Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein and Company

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Avant-garde Paris comes to life in this “meticulous and loving reconstruction of the period” (The New York Times Book Review)

On almost every Saturday of the first half of the twentieth century, Gertrude Stein would open her door to the likes of Picasso and Matisse, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Cocteau and Apollinaire, welcoming them into a salon alive with vivid avant-garde paintings and sparkling intellectual conversation. In Charmed Circle, James R. Mellow has re-created this ...

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Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein and Company

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Overview

Avant-garde Paris comes to life in this “meticulous and loving reconstruction of the period” (The New York Times Book Review)

On almost every Saturday of the first half of the twentieth century, Gertrude Stein would open her door to the likes of Picasso and Matisse, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Cocteau and Apollinaire, welcoming them into a salon alive with vivid avant-garde paintings and sparkling intellectual conversation. In Charmed Circle, James R. Mellow has re-created this fascinating world and the complex woman who dominated it. His engaging narrative illuminates Stein’s writing—now celebrated along with the work of such literary giants as Joyce and Woolf—including her difficult early periods, which adapted cubism and abstraction to the written word. Rich with detail and insight, it conveys both the serene rhythms of daily life with her devoted partner, Alice B. Toklas, and the radical pulse and dramatic upheavals of her exciting era.

Spanning the years from 1903, when Stein first arrived in Paris, to her final days at the end of the Second World War, Charmed Circle is a penetrating and lively account of a writer at the heart of modernity.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A rich and compelling portrait of an extraordinary personage and a mural of the people in her life. She has been given a biographer worthy of her.” —Los Angeles Times

“Entertaining and comprehensive . . . a delightful book.” —The New Yorker

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780380002573
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 1/28/1976
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback

Meet the Author

James R. Mellow was the author of two other highly acclaimed biographies, Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Times, which won the American Book Award for biography in 1983, and Invented Lives: F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, as well as Walker Evans, an unfinished biography that was published posthumously. A regular reviewer for The New York Times, he died in 1997.

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Read an Excerpt

Charmed Circle

BOOK I

27, rue de Fleurus

"You must understand that we lived in an atmosphere of euphoria, youth and enthusiasm that can hardly be imagined today."

—D.-H. KAHNWEILER, My Galleries and Painters

CHAPTER ONE

The Atmosphere of Propaganda

I

A visitor to the studio at 27, rue de Fleurus in the early years of the twentieth century might well have believed he had been admitted to an entirely new form of institution—a ministry of propaganda for modern art. His knock upon the large double door that was secured by the only Yale lock in Paris's sixth arrondissement would have brought his hostess, a stout, impressive woman in her thirties, a woman with an imperturbable expression, a pair of frankly curious brown eyes, and a remarkable air of self-possession. Her customary response, if the visitor was not a familiar member of her circle of friends and acquaintances, would be a lax "De la part de qui venez-vous?" delivered in a contralto voice, the French tinged with a refined American accent.

Because anyone was admitted to the weekly at homes at the rue de Fleurus, the question was a mere formality. As likely as not, however, the guest might be forced to stammer, "But by yours, Madame." For Gertrude Stein, the hostess of these Saturday evenings, which combined excited talk with an extraordinary glimpse of the most outrageous modern paintings, was frequently in the habit of meeting interesting people, inviting them to her home—and promptly forgetting that she had.

The Yale lock was not for security. Although the whitewashed walls of the studio room were lined with paintings from eye level to the high ceiling—lined, tier upon tier, with stunning Cézanne oils and watercolors, with the brilliant smears of Matisse's Fauve landscapes, with the somber, brooding nudes and acrobats of Picasso's Blue and Rose Period paintings—the pictures had not acquired the astronomical values they were to have in later years. The Yale lock was a concession to Gertrude Stein's ingrained American sense of convenience. She found French keys a nuisance—too large and bothersome. The small key to her Yale lock could be dropped conveniently into her purse when she left the atelier for her usual afternoon walks. Or, it could be slipped into her pocket when she stepped out of the pavillon—the adjacent two-story apartment where she lived with her brother Leo—to open the studio doors for their arriving Saturday-evening guests.

The paintings were the principal attraction of the Steins' at homes. In the decade before World War I, few places in Paris could provide a similar glimpse of such modern audacities. For their services in exposing modern art to a continuous stream of international visitors—eager young German students, visiting Swedes and Hungarians, wealthy American tourists—the Steins could easily have claimed the distinction of having instituted the first museum of modern art. Within a few years of their arrival in the French capital, they had put together an astounding collection of everything the tradition-bound Parisian art world considered outrageous and revolutionary—and, more often than not, hoaxes of the most deliberate kind. Among the French it was considered sport to visit the Steins at least once, just to see the incredible trash the two gullible Americans had hung on their walls.

Moreover, the Steins themselves were an attraction. Open-minded, hospitable, they were both inveterate and enthusiastic talkers. Leo Stein discoursed on any subject from Picasso's painting style to the latest theories on diet, bringing to his discussion an amazing fund of odd information and queer observations. Gertrude, in those early years beginning to take herself seriously as a writer, was content to leave the aesthetic discussions to her brother Leo. She nonetheless admitted that argument was the very air she breathed. Among the assembled guests and, usually, at the center of a heated discussion, Leo cut an odd figure. He was taller and thinner than Gertrude, and his sharp profile, his straggly reddish beard and slightly balding head gave him a rabbinical appearance. He was a man of intense and antic gestures; in the middle of a conversation he would suddenly sit down and rest his feet on a bookcase, several inches above the level of his head, explaining that this was necessary for his cranky digestion.

Gertrude was formidable in appearance. On Saturday evenings her ample body was usually encased in a loose-fitting hostess gown. She looked monumental; the rounded, firm volumes of her head, her massivebody seemed as if carved from stone. Even those who disliked her were struck by Gertrude's impressive bearing. Seated in one of the high-backed Renaissance chairs in the studio, her legs tucked under her Buddha-like, she gave the impression of an irresistible force disguised as an immovable object.

Dressed in brother-and-sister outfits of practical brown corduroy and wearing comfortable but unconventional sandals, the Steins were familiar figures on the streets of Paris and in the city's art galleries. On many occasions, they could be found in the tiny bric-a-brac shop where Mademoiselle Berthe Weill showed young and undiscovered artists, or in the little gallery on the rue Lafitte run by the ex-clown Clovis Sagot. More often they could be seen in another rue Lafitte establishment, picking their way through the disorderly stacks of canvases in the gallery run by the wily and unctuous Ambroise Vollard. Vollard, it was rumored, kept his better things hidden away in back rooms, waiting for prices to rise—among them a superb cache of Cézanne paintings he had been shrewd enough to acquire before the artist died. If one found a painting and took it to him to ask the price, the dealer was apt to put on a look of surprise, then baldly state that he had sold that picture just last month but had been unable to find it—meanwhile hurrying the canvas out of sight.

But Vollard sold regularly to the Steins, whom he professed to like. The Steins, he maintained, were less disposed to haggle over the price of a picture than were his richer clients. And the Steins paid promptly. As Vollard once confided to Leo, the rich paid only when they happened to think about it; their thoughts mostly ran to other matters. Among the patrons of the Parisian cafés, the Steins were considered to be wealthy American eccentrics. Leo, in fact, was referred to as an American Maecenas. But boulevard appraisals carried little weight with Vollard. He made it his business to know the precise financial situations of his customers. He had learned that the Steins' modest but comfortable income from San Francisco properties did not place them in the same category as his millionaire clients, such as the H. O. Have-meyers and Charles Loeser, who also bought Cézannes. But Vollard maintained that he liked dealing with Leo and his sister. They were the only clients, he said, who bought pictures "not because they were rich, but despite the fact that they weren't."

Gertrude and Leo Stein were not the only members of the family addicted to modern art. Their elder brother Michael and his wife, Sarah, were avid collectors, too. The Michael Steins maintained an apartment on the nearby rue Madame, having moved there from San Francisco with their young son Allan shortly after Leo and Gertrude had settled in Paris in 1903. Its walls were also studded with modern paintings, most of them handsome early works by Matisse. Michael Stein—a paunchy, dapper man with fastidiously trimmed mustache andbeard—was the conservative, business-minded member of the family. With hard work and the shrewd sale of his father's railroad interests, Michael had turned the family holdings to sufficient account to endow each member with a comfortable income. It was Michael who kept a watchful eye on Gertrude and Leo's joint finances, cautioning them about their overdrawn accounts, advising fiscal responsibility. But it was Michael who advanced the necessary sums when Leo and Gertrude found themselves lacking the funds to buy a particularly tempting pair of Gauguins. His wife, Sarah—Sally to her friends—was a sweet, motherly-looking woman. An aspiring artist, she was one of the first and most dedicated students in the painting classes that Matisse conducted early in his career.

Disgruntled conservative artists whose works never entered the Stein collections referred to the family as the "Stein Corporation," as if it were an aesthetic cartel. Among such artists there was speculation as to whether the Steins bought their peculiar paintings because they liked them or whether they liked them because they had bought them. So familiar was the association of the Steins with everything radical in Parisian art that French art critics—horrified by the so-called infantile smears of Matisse's paintings and casting about for explanations-claimed that such work was clearly intended only for gullible and benighted Americans. The French, quite obviously, were not to be taken in by the crude hoaxes hanging on the walls of an upstart American salon.

 

 

The marvel was that the studio room at 27, rue de Fleurus—large by ordinary domestic standards but small for such a public function—should have held so many paintings, so many people. The Steins had set about collecting so industriously that the three available walls of the studio—the fourth was cut by the double door and oddly shaped windows that let in the northern light—were crammed with pictures hung row above row. In the dim and fluttering gaslight, only the lower ranges of art were clearly visible. Visitors had to shade their eyes from the glare of the low-hanging fixtures in order to pierce the gloom in which many of the pictures hung tantalizingly above.

But, even at the lower levels, there was enough to take in. Closely packed along one wall were a row of Cézanne watercolors, their exacting brushstrokes sketching out woodland glades and the rising fronts of austere mountains. Above them the brilliant fireworks of Matisse's Fauve pictures jostled Picasso's sober green-and-tan Spanish landscapes —pictures that carried in them the first hints of Cubist rectitude. A huge Picasso of a nude youth leading a horse, a painting from the artist's Rose Period, crowned the space above a cumbersome Henri IVbuffet. Across the room the Picasso's scale was more than matched by Matisse's pastorale Joy of Life, a landscape idyll of frenziedly dancing figures and entwined nudes. On another wall a nude by Felix Vallotton —an attempt by a lesser man to recapture the shock of Manet's famous Olympia—sprawled out clinically on a crisp white sheet. Her quixotic expression and relaxed arm seemed to call attention to the small, precious Maurice Denis of a nursing mother and child hanging directly below it.

The pictures seemed like a seraglio—viewed in the modern manner. Nudes proliferated everywhere: in the awkward nakedness of Cézanne's Bathers, in the amiable roughhousing of Renoir's plump and gamboling females, in a Bonnard girl lying in suggestive exhaustion on a rumpled bed. There was Picasso's nude nymphet, wise beyond her years, holding a basket of flowers. It was this frankness of subject matter, this unembarrassed display of the Steins' sensual tastes, as much as the audacity of the painting styles that produced the expected shock for visitors who had come to be astounded.

The room was a jumble of furniture as well, crowding guests into a sense of intimacy. A long, sturdy Florentine table surrounded by Renaissance chairs was drawn close to the cast-iron stove at the back of the room. There were sideboards and buffets and bulky chests and little tables settled along walls and in corners. Each supported its full weight of accumulated objects: bronze Buddhas and fragments of bas-reliefs, a plaster head by Picasso, a coy modern Venus by Elie Nadelman, Matisse's early bronze The Slave. There were cheap porcelain figurines, costly Renaissance plates, tiny alabaster urns with alabaster doves balancing at the rims—objects Gertrude bought when she visited curio shops. Leaning against the walls were large portfolios of Japanese prints and Picasso drawings.

In time, the art burst out of the confines of this public room and was given refuge in the adjacent pavilion. There, Picasso and Matisse drawings were tacked to the double doors that led to the cramped dining room. In the dining room itself there were no pictures. The walls were lined with Gertrude and Leo's collection of books: college texts, books on psychology, philosophy, and history (Leo's amorphous territory); assorted volumes of English and American writers—cheap and expensive editions alike of Shakespeare, Trollope, and the English poets (Gertrude's special interest). But there were other spaces in the pavilion that could accommodate the overflow of their expanding art collection. Paintings that could not sustain their impact amid the exacting standards of the studio were transferred to Leo's small ground-floor study, which came to be known as the salon des refusés. Or they were lodged in the second-floor bedrooms. In one of these, Gertrude hung on the ceiling above her bed the testimonial of her enduring friendship with Picasso, the painter's little Homage to Gertrude—a picture atonce intimate and extravagant in its pleasures, the canvas crowded with big-breasted angels accompanying a woman modestly bearing a plate of fruit.

II

If there had been such a thing as an international conspiracy to promote modern art in the early years of this century, 27, rue de Fleurus would have been close to the heart of it. "The place was charged with the atmosphere of propaganda," Leo remembered. The Steins, however, did not have sole custody of the modern movement. Many of the guests who crowded their Saturday evenings had come to the new art on their own. But the Steins had so placed themselves at the center of the network of journalists, publicists, advocates, and collectors who were spreading the gospel of modernism that, sooner or later, anyone interested in modern art would find his way to the rue de Fleurus. There he could assure himself of the continuing vitality of Matisse's and Picasso's stylistic ventures, and catch up with the latest cultural gossip.

Among the guests at 27, rue de Fleurus, there was an improbable mixture of types and nationalities: impoverished art students and wealthy collectors, ardent Swedish followers of the moderne, gregarious Americans looking for fun, irritating Germans who wanted to be shown things that had been placed out of reach. It did not escape Gertrude's attention that there was an unusually constant flow of Hungarians. She accounted for it as best she could. "It happened," she said, "that some hungarian had once been brought and the word had spread from him throughout all Hungary, any village where there was a young man who had ambitions heard of 27 rue de Fleurus and then he lived but to get there and a great many did get there ... , all sizes and shapes, all degrees of wealth and poverty, some very charming, some simply rough and every now and then a very beautiful young peasant."

Inevitably, the tourists came because it was the thing to do when one was in Paris. A few went away converted, spreading the gospel of modernism among the heathen, sending fresh troops for later visits. Others came to scoff at the pictures, barely able to conceal their laughter before the doors closed behind them. Some came purposely to bait the artists. For on Saturday evenings, the perpetrators of these crimes against the traditions of art were on display themselves.

As special friends of the Steins, artists such as Matisse and Picasso were invited to supper beforehand on Saturday evenings. The meals were substantial if not lavish, consisting of roasts and simple fare prepared by the Steins' Norman bonne à toute faire, the stolid Hélène,who took pride in running the household on eight francs a day. Following the meal, the guests adjourned to the studio for the long evening, which began at nine and lasted into the small hours of the morning. There, Leo would hold forth inexhaustibly, surrounded by the curious and the incredulous, haranguing his guests in defense of modern art. Installed in one of the uncomfortable Renaissance chairs, Gertrude would occasionally press her hands down firmly on the arms, lifting her enormous bulk to greet a new visitor. Sometimes she could be heard replying with a firm, "Not just now. Perhaps later," when some guest asked to see a portfolio of Picasso drawings that had just been put away.

On a typical Saturday night, one might meet Matisse and find him eminently respectable-looking. With his gold-rimmed spectacles and carefully groomed reddish beard, dressed in a proper business suit, he was the very image of a staid academic, belying the impression created by his savage paintings. This tame appearance sometimes disturbed the painter himself. "I am always being taken for a solemn professor," he once complained, "but at heart, I am really quite gay." Beside him would be his wife, Amélie—another mark of his apparent conservatism; for amongst Matisse's bohemian colleagues, wives were the exception and mistresses frequently subject to change.

Madame Matisse provided her husband with a very creditable air. She was the personification of the bourgeois wife; a diligent and dutiful companion, a resourceful cook and housekeeper. She was, in other words, the admirable but somewhat plain wife of a man who had an appreciative eye for exotic-looking women. In order to supplement the meager family finances, Amélie Matisse had opened a small millinery shop—the inspiration, perhaps, for her husband's penchant for dressing his voluptuous and frequently nude young models in extravagant hats. Furthermore, she had elected to raise Matisse's daughter, his child by a previous, unsanctified liaison. During the years of hardship, when they were obliged to send their sons, Jean and Pierre, to live with grandparents, Madame Matisse had kept the older Marguerite—or Margot, as she was called—by her side, as solicitous of her welfare as if she had been her own child. There was about Madame Matisse something that Gertrude definitely liked, a way she had of pinning on her hat—inserting the long, lethal hatpin with deft authority—that Gertrude found fascinating. Matisse, as a gesture of friendship, made a drawing of his wife in this typical act and presented it to Gertrude.

At Matisse's side, on these Saturday evenings, there were sure to be one or two of his Fauve colleagues—Henri Manguin, perhaps, or the sullen André Derain, whose first meeting with Gertrude had resulted in a mutual though civil dislike. In the early years, the Fauve years, Georges Braque would also be in Matisse's company. Braque, puffing on his pipe, was distinctly noticeable in the crowd, for he loomed head and shoulders above his shorter colleagues. In the frequent rearrangementsto which the Steins subjected their art collection, Braque good-naturedly held up the pictures while Gertrude and Leo stood back to assess the general effect.

Often Matisse would bring his great Russian patron, the millionaire textile importer Sergei Shchukine, to the Steins'. Shchukine was a small, impulsive man with a slight oriental cast to his eyes, a feature that Matisse pointedly emphasized when he sketched his benefactor. He was an avid collector of modern French painting and on a liberal scale that the Steins could seldom afford. Tiers of Gauguins and Cézannes hung in the dining room of his palatial home in Moscow. An entire room was set aside for the paintings of Matisse. Splendid Fauve landscapes and exotic studies like the Spanish Dancer and Interior with Spanish Shawls competed with ornate wall coverings and the rococo embellishments of his high-ceilinged salon. Shchukine's home might well have been another ministry for the modern movement had it been as accessible as the Stein's Parisian atelier. Even so, it was a principal source of information about the School of Paris for the rising generation of Russia's vanguard artists.

Matisse not only brought his patron to see the Steins but also, with commendable generosity, had introduced him to his then less successful rival, Picasso. It was the beginning of a number of significant purchases of the younger artist's work, including the large Picasso Rose Period picture of a lithe young acrobat balancing on a ball that had first belonged to the Steins. After the Russian Revolution this treasure horde of art was confiscated by the state, and Shchukine was appointed guide to his own collection in his former home.

 

 

At the Steins' the cuadrilla habitually surrounding Picasso was another matter. Black-eyed and frowning, Picasso stood in the midst of his friends like a small bullfighter, protected by his taller "seconds." Picasso's entourage, unlike Matisse's, did not consist of patrons and artist friends. It was more often made up of poets and women. One of these was the statuesque Fernande Olivier, the almond-eyed mistress of his early Parisian years. A superbly decorative female, somewhat indolent by nature but a shrewd observer, Fernande complained that Picasso kept her a near-prisoner in his Montmartre studio. Fernande had initially intended to become a schoolteacher. As a result of a chance encounter, she emerged as the first of the famous mistresses of a famous man. It had come about one sultry afternoon in the battered hulk of a building—dubbed the Bateau Lavoir because of its resemblance to a Seine laundry boat—in which Picasso maintained his studio. Fernande had been standing in one of its several doorways, waiting foran unusually severe cloudburst to stop, when the painter paused to pass the time of day. Before she knew what was happening, Picasso—a persuasive but agreeable spider—had whisked her off to the depths of his studio and the pleasures of his generally unmade bed.

In her memoir of her early years with the artist, Picasso and His Friends, Fernande noted that Picasso was invariably ill at ease at social gatherings like the Steins' Saturday evenings. His French at the time was hesitant and awkward; he knew no English. Unlike Matisse, he disliked talking shop with the transients of the salon. Most of the time he retreated, silent and glum, behind the security provided by friends such as the poets Max Jacob and Guillaume Apollinaire, who customarily went with him to the rue de Fleurus.

Jacob was a short, vivacious little man with a habitually droll expression. It was a quality that did not change significantly after he had a vision of Christ one day—October 7, 1909, to be exact—as he was entering his shabby quarters on the rue Ravignan. Following a second vision—this time while walking down the aisle of a movie house—he was converted from his unpracticed Jewish faith to Catholicism, a convert for whom Picasso served as godfather. Chronically poor, his usual luxury consisted of bouquets of flowers for his room. On one wall he had tacked an enigmatic message, Ne jamais aller à Montparnasse. Whether the injunction was strictly poetic or geographical is not quite clear. Certainly he went often to the Parisian Montparnasse—though not to court the muses. At the Steins', Jacob was invariably lively and witty, breaking out into extemporaneous performances of operas and plays, performing the female roles in a coy falsetto. With Fernande he loved to play the vieux marquis, kissing her hand with studied abandon, an act accompanied by a full repertory of lascivious smirks and leers. It may well have been the success of Max's little farces that goaded Leo Stein into an impromptu, fluttering rendition of the Dance of the Dying Swan that sent his audience into gales of laughter.

The most formidable member of Picasso's entourage was the poet, journalist, and man-about-town, Guillaume Apollinaire. Of uncertain parentage—among his friends it was rumored that the poet was the illegitimate son of at least a cardinal and perhaps a pope—he had led an extraordinary career. He edited everything from financial journals to physical-culture magazines. For several years he worked as the general editor of a series of pornographic books, the Editions Briffaut, providing appreciative introductions to the scatalogical masterpieces of the past. It was Apollinaire, in fact, who resurrected the Marquis de Sade from the bowels of the Bibliothèque Nationale, producing the first anthology of the author's works in 1909 and prophesying a new future for the old pornographer. When he was in need of money, Apollinaire contributed several original and racy novels of his own to the genre.

Florid in complexion, jut-jawed and with a regal profile, Apollinaire cut an extraordinary figure in the Parisian art world. Picasso made innumerable sketches and caricatures of him wearing everything from a papal crown and wristwatch (an allusion to his supposed parentage and his role as critic among the Montmartre artists) to nothing at all as an exemplar of the heroic physique. Expansive and convivial as a personality, Apollinaire was, however, notoriously close with a penny. "He could often be tender and sympathetic to the point of tears," Fernande observed. "I don't remember that he ever responded favorably to a request for a loan. I can hardly think of any friends he helped, whilst nobody ever asked Max for help in vain; he always gave what he had." Apollinaire's little apartment on the rue Henner was a model of neatness. He had a particular fetish about the bed. No one was allowed to put a coat on it, much less sit there. The slightest crease or hollow caused Apollinaire to frown. One of his mistresses, a friend of Fernande's, told her that they never made love anywhere but in an armchair; the poet's bed "was sacred."

At the time that he frequented the Steins', Apollinaire's mistress was the painter Marie Laurencin, a woman with seemingly chaste Clouet-like features and poor eyesight—a disability that gave her an expression of aloofness. At the Steins' they made a striking pair: Apollinaire, robust and voluble, delivering intricate and racy stories about his experiences of the day, Marie, slender and silent, peering nearsightedly at the pictures through her lorgnette. So unusual was their appearance together, the gentle painter Le Douanier Rousseau—one of Apollinaire's critical enthusiasms and a sometime guest at the Steins'—twice painted them in stiff and straightforward poses as "The Muse Inspiring the Poet." In both versions Marie Laurencin looks like a large, indisputable mother who has just finished reprimanding her child.

Probably in emulation of the Rousseau portraits, begun in 1908, Marie Laurencin painted her lover as well. Her group portrait, in a sweetly primitive vein, included Apollinaire and herself, Picasso and Fernande and Picasso's large, white, lamblike dog, a lazy creature that cluttered up the artist's studio and which he was obliged to pick up and move out of the way like a piece of furniture. Gertrude was so impressed with Marie's painting that she bought it. It was the first picture Marie had sold, and she remained grateful for Gertrude's gesture even when they were no longer on friendly terms.

For Apollinaire, Marie painted a larger and more elaborate picture in the same vein, Reunion in the Country, adding to the original quartet portraits of Gertrude, the poet Maurice Cremnitz and a now-unidentifiable woman. A blonde angel, garlanded with fruits, presided over this unusual gathering. The painting remained in Apollinaire's collection until his death. By then, the idyllic pastorale had become a tendersouvenir of a love affair that was over and a commemoration of the bohemian way of life that ended with World War I.

 

 

In the decade before the war, the Stein salon was not limited to the celebrities of Parisian bohemia. It was at once democratic and congenial, an international meeting ground buzzing with transcontinental gossip. For Americans it was a kind of cultural halfway house between the European vanguard and the merest beginnings of the avant-garde in the United States. There was always a contingent of Americans, including Alfred Maurer, Max Weber, Patrick Henry Bruce, Morgan Russell, and Marsden Hartley, who were in regular attendance at the Steins' Saturday evenings. Gertrude entertained them, befriended them, and watched over their careers with absorbed interest. She was, for example, extremely fond of Maurer, a small, dapper man with an eye for the ladies. But she felt that as an artist Maurer was doomed to be a "follower" throughout his life—a judgment that was not altogether incorrect. It was "Alfy," Gertrude recalled, who, in the early years of her salon, held up a lighted match to the edge of a Cézanne portrait to assure his bewildered countrymen that the picture was, indeed, "finished," because it was framed. It was also Alfy, who, one summer in Fiesole, standing on a terrace overlooking the Arno valley, exclaimed, "There should be ten thousand houris there." Gertrude laughed. "But surely, Alfy, ten thousand are a great many." "Not for me," Maurer said.

Occasionally at the rue de Fleurus there were visits from royalty and the haut-monde. The Infanta Eulalia of Spain was brought by an American journalist and writer, Alice Woods Ullman. Her highness, more accustomed to Bouchers and Fragonards, had wanted to see the Steins' much-talked-of Matisses. Confronted by the dark passageway and the darker courtyard, however, she had turned back in fright. The Spanish-American War had not faded from her mind, and she had to be convinced that it was not, after all, an American ambush in which some outrage would be committed on her person. Once inside the studio, she was reassured by the people but unenlightened by the art. As Mrs. Ullman wrote Gertrude the following day: "HRH finds you are delightful, all of you, but your pictures 'horrors!'"

That aristocratic American painter, Mary Cassatt, friend of the Impressionists, was more uncompromising. In 1908 Miss Cassatt, who, like Gertrude, had been born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, and lived in France, had been taken to a Saturday evening at the rue de Fleurus by an American hostess, Mrs. Montgomery Sears. Circling about the room with regal stiffness, inspecting the people, inspecting the pictures, shepromptly returned to her friend and said sharply, "I have never in my life seen so many dreadful paintings in one place; I have never seen so many dreadful people gathered together and I want to be taken home at once." Fortunately Mrs. Sears had told her chauffeur to wait.

There was also the Marquise de S——.

At a tea party at the Ritz, people had talked of nothing but the Steins' Picassos and Matisses, and since the Marquise had not yet seen them, she had missed one of the events of the season. She had been told that Vollard was friendly with the Steins and asked if he could arrange an introduction. Vollard informed her that no introduction was needed. The Steins were very hospitable, and they received every Saturday evening.

Alas, the Marquise was leaving for Rome before Saturday. She was, however, a great friend of the Italian ambassador to France. Might not the Italian ambassador speak to his friend, the American ambassador, who in turn might speak to the Steins?

Vollard, playing the game to the hilt, informed the Marquise that it would be of little use: "I know that people have tried these arrangements between ambassadors before, but without success."

Nothing would do, then, but that the Marquise delay her trip to Rome. On the following Saturday evening, she was accompanied to the rue de Fleurus by Vollard himself. But as the dealer shrewdly observed: "People who came there out of snobbery soon felt a sort of discomfort at being allowed so much liberty in another man's house, and did not come again."

III

People who met Gertrude Stein for the first time were usually impressed with her remarkable head; the broad, smoothly modeled brow, the full, straight nose, the deep-set, candid, and sometimes mischievous eyes, a mouth that was generous but uncompromisingly straight. Some likened it to the head of a Roman emperor—but carved from American granite. Others were charmed by the lightness and suavity of her voice, by the irresistible fullness of her laughter. It was a laugh, one of her friends remarked, "like a beefsteak"—juicy and solid. Another thought it was like the fire kept banked in the studio's cast-iron stove. A sudden burst of inspiration could fan it into a roaring blaze, spreading a genial warmth.

She had a passion for acquaintanceship—"Give me new faces new faces," one of her lines intoned—but a limited capacity for untroubled friendship. Except for several durable relationships, her friendshipswere like her collection of bric-a-brac: delicate objects, curiosities that took her fancy, souvenirs from her travels or the gifts of her fame. They were seldom priceless; they were not intended to display a cultivated taste; they were replaceable. She had no patience for protecting them, for putting them out of danger. They had to withstand the lively traffic of her salon. The care and dusting of them—and the dusting off, one might add—were left to others. Frequently, through carelessness or inadvertence, the more fragile were broken and had to be discarded. She would be sorry or annoyed—but usually discovered that the pleasure of a new friendship could console her for the loss of the old.

Her reactions to most things—a new painting, a new face—were intense. Meeting someone for the first time, she had a disconcerting habit of fixing her eyes sharply on the visitor and asking a barrage of questions: Where was he from? How old was he? What did he do? What was his parentage? In later years, to the dismay of friends, she had refined the technique to the simple, "What is your blood?" For those who recalled that a "science" of the blood had led directly to the gas ovens at Auschwitz, the effect was sometimes chilling. The spectacle of human nature amazed and absorbed her. As the hostess of an international salon for the better part of her life, she watched those variable and interesting dramas—liaisons, marriages, ruptures, divorces, reconciliations—enacted many times. As a writer she was fortunate in having the human comedy played out in her living room.

One of the remarkable features of her career was its resiliency. Out of curiosity, plain affection, and an extremely shrewd understanding of how to conduct a career in the modern world, Gertrude cultivated the young in every generation. At the beginning of the century, she promoted the vanguard artists of Paris; in the twenties, she took on young writers, journalists, publicists, and the editors of the little magazines that had, as she was fond of quoting, "died to make verse free"; in the thirties, she sought out a new crop of admirers by lecturing college and prep-school students during a much-publicized American tour; in the forties, she adopted, wholesale, the American GIs of World War II—thus providing herself with a perennial audience. It was a splendid strategy.

Ridiculed, lampooned, and seldom published during much of her lifetime—and then often at her own expense—she nevertheless made a place for herself in American literature; if not at the head of the line, where she felt she properly belonged, at least in the front rank of her generation.

 

 

There were, to be sure, those who took an immediate dislike to her, who remembered only a monumental ego. Agnes Ernst, an ambitiousyoung reporter for the New York Sun when she first met Gertrude, later the wife of Eugene Meyer, owner of the Washington Post, had an especially hostile reaction. In her memoir, Out of These Roots, Mrs. Meyer maintained that Gertrude "was and remained, in my opinion, a humbug who lived when I first knew her in 1909, on what she could assimilate from Leo, and later, on what like a busy magpie she could glean from other artists and intellectuals among the avant-garde thinkers in Paris." Mrs. Meyer admitted, however, that Gertrude had aroused immediate "antipathy" in her: "It is no doubt one of my limitations that I have always distrusted masculine women, and found their self-assertion distasteful. Gertrude Stein also offended my aesthetic sense, for in her middle thirties, she was a heavy woman who seemed to squat rather than sit, her solid mass enveloped in a monklike habit of brown corduroy."

Mrs. Meyer was much more appreciative of Leo, who, when he chose, could be distinctly charming and even flirtatious. "Most of the visitors to the Stein apartment in 1909," she recalled, "paid little attention to Gertrude. The center of attraction was Leo's brilliant conversation on modern French art." Leo, she contended, "was the only one of the many contemporary art critics I have known, not excepting Berenson, Roger Fry and Meier-Graefe, who achieved complete integrity in his relationship to aesthetic values."

There were those, too, who took both Steins with a grain of salt. The American painter Maurice Sterne, who knew Gertrude and Leo from summers in Italy and their years in Paris, was a frequent guest at the rue de Fleurus. A handsome young man, conservative in his artistic tastes, Sterne was distinctly liberal, even somewhat callous, about matters of the heart. Among his early conquests, he could count the exotic Russian actress Alia Nazimova. A note of condescension creeps into his description of Leo Stein. Although Leo, Sterne noted, "was very attractive both to women and to men, his female friends were never of the pretty, feminine type. They were intellectuals with fine minds and dull bodies and they were awed by Leo's keen intellect." But Leo was, he felt, "the undisputed ruler of the Stein clan. Gertrude had no taste or judgment in the visual arts; at best she was a reflection of her brother." Sterne's judgment may be accurate enough about Gertrude's role during the initial stages of their collection, but it hardly accounts for her acceptance and promotion of Picasso, whom Sterne tended to regard as a charlatan. He was prepared to admit, however, that Gertrude had an understanding of literature. He recalled, in particular, a walk they had taken together in Italy. He had asked her why she had never thought of becoming a critic, since she "spoke so intelligently about writing."

"It's funny that you should say that," Gertrude told him. "As a matter of fact, I did, long ago, but I found that analysis is not in my line.I'll leave that to Leo—he loves to chew the cud. I want to do something more vital than write about the writings of others."

About Leo's aesthetic judgments, Sterne was suspicious as well. He had accompanied Leo to the spring Salon des Indépendants in 1906, the year that Matisse had entered the Joy of Life. Sterne disliked the picture on sight. He thought the color crude, the drawing poor. He was inclined to agree with the visitors who stood laughing in front of the picture. Leo was hesitant about evaluating Matisse's important painting. He said he would have to study it further. Such caution irritated Sterne; with pictures, as with love affairs, he made up his mind right away. When, two weeks later, Leo announced that he thought Matisse's painting was "superb" and that he intended to buy it, Sterne exploded: "It took you a hell of a long time to make such an astounding discovery!"

Leo reminded him tartly. "It took you much longer to see Cézanne."

If Sterne's views of Gertrude and Leo reflected his artistic prejudices and his own formidable ego, they nonetheless suggest the frankness, the give-and-take, that existed among the regulars of the Stein circle. Moreover, Sterne was not one of those intimates of the Steins who later felt obliged to take sides for or against either Gertrude or Leo. In his memoir, Shadow and Light, he dealt with them both even-handedly and with impartial malice. One of his remarks carried a beautifully honed cutting edge. At the time he first knew them, Sterne observed, Gertrude and Leo Stein gave the impression of being "the happiest couple on the Left Bank."

Copyright © 1974 by James R. Mellow

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