The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

by Gertrude Stein


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Stein's most famous work; one of the richest and most irreverent biographies ever written.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780679724636
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/28/1990
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 222,013
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.99(h) x 0.68(d)
Age Range: 14 - 18 Years

About the Author

Gertrude Stein was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, on February 3, 1874. At Radcliffe College she studied under William James, who remained her lifelong friend, and then went to Johns Hopkins to study medicine. Abandoning her studies, she moved to Paris with her brother Leo in 1903. At 27 rue de Fleurus, Gertrude Stein lived with Alice B. Toklas, who would remain her companion for 40 years. Not only was she an innovator in literature and a supporter of modern poetry and art, she was the friend and mentor of those who visited her at her now-famous home: Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Jean Cocteau, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, and Guillaume Apollinaire. Her body of work include Three LivesTender ButtonsThe Making of Americans, and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

Read an Excerpt



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 twentiethyear 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.



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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Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 21 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
"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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It amazes me of how she tries to do things other women don't think of.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
That's all you need to know
peajayar on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I'm rereading this book as I embark on a project to write a short story in the style of GS, set in New Zealand in the forties and fifties. Madness, probably, and likely doomed to failure. But oh my goodness this is a great book to reread. She had a great understanding of many things, including the way we (people in general) react to new directions in art, or whatever else, as "ugly" and then get used to them and find them beautiful. I also love the way she uses phrases like "little by little," and the word "interesting."Next I'll retry Three Lives and then Baby Precious Always Shines the new volume of her letters and notes to Alice (Kay Turner) Oh yes, I will read them.
tungsten_peerts on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Apparently Stein wrote this for a lark -- it turned out to be her best-known work, and it is well-worth reading for its detailed and terrifically amusing look at early 20th century Paris. Not as revolutionary as her more experimental work, but infinitely easier to snuggle up to.
ValerieAndBooks on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein (originally published in 1933) was my bedside reading for a long, long time¿ with other bedside reading interrupting it now and then. I don¿t feel that my reading of Autobiography suffered from these interruptions. While really written by Gertrude Stein, this is intended to appear as if it was authored by Stein¿s long-time lover/partner Alice Toklas. While I¿m not at all familiar with Toklas¿ writing style, this book is obviously in Stein¿s voice. Being an art-lover, I somewhat enjoyed the constant name-dropping of people they hung out with ¿ Picasso, Matisse and Braque to name a few; and friendships or associations with writers such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Here is a typical passage ¿ very Gertrude Stein: ¿Before I decided to write this book my twenty-five years with Gertrude Stein, I had often said that I would write, The wives of geniuses I have sat with. I have sat with so many. I have sat with wives who were not wives, of geniuses who were not real geniuses. I have sat with real wives of geniuses who were not real geniuses. I have sat with wives of geniuses, of near geniuses, of would be geniuses, in short I have sat very often and very long with many wives and wives of many geniuses¿.Whew. Passages like that made it better for me to appreciate this book in small doses. A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose, anyone? But, then there were observant passages, such as this one:¿Gertrude Stein and Fitzgerald are very peculiar in their relation to each other. Gertrude Stein had been very much impressed by This Side of Paradise. She read it when it came out and before she knew any of the young american writers. She said of it that it was this book that really created for the public the new generation. She has never changed her opinion about this. She thinks this equally true of The Great Gatsby. She thinks Fitzgerald will be read when many of his well known contemporaries are forgotten. Fitzgerald always says that he thinks Gertrude Stein says those things just to annoy him¿¿Note that in the above passage, I quoted it exactly ¿ This Side of Paradise is not italicized, but The Great Gatsby is. Also, for some reason, americans, the french, the italians, and so on were almost never capitalized. I can¿t say whether this book could be completely ¿autobiographical¿ or biographical ¿ somehow it¿s hard for me to imagine Toklas actually teaching Hemingway how to bull-fight, for instance ¿ but it does give a flavor of the Paris full of artistic and literary expatriates in the 1920s and for the several years afterwards. But, it¿s not an easy book to stay with for a long period of time; and like I said, better taken in small doses.
TheBooknerd on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Do not sit down to read this book from start to finish -- grab a passage here and there, call it good. Stein is unarguably a crafty, innovative writer; she is an artist in the truest sense. That doesn't mean, unfortunately, that her work is particularly enjoyable. Take this book, for one. The innovative gimmick of writing your own autobiography through the perspective of another person is a challenging and entertaining twist. But once the novelty wears off, you're still faced with a largely uninteresting story. Unless you have a particular interest in Stein, her contemporaries, or the time period, I doubt this book will have much to offer you.
the_awesome_opossum on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I was so amused by the premise, of Alice B. Toklas being reduced to a minor role in her own autobiography - the Robin to Gertrude's Batman. Could you imagine how the conversations about this book must have gone? Poor AliceGertrude Stein must have been such a character, and she and Alice lived such interesting lives. This book is more or less a role call of everyone important in modernist art and literature; the two women knew everyone and traveled everywhere. That's what this Autobiography is, a loose account of years of parties with artists and authors, with some bits about World War I thrown in for good measure. But it's strangely compelling, a time capsule of the early twentieth century, and fun to read
technodiabla on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I would have rated this book higher but I think many people would find it incredibly boring. I was fascinated by the rambling comings and going in an unconventional household is early 20th century Paris. I love many of the artists Stein hosted and found the unadorned story of their early years really interesting. The WW1 Chapter was actually my favorite; it had a bit more humor and got more into the personality of Stein herself. She sounds brilliant, interesting, and difficult. The last part, when she switched over to hosting young writers-- and saw her own writing start to be appreciated-- was also good. All that jealous bickering among contemporaries. Of course Stein didn't know that the painters and writers reputations would be what they are today, when she wrote the book. Why would people find it boring then? Well, the style is very rambling, almost stream of conscious, with lots of distractions and asides. There's no plot structure at all. It's just a chronological account, told from the viewpoint of Alice. I liked it, and want to follow up with some Hemingway, Ford Maddox Ford and Fitzgerald.
Prop2gether on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This faux autobiography is chockful of descriptions of artists and writers as they traveled through the lives of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Since Gertrude wrote Alice's autobiography, it is full of "observations" by Alice of Gertrude and her friends. It was an interesting read in its full stream of consciousness style which allowed the writer to flow back and forth in time and location and individual event to show how very impressive or unimpressive all these now famous folk were in their early years. Much better reading than some other Stein, but not for those who want their "history" straightforward.
dawnpen on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
We are bitties and we are dogs for art and we push to the side all the wars and all the wives that have taken the places of other wives and we tell the story as if it were a joke to tell a story (which it is) and that is how our home and our dog and our little quilts are sewn.
AlexTheHunn on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is one of Gertrude Stein's readable works. Stein and Toklas knew everybody in pre-World War I Paris. Important literary and artistic figures abound. Aside from the sheer energy of Stein's writing, as a historical glimpse into Bohemian life of the time makes the book essential.
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