Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

Prepare for Saints: Gertrude Stein, Virgil Thomson, and the Mainstreaming of American Modernism

Prepare for Saints: Gertrude Stein, Virgil Thomson, and the Mainstreaming of American Modernism

by Steven Watson

See All Formats & Editions

Perhaps the oddest and most influential collaboration in the history of American modernism was hatched in 1926, when a young Virgil Thomson knocked on Gertrude Stein's door in Paris. Eight years later, their opera Four Saints in Three Acts became a sensation--the longest-running opera in Broadway history to date and the most widely reported cultural event of its time.


Perhaps the oddest and most influential collaboration in the history of American modernism was hatched in 1926, when a young Virgil Thomson knocked on Gertrude Stein's door in Paris. Eight years later, their opera Four Saints in Three Acts became a sensation--the longest-running opera in Broadway history to date and the most widely reported cultural event of its time.
        Four Saints was proclaimed the birth of a new art form, a cellophane fantasy, "cubism on stage." It swept the public imagination, inspiring new art and new language, and defied every convention of what an opera should be. Everything about it was revolution-ary: Stein's abstract text and Thomson's homespun music, the all-black cast, the costumes, and the com-bustible sets. Moving from the Wadsworth Atheneum to Broadway, Four Saints was the first popular modernist production. It brought modernism, with all its flamboyant outrage against convention, into the mainstream.
        This is the story of how that opera came to be. It involves artists, writers, musicians, salon hostesses, and an underwear manufacturer with an appetite for publicity. The opera's success depended on a handful of Harvard-trained men who shaped America's first museums of modern art. The elaborately intertwined lives of the collaborators provide a window onto the pioneering generation that defined modern taste in America in the 1920s and 1930s.
        A brilliant cultural historian with a talent for bringing the past to life, Steven Watson spent ten years researching and writing this book, interviewing many of the collaborators and performers. Prepare for Saints is the first book to describe this pivotal moment in American cultural history. It does so with a spirit and irreverence worthy of its subject.

NOTE: This edition does not include photographs.

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sold by:
Random House
File size:
2 MB

Read an Excerpt

Prepare for Saints

Gertrude Stein, Virgil Thomson, and the Mainstreaming of American Modernism
By Steven Watson

University of California Press

Copyright © 2000 Steven Watson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0520223535

Chapter One

The World of
27, Rue de Fleurus

    On an evening in early January 1926, Virgil Thomson and George Antheil walked south across the Luxembourg Gardens to a quiet, angled street in the Sixth Arrondissement. Passing through a glass-gated entrance, they crossed a courtyard and stopped before the double wooden doors of 27, rue de Fleurus. The address was by this time legendary as the residence of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. As a friend of Thomson's observed, "A summons to her home was an invitation to present oneself to Mont Blanc." Stein had extended an invitation to George Antheil, the younger and better known of the two American composers, who had in turn asked Thomson to accompany him for "intellectual protection." Thomson was the more eager of the two to accept: he had admired Stein's Tender Buttons since his undergraduate days at Harvard. He quoted it in his letters and had recently experimented with setting some of it to music. Although he had never met Stein in person, Thomson already felt an intimacy--and a compatibility--with her words.

    Since the maid was away in the evening, Alice Toklas answered the door herself and directed the two men through book-lined halls and into a tall studio room. A motley assortment of porcelain figures, alabaster urns, and curios and liturgical figures cluttered the tables and floor. At the center of the room stood Stein's solid oak desk, littered with pencils and French school notebooks. Visitors' eyes were drawn to the puce-colored walls, filled with canvases by Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, Gris, and others --what Stein called the "collection of the worthies." When Ernest Hemingway had first entered the room a few years earlier, he had observed, "It was like one of the best rooms in the finest museum except there was a big fireplace and it was warm and comfortable."

    Stein frequently rearranged the paintings, and when one of them ceased to engage her, she relegated it to the back room known as the salon des refuses. No matter how the constellation shifted, Picasso's Portrait of Gertrude Stein always commanded a central position on the wall. The portrait provided visitors with a striking image of their hostess two decades earlier. The young Stein was leaning slightly forward, one hand planted on her thigh. She wore a loose brown robe and, around her neck, a white scarf pinned at the throat by a small coral brooch. Her monumental girth filled the canvas. Flat and masklike, her head seemed transplanted. Her hooded eyes gazed out with imperious intensity.

    Below the painting, seated in a generous, chintz-slipcovered armchair, was Gertrude Stein in the flesh. That flesh was not as ample now as it once had been, but her bearing had retained its papal authority. Alice Toklas sat across from her in a carved, doll-like chair. "I saw two old ladies sitting by the fire," Virgil Thomson recounted to a friend. "They were waiting, and I couldn't help thinking of the line: Will you come into my parlour? said the spider to the fly."

    In the mid-1920s, Stein dressed in corduroy skirts, tweed waistcoats, and embroidered vests. She wore heavy thonged sandals or carpet slippers and her thick brown hair was piled in a coil on her head. One visitor compared the overall impression to "the homely finish of a brown buckram bean-bag." Her conversation was punctuated with a laugh so large that it filled the room. "As it gradually dwindled into chuckles and appreciative murmurs," recalled her young friend the writer Bravig Imbs, "the silence that followed seemed golden with sunlight."

    At that first meeting in 1926, Thomson strategically used his time alone with Stein to impress upon her both his broad knowledge of art and culture and his particular appreciation for her work. He reminisced about World War I and the doughboys, whom Gertrude adored, he spoke about Erik Satie's musical composition Socrate, but he directed his most winning comments to Stein's experimental work Tender Buttons, which he had first encountered in 1919 and soon read aloud to amuse his Harvard classmates. Stein was especially pleased when he mentioned his attempts to set her words to music.

    Thomson was twenty-nine when he met Gertrude Stein. "I still had a baby face in those days," he recalled decades later, "which led to my being thought to be even brighter than I was." His auburn-tinged hair was already thinning, accentuating his high forehead, and his pale blue eyes could seem alternately unprepossessing and piercing. He spoke in full declarative sentences, issuing pronouncements with surprising authority. A newspaper described him as "an elderly cherub, albeit an acerbic one," and W. H. Auden later compared him to an intimidating butler at an English country house. Thomson could show off shamelessly, but there was glee in his knowledge and audacity in his manners, and his aspirations to stylishness balanced his homespun directness. A friend summed Thomson up: "With him there may be pose, but never bunk."

    Stein, who liked to cast her friends as historical figures, soon decided that Thomson resembled his namesake, Virgil, author of the Aeneid and Dante's guide in The Divine Comedy. In both the classical figure and his modern counterpart she saw precision, taste, and a lofty, admirable propensity to associate with the great.

    Alice Toklas remained in the background that evening, smoking cigarettes in an ivory holder. All newcomers passed through Alice; she was known as the "sieve and buckler" and deftly acquired information about each guest's family, connections, and education. She discharged her interrogation with such charm and dispatch (often the whole exchange lasted less than three minutes) that her victims frequently remained unaware of just what was at stake. Despite the elliptical restraint of her vocabulary ("compromise" for "seduce," "impure" for "bisexual," "inadequate" for "dead drunk"), her shrewd evaluations were uncompromising.

    Antheil never again appeared at 27, rue de Fleurus--James Joyce and Ezra Pound's informal sponsorship may have put him irrevocably in the rival camp. The couple's feelings about Thomson were more complicated. Thomson later recalled that "Gertrude and I got on like Harvard men." At the close of the evening, she warmly commanded him, "We'll be seeing each other."

    But they did not. Nor did the two women respond to a postcard that Thomson sent them that summer. Nearly a year would pass before Thomson would visit 27, rue de Fleurus again. The length of that delay suggests the breadth of Alice's purview. Neither her Guerlain tuberose perfume nor her painted, almond-shaped nails could mask her willpower. As Thomson would later advise friends, "Keep your eye on Alice."

* * *

When Virgil Thomson met Gertrude Stein in 1926, they shared a common disappointment at being inadequately appreciated and a determined ambition to alter their state. As Stein later wrote to Thomson, "Neither you nor I have ever had any passion to be rare, we want to be as popular as Gilbert and Sullivan if we can, and perhaps we can." But the two were at opposite points in their professional lives. Thomson was just embarking on his composing career; none of his works had been published or performed, and his name was virtually unknown. Stein had four books to her name, the first published seventeen years earlier. Her name was all too well known and almost invariably ridiculed.

    "The name of Gertrude Stein is better known in NY today than the name of God!" Mabel Dodge exclaimed in 1913, at the time of the Armory Show. A salon hostess and celebrator of modernity, Dodge was partly responsible for that first surge of recognition. Publicizing both Stein and herself, she printed copies of Stein's abstract work "Portrait of Mabel Dodge at the Villa Curonia," in 1912, bound in flamboyant Florentine wallpaper, and circulated them at the Armory and among the trendsetters who attended her influential "Evenings" at 23 Fifth Avenue. For a special Armory Show issue of Arts and Decoration, Dodge wrote a piece that linked Stein's intentions to those of modern artists and provided a vocabulary for understanding Stein's hermetic writing:

In a large studio in Paris, hung with paintings by Renoir, Matisse, and Picasso, Gertrude Stein is doing with words what Picasso is doing with paint. She is impelling language to induce new states of consciousness, and in doing so language becomes with her a creative art rather than a mirror of history.

The first public parodies of Stein's work appeared at the same time, in newspaper columns and in such books as The Cubies' ABC (1913). Dodge had linked Stein's revolutionary language to the Cubists, and her detractors used the connection to ridicule her:

I called the canvas Cow with Cud
And hung it on the line
Altho' to me 'twas vague as mud
'Twas clear to Gertrude Stein.

These extreme and divergent reactions reflected a pattern that would continue for decades, even after her death. Stein's handful of defenders made sweeping claims for her revitalization of American language, while her detractors considered her work quoted verbatim a ready-made parody. As her friend Robert Coates noted, Stein's name became "a tag for anything from 3 A.M. at the Select Bar to Communism." To fans she represented literary freedom and modernity. "She is like yeast, the yeast that makes the bread," Carl Van Vechten said in 1928. "One might perhaps say that her poetic medium is the forerunner of a changed language." But neither the jokes nor the acclaim brought her the readership that she craved.

    An abidingly loyal friend, art critic Henry McBride, described the paradox of Stein's career: "There is a public for you, but no publisher." There were, in fact, several publishers, but they were small and paid little. As her friend Louis Bromfield put it, "Being caviar never interested her." She wanted to be ham on rye, to be listed in Who's Who, to be published between hard covers, and most of all to appear in a large-circulation American magazine such as The Atlantic Monthly.

    Stein herself had financed the publication of two of her books (Three Lives, in 1909, and Geography and Plays, in 1922). A tiny Greenwich Village press called Claire Marie published Tender Buttons in 1914, and Robert McAlmon's Contact Publishing Company brought out her masterwork, The Making of Americans, in 1925, in an edition of five hundred. Shorter pieces appeared on both sides of the Atlantic in the small-circulation avant-garde publications known as "little magazines." While many of these are now regarded as the apex of an inspired period (among them were Camera Work, The Little Review, Broom, Rogue, The Soil, the Transatlantic Review), their readership was small. The only glossy magazine that published her work was Frank Crowninshield's Vanity Fair. Stein's literary reputation was jarringly out of scale with her self-evaluation: she believed, quite simply, that she possessed the most creative literary mind of the century. A month before she died, she summed up her ambition: "I always wanted to be historical, from almost a baby on, I felt that way about it."

    Stein tallied up publishers' rejections in a notebook, itemizing them like an accountant. By the time she met Thomson, the list was long, and the growing pile of unpublished manuscripts filled her large Spanish armoire. Although editors' polite--and sometimes not-so-polite--rejections inspired doubt that her work would ever be appropriately appreciated, Stein never doubted the work itself. To the worst rebuffs she reacted with booming laughter. But her thirst for recognition from conventional quarters is attested to by her persistent volley of submissions to The Atlantic Monthly. Ellery Sedgwick, its editor, outlined the problem of finding an American audience: "Here there is no group literati or illuminati or cognoscenti or illustrissimi of any kind." His subsequent rejections described her work as a picture puzzle to which few had the key. After nearly a decade of submissions the editor threw up his hands: "We live in different worlds." Was it possible to bridge them?

* * *

The delicate equilibrium required to sustain Stein's writing depended on those closest to her. In the early years her older brother Leo had provided it, but when she began to outshine him, he ridiculed her repetitive style. After a decade of living together at 27, rue de Fleurus, he moved out in 1913. "A prophet can support not being honored in his own country when other lands sufficiently acclaim him," he later wrote, "but when the acclamation otherwhere is faint the absence of support at home is painful." For the rest of Stein's life, support was supplied by Alice Toklas. By the time Virgil Thomson entered Stein's life, the partnership was firmly established, the rules well understood, and the daily rhythms irrevocably set--all in service of Stein's writing.

    Stein reported (as Alice) in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas that when the two women met, Alice heard the tolling of an internal bell: "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." Alice's recollection was characteristically less grand but more precise. She remembered Gertrude's childlike, dimpled hands and the sculpted mass of her head. She described her that September afternoon in 1907 as a golden-brown presence in a brown corduroy suit wearing a large round coral brooch from which her voice seemed to issue: "It was unlike anyone else's voice--deep, full, velvety like a great contralto's, like two voices."

    When she arrived in Paris at the age of thirty, Alice was at a dead end. After studying to become a pianist and performing in two recitals, she had given up her music career, and she had no desire to marry. Serving as Gertrude's secretary gave her purpose. She moved into 27, rue de Fleurus in August 1910. When Leo moved out, three years later, Gertrude and Alice jointly exorcised his ghost, selling three Picasso paintings to Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler in order to renovate the apartment. They replaced the gaslights with electricity and built a covered walkway between the studio and their private living quarters in the adjoining pavilion. They replaced Leo's furniture, plastered over the door to his bedroom, and transformed his study into the salon des refuses.

* * *

In her quietly tenacious way, Alice became irreplaceable. At the beginning of the relationship Gertrude took note of the control that fueled Alice's adulation: "She is docile, stupid, but she owns you, you are then hers." Leo Stein, admittedly not a neutral party, described her as "a kind of abnormal vampire who gives more than she takes." Toklas not only governed the regular domestic rhythms that were essential to Stein's creativity but supplied her with intelligent and rarely qualified approval for the results. Sometimes she appended encouraging notes to the manuscript. "Sweet pinky," she wrote in the early years of their relationship. "You made lots of literature last night--didn't you. It is very good." She transformed Stein's loose, slanting, barely legible script into neat typescript and sent off manuscripts to potential publishers. Alice was often described as a "faithful companion," as one might describe a family dog, but this restrained vocabulary cannot capture the emotional and erotic ties between the two women. Nor does it suggest how important Toklas was to Stein's writing industry.

    Often cited as a historical model for lesbians, Stein and Toklas never spoke of their relationship publicly. Although many of their female friends were lesbian, they avoided self-consciously lesbian gatherings such as those of Natalie Clifford Barney. Even after Stein's death, her old friend Etta Cone claimed not to believe that "there was something between Gertrude and Alice." Yet the erotic ties between the women appear in Stein's coded writings, such as "Lifting Belly." On the surface, the relationship reflected a traditional hierarchical model of dominating husband and self-effacing wife. In the sphere of the tea table and of general household management, Alice's authority went unquestioned. She also served as the couple's official memory--it was, Janet Flanner observed, "as exact as a silver engraving"--and despite Gertrude's irritation that Alice was always right, stories were eventually told in her version.

    Using Alice as her mouthpiece (and echoing Flaubert), Stein wrote, "Gertrude Stein says that if you are way ahead with your head you naturally are old fashioned and regular in your daily life." The daily household rhythm began at six, when Alice rose and cleaned the drawing room, to prevent servants from breaking her porcelain figurines. She spent the rest of the day marketing, polishing the furniture, and embroidering handkerchiefs with dime-sized "rose is a rose is a rose" motifs. Stein awoke at nine and spent the morning writing playful letters and reading. After bathing and eating her dietetic lunch, she would drive around Paris in Godiva, the two-seater runabout Ford they bought in 1920, or walk through the tortuous streets of the Left Bank. Her sole job was to write, and by then she had developed the concentration to write, even in Godiva's high front seat, letting the street sounds mix with the verbal rhythms in her head. During these afternoons, when words were poised between spontaneity and development, she would pencil them in schoolchildren's copybooks, called cahiers. "Before you write it must be in your head almost in words," she later told her friend Thornton Wilder, "but if it is already in words in your head, it will come out dead."

    After four, friends would visit for tea or dinner. Since there was no telephone in the house, guests dropped in at prearranged times set in small engagement books or communicated by petits bleus, notes delivered the same day through the Paris post office's system of pneumatic tubes. These social interludes provided Stein respite from her word-filled day and offered her a chance to listen to the gossip and speech patterns of others. Stein retired by one o'clock, a few hours after Alice, only to repeat the same pattern the next day.

* * *

Gertrude Stein is often assumed to have presided over the brightest worlds of the Paris avant-garde--in both the heroic pre-World War I years and the expatriate era of the 1920s. But it is telling to consider the sets to which she and Alice did not belong. They did not consort with the high-bohemian set surrounding Etienne de Beaumont, who staged Les soirees de Paris, or attend the musical soirees organized by the Comtesse de Polignac. They were not part of the hard-drinking card life common among Montparnasse writers and artists. They rarely attended Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, nor visited the stylish cafe Le Boeuf sur le Toit, where Jean Cocteau's circle gathered. After Sylvia Beach chose to publish James Joyce, they abandoned Shakespeare and Company. They actively avoided Ezra Pound and had little to do with either the Surrealists or the group of composers known as Les Six.

    Since Stein rarely ventured out to meet the movers and shakers of the avant-garde, guests frequently came to her. The regular visitors at 27, rue de Fleurus included only a few women, most of them lesbian (the Duchesse de Clermont-Tonnerre, Janet Flanner, Mildred Aldrich, Janet Scudder). But the preponderance were young men; Stein would later describe the late 1920s as "the period of being twenty-six." Some were writers (Glenway Wescott, Robert Coates, Bravig Imbs, Rene Crevel, Max Ewing, and later Paul Bowles and Charles Henri Ford); some were painters (Pavel Tchelitchew, Christian Berard); many were expatriates, from the United States and Russia; and most were homosexual.

    In addition to Alice's little cakes and colored liqueurs and Gertrude's earthy humor, the habitues sought her informal sponsorship. Stein's imprimatur did not confer chic, as did Jean Cocteau's; nor did it spell immediate publication in little magazines, as did Ezra Pound's; nor did she offer financial support, as did Etienne de Beaumont. But Stein's approval mattered. She reaped some of the credit that belonged to her brother for discovering modern artists, and her continuing friendship with Picasso provided celebrity by association. Since she represented the extreme pole of literary abstraction, her work and opinions seemed to point the way toward the next stage of modernism. She used her power to single out for praise such writers as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Henri Ford, Parker Tyler, and Robert Coates; and artists Pavel Tchelitchew, Eugene Berman, Christian Berard, and, most enduringly, Francis Rose. With the exception of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, none of these have entered the canon.

    What attracted Stein to these young men? As Picasso observed with characteristic modesty, her new discoveries could never rank with the pre- war discoveries of Picasso, Matisse, and Gris. Publisher and writer Robert McAlmon concurred, "She accepts too readily the adulation of people that a person of healthy self-confidence would dismiss at once as parasites, bores, or gigolos and pimps." Protective distance was built into Stein's relationships with her proteges. She was less competitive with artists and composers, and preferred writers at the very beginning of their careers. "A virgin page is such fun," she remarked to a World War I doughboy. "One does like to know young men even though as soon as that they are not any longer young," she wrote. "As soon as one really knows them they are not any longer young."

    The threat of a protege becoming a peer is reflected in her relationship with Ernest Hemingway. When they met in February 1922, he was twenty-two and she forty-eight, and she was a grand dame. Their relationship soon accelerated beyond that of mentor and protege. Stein became the godmother of Hemingway's first child, and he became her admiring reviewer ("the most first rate intelligence employed in writing today"), and he proofread the galleys for the early installments of a projected serial publication of The Making of Americans in the Transatlantic Review. He also recalled, perhaps factitiously, a mutual sexual attraction between them. When the element of competition was added--Hemingway curried literary friendships with Joyce and Pound and garnered excited attention in print and in gossip--their relationship finally unraveled, just as Thomson came into her orbit. His entrance evoked a ditty that Stein and Toklas liked: "Give me new faces new faces new faces I have seen the old ones."


Excerpted from Prepare for Saints by Steven Watson Copyright © 2000 by Steven Watson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Steven Watson is a cultural historian of the American avant-garde. He is the author of The Harlem Renaissance, The Birth of the Beat Generation, and Strange Bedfellows: The First American Avant-Garde.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews