

    That's all you need to know

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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