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Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice

Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice

5.0 3
by Janet Malcolm

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"How had the pair of elderly Jewish lesbians survived the Nazis?” Janet Malcolm asks at the beginning of this extraordinary work of literary biography and investigative journalism. The pair, of course, is Gertrude Stein, the modernist master “whose charm was as conspicuous as her fatness” and “thin, plain, tense, sour” Alice B. Toklas,


"How had the pair of elderly Jewish lesbians survived the Nazis?” Janet Malcolm asks at the beginning of this extraordinary work of literary biography and investigative journalism. The pair, of course, is Gertrude Stein, the modernist master “whose charm was as conspicuous as her fatness” and “thin, plain, tense, sour” Alice B. Toklas, the “worker bee” who ministered to Stein’s needs throughout their forty-year expatriate “marriage.” As Malcolm pursues the truth of the couple’s charmed life in a village in Vichy France, her subject becomes the larger question of biographical truth. “The instability of human knowledge is one of our few certainties,” she writes. 

The portrait of the legendary couple that emerges from this work is unexpectedly charged. The two world wars Stein and Toklas  lived through together are paralleled by the private war that went on between them. This war, as Malcolm learned, sometimes flared into bitter combat.

Two Lives is also a work of literary criticism. “Even the most hermetic of [Stein’s] writings are works of submerged autobiography,” Malcolm writes. “The key of  'I' will not unlock the door to their meaning—you need a crowbar for that—but will sometimes admit you to a kind of anteroom of suggestion.” Whether unpacking the accessible Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, in which Stein “solves the koan of autobiography,” or wrestling with The Making of Americans, a masterwork of “magisterial disorder,” Malcolm is stunningly perceptive.

Praise for the author:

“[Janet Malcolm] is among the most intellectually provocative of authors . . .able to turn epiphanies of perception into explosions of insight.”—David Lehman, Boston Globe

“Not since Virginia Woolf has anyone thought so trenchantly about the strange art of biography.”—Christopher Benfey

Editorial Reviews

Boston Globe

“Janet Malcolm is a crusading writer and a consummately elegant one. “—Richard Eder, Boston Globe

— Richard Eder

London Review of Books

“Even as Malcolm reports—drolly—on the intrigue-filled world of Stein-Toklas scholarship, . . . she also provides a canny assessment of Stein’s personality and achievement, the relationship with Toklas, and a telling if melancholy parable of the biographer’s art.”—Terry Castle, London Review of Books

— Terry Castle

Jewish Exponent

"Two Lives discloses a great deal about its subjects in a remarkably compact space, and does so via a lovely sort of Steinian circumlocution. . . . Splendidly entertaining and informative."—Robert Leiter, Jewish Exponent

— Robert Leiter

Boston Globe - Richard Eder

“Janet Malcolm is a crusading writer and a consummately elegant one. “—Richard Eder, Boston Globe

London Review of Books - Terry Castle

“Even as Malcolm reports—drolly—on the intrigue-filled world of Stein-Toklas scholarship, . . . she also provides a canny assessment of Stein’s personality and achievement, the relationship with Toklas, and a telling if melancholy parable of the biographer’s art.”—Terry Castle, London Review of Books

Jewish Exponent - Robert Leiter

"Two Lives discloses a great deal about its subjects in a remarkably compact space, and does so via a lovely sort of Steinian circumlocution. . . . Splendidly entertaining and informative."—Robert Leiter, Jewish Exponent

Katie Roiphe
Malcolm's writing in Two Lives is brilliant, penetrating and playful. There is in her cleverest, most arcane intellectual analysis a grace, a lightness of touch, that one rarely finds in a work of scholarship…A journalist of the highest order, Malcolm approaches her subjects with a rare combination of qualities—a respect for the unknowable, the mysterious, at the center of lives, combined with a serious effort to get closer to the truth. Her conclusions are at once authoritative and skeptical…Here in this slender, elegant book is much wisdom, not only about Stein and Toklas and their peculiar menage, but also about the creation of personal mythologies in general. If Two Lives has a weakness, it is that one wishes, at the end, for more.
—The New York Times
Meryle Secrest
In Two Lives, Malcolm offers not so much a joint biography as a meditation on literature and morality, built around the disquieting fact that Stein and Toklas, both Jewish, remained in Europe throughout World War II without either hiding or being swept up in the Holocaust…In lucid and elegant prose, Malcolm charts the course of this dilemma with its feints and starts, its sudden shifts of mood and the rationalizations that went into a horrendously wrong choice. Miraculously, the ladies stayed out of danger, but it was a close thing.
—The Washington Post
Library Journal

Malcolm (The Journalist and the Murderer) presents a masterful glimpse into the lives of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, whose 40-year relationship is one of the most intriguing of the 20th century. Rather than attempting to include as many details as possible, Malcolm wisely chooses to illuminate the truth of several perplexing questions as thoroughly as any biographer possibly could. The result is a remarkably readable, honest, intelligent, and insightful book in which she reveals some ugly truths about the man who protected Stein and Toklas during World War II and shares her struggles to comprehend Stein's most enigmatic work, The Making of Americans. Several other Stein scholars disclose their frustrations with Leon Katz, the Columbia doctoral student who in the 1950s discovered Stein's notebooks on the novel and interviewed Toklas extensively. Despite the potential of Katz's work to change the course of Stein scholarship, he has yet to publish it. Malcolm's attempt to interview the elderly Katz ends in failure, and the secrets of the notebooks and the results of the Toklas interviews remain largely untold. Preserving something of the mystery is perhaps exactly what Stein would have wanted. Highly recommended for academic and larger libraries.
—Anthony Pucci

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.25(w) x 7.75(h) x (d)

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Yale University Press
Copyright © 2007 Janet Malcolm
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-12551-1

Chapter One
When I read The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book for the first time, Eisenhower was in the White House and Liz Taylor had taken Eddie Fisher away from Debbie Reynolds. The book, published in 1954, was given to me by a fellow member of a group of pretentious young persons I ran around with, who had nothing but amused contempt for middlebrow American culture, and whose revolt against the conformity of the time largely took the form of patronizing a furniture store called Design Research and of writing mannered letters to each other modeled on the mannered letters of certain famous literary homosexuals, not then known as such. The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book fit right in with our program of callow preciousness; we loved its waspishly magisterial tone, its hauteur and malice. "The French never add Tabasco, ketchup or Worcestershire sauce, nor do they eat any of the innumerable kinds of pickles, nor do they accompany a meat course with radishes, olives or salted nuts," Toklas wrote, as if preparing a manifesto for us. Her de haut en bas footnote pointing out that "a marinade is a bath of wine, herbs, oil, vegetables, vinegars and so on, in which fish or meat destined for particular dishes repose for specified periods and acquire virtue" filled us with ecstasy.

The Cook Book itself sits in a kind of bath of reminiscence about Toklas's life with Gertrude Stein, from which its own literary virtue derives. More than a cookbook and memoir, it could almost be called a work of literary modernism, a sort of pendant to Stein's tour de force The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, published in 1933. The similarity of tone of the two books only deepens the mystery of who influenced whom. Was Stein imitating Toklas when she wrote in Toklas's voice in the Autobiography, or did she invent the voice, and did Toklas then imitate Stein's invention when she wrote the Cook Book? It is impossible to say.

Leafing through my copy of the Cook Book, the evidence of ancient food stains leads me to the recipes I actually cooked, and there are not many of them. Most of Toklas's recipes were and remain too elaborate or too strange to attempt (I did make-loving its perversity-her Gigot de la Clinique, which involved taking a large hypodermic needle and injecting a leg of lamb twice daily for a week with orange juice as it sat in the obligatory marinade of wine and herbs). Underlinings and marginal comments also highlight the passages-such as those quoted above-whose tart snottiness gave me special delight in the fifties. But there is one chapter whose pages bear no gravy stains or underlinings and whose bare cleanness makes it look almost unread. It is entitled "Food in the Bugey during the Occupation," and in it Toklas writes of the years of the Nazi occupation, which she and Stein spent in an area of provincial eastern France called the Bugey-first in a handsome old house near the town of Belley, and then in another old house in nearby Culoz. When I had occasion to read this chapter again, I was struck by its evasiveness, no less than by its painfully forced gaiety. How had the pair of elderly Jewish lesbians escaped the Nazis? Why had they stayed in France instead of returning to the safety of the United States? Why did Toklas omit any mention of her and Stein's Jewishness (never mind lesbianism)? Well, in the fifties one did not go out of one's way to mention one's Jewishness. Gentlemanly anti-Semitism was still a fact of American life. The fate of Europe's Jews was known, but the magnitude of the catastrophe had not registered; the term "Holocaust" was not yet in use. In 1954, Toklas's evasions went as unremarked as her recipes for A Restricted Veal Loaf and Swimming Crawfish went uncooked. Today, the evasions seem egregious, though hardly incomprehensible. What we now know about Stein's and Toklas's war makes it easy to see why the complex actuality of their situation and conduct found no place in The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book. "As if a cookbook has anything to do with writing," Toklas says of her enterprise at the book's end. Or with complexity, she might have added.

In August 1924, while driving to the French Riviera to visit Picasso, Stein and Toklas veered over to the Bugey and spent a night in Belley at a hotel called the Pernollet, which had been recommended to them for its good food. The food turned out to be mediocre, but they liked the hotel and the countryside so well that they stayed on-wiring Picasso that they would be delayed a week, and finally never making it to the Riviera at all. Stein and Toklas returned to the Pernollet summer after summer (eating elsewhere) and presently began looking for a place of their own in the region. They were prepared to buy, build, or rent, but could find nothing that suited. Then one day, across a valley, they saw "the house of our dreams," as Gertrude Stein writes in the Autobiography, and continues:

Go and ask the farmer there whose house that is, Gertrude Stein said to me. I said, nonsense it is an important house and it is occupied. Go and ask him, she said. Very reluctantly I did. He said, well yes, perhaps it is for rent, it belongs to a little girl, all her people are dead and I think there is a lieutenant of the regiment stationed in Belley living there now, but I understand they were to leave. You might go and see the agent of the property. We did, He was a kindly old farmer who always told us allez doucement, go slowly. We did. We had the promise of the house, which we never saw any nearer than across the valley, as soon as the lieutenant should leave. Finally three years ago the lieutenant went to Morocco and we took the house still only having seen it from across the valley and we have liked it always more. Stein wrote The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in the fall of 1932 in a kind of paroxysm of desire for the fame and money that had so far eluded her. Since her youth, she had wanted "gloire," as her friend Mabel Weeks reported, but her experimental writings had not brought it. Finally, at the age of fifty-eight, she decided to (so to speak) prostitute herself and write a book in regular English that would be a best seller. That it actually became one may be a measure of the genius Stein claims for herself throughout the book. What kind of a genius she was is hard to pin down. She had trained to become a medical doctor, specializing in psychology, and only after dropping out of the Johns Hopkins medical school in her last year, in 1901, did she begin to think of writing as her conduit to glory. Her apprentice work was conventional and unpromising, rather stilted. After she settled in Paris, in 1903, however, as if her muse were finally roused by the Old World's more bracing air, she began to produce the writings for which she is known-stories, novels, and poems that are like no stories, novels, or poems ever written but seem to be saturated with some sort of elixir of originality. In the trio of stories Three Lives, written in 1905, and the novel The Making of Americans, begun in 1903 and completed in 1911, Stein is still writing in regular, if singular English, but by 1912 she had started producing work in a language of her own, one that uses English words but in no other way resembles English as it is known. "Not to be wrapped and then to forget undertaking, the credit and then the resting of that interval, the pressing of the sounding when there is no trinket is not altering, there can be pleasing classing clothing," she writes in "Portrait of Mabel Dodge atVilla Curonia" (1912), an early foray into this language. (The ostensible subject of the portrait-a rich American adventuress who had entertained Stein and Toklas at her Italian villa-was so taken with the piece that she had it privately printed and bound in Florentine wallpaper, and handed it out to visitors at her Fifth Avenue apartment.) Two years later, in "Tender Buttons," inspired by Cubist still-lifes, Stein raises the stakes:

A BOX Out of kindness comes redness and out of rudeness comes rapid same question, out of an eye comes research, out of selection comes painful cattle. So then the order is that a white way of being round is something suggesting a pin and is it disappointing, it is not, it is so rudimentary to be analyzed and see a fine substance strangely, it is so earnest to have a green point not to red but to point again. APPLE Apple plum, carpet steak, seed clam, colored wine, calm seen, cold cream, best shake, potato, potato and no no gold work with pet, a green seen is called bake and change sweet is bready, a little piece a little piece please. A little piece please. Cane again to the presupposed and ready eucalyptus tree, count out sherry and ripe plates and little corners of a kind of ham. This is use. ORANGE

Why is a feel oyster an egg stir. Why is it orange centre. A show at tick and loosen loosen it so to speak sat. It was an extra leaker with a see spoon, it was an extra licker with a see spoon.

In a piece entitled "An Acquaintance with Description," written in 1926, the wordplay achieves a graphic dimension:

Let it be when it is mine to be sure let it be when it is mine when it is mine let it be to be sure when it is mine to be sure let it be let it be let it be to be sure let it be to be sure when it is mine to be sure let it to be sure when it is mine let it be to be sure let it be to be sure to be sure let it be to be sure let it be to be sure to be sure let it be to be sure let it be to be sure let it be to be sure let it be mine to be sure let it be to be sure to be mine to be sure to be mine to be sure to be mine let it be to be mine let it be to be sure to be mine to be sure let it be to be mine let it be to be sure let it be to be sure to be sure let it be sure mine to be sure let it be mine to let it be to be sure to let it be it to be sure mine to be sure let it be mine to let it be to be sure to let it be mine when to be sure when to be sure to let it to be sure to be mine.

The unflagging inventiveness of Stein's language experiments, and the consistent authority of her tone, brought her ever greater renown in the world of the avant-garde. But this wasn't enough for her-she wanted to conquer the large outer world as well.

With The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas she not only achieved the vulgar celebrity she craved but brilliantly solved the koan of autobiography by disclaiming responsibility for the one being written. Speaking in the voice of her companion, Gertrude Stein can entirely dispense with the fiction of humility that the conventional autobiographer must at every moment struggle to maintain. "I must say that only three times in my life have I met a genius," Stein has Toklas say of their first meeting, "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."

Stein's playful egomania pervades the book ("she realizes that in English literature in her time she is the only one"), as does an optimism that gives the story of her life the character of a fairy tale. Nothing bad ever happens to her; every difficulty is overcome as if by magic. While a student at Radcliffe in the late 1890s, faced with an examination in William James's philosophy course for which she has not studied, Stein writes on the examination paper: "Dear Professor James, I am so sorry but really I do not feel a bit like an examination paper in philosophy today," and leaves the examination room. The next day she receives a postcard from James: "Dear Miss Stein, I understand perfectly how you feel. I often feel like that myself"-and he gives her the highest grade in the course. Her whole life is like that. Picasso is going to paint her portrait but after eighty or ninety sittings, he says, "I can't see you any longer when I look," irritably paints out the face, and goes to Spain for a vacation. On his return, he paints in the face from memory and presents Stein with the famous masklike portrait. Or here is how Stein and Toklas came to work as volunteers during World War I, driving supplies to regional French hospitals (work for which they were decorated by the French government): "One day we were walking down the rue des Pyramides and there was a ford car being backed up the street by an american girl and on the car it said, American Fund for French Wounded.... We went over and talked to the american girl and then interviewed Mrs. Lathrop, the head of the organization. She was enthusiastic, she was always enthusiastic and she said, get a car. But where, we asked. From America, she said. But how, we said. Ask somebody, she said, and Gertrude Stein did, she asked her cousin and in a few months the ford car came."

The story of the acquisition of "the house of our dreams" is the culminating example of life's evident inability ever to say no to Gertrude Stein. But the story doesn't end there. Four years after the publication of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas Stein wrote another autobiography, called Everybody's Autobiography. The intention was both to repeat the success of the best seller and to atone for it. Naturally, only the second intention was fulfilled. What Stein felt she had to atone for was the crisp linear narrative of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which she had adopted merely in order to woo the conventional reading public, and which was not her style at all. Now, writing in her own voice, Stein no longer feels constrained to attend to the reader's wants. She reverts to her old way of writing as if the reader were an uninvited guest arriving on the wrong night at a dark house. The idea this time is not to shape life into a narrative of gay and triumphant wish fulfillment but to present it in all its elusive ambiguity. In Everybody's Autobiography Stein again tells the story of the acquisition of the dream house, but now it is a confession of bad behavior. The house did not just fall into the hands of Stein and Toklas. They went to ruthless lengths to wrest it from the lieutenant-lengths that seem more connected to savage twenty-first-century New York real estate practice than to civilized twentieth-century literary history. Stein begins the story with characteristic indirectness:

The present tenant was a lieutenant in the army and as he was stationed at the garrison in Belley, they have a battalion of Moroccan troops there, it is always strange to see in a mountain French village these native troops. It is queer the use of the word, native always means people who belong somewhere else, because they had once belonged somewhere else. That shows that the white race does not really think they belong anywhere because they think of everybody else as a native. Anyway the lieutenant who was in the house that we had seen across the valley and that we had had to have was stationed in the garrison at Belley.... Why said everybody do you not get him made captain, then he would have to leave as there is no room for another captain there in the garrison. We thought that an excellent idea.... Well we know a man he is a nice man his name is George.... When he was doing his military service he was clerk in the war office. He used to tell how every one even a general would come in and ask him if he could not get something done a little quicker for him.... George went off and after some months of waiting in which you look anxious but ask no questions and he mysteriously said wait he came and said I have bad news for you, they say at the war office that he is not much good as a lieutenant, he is a war lieutenant, and cannot pass any further examinations but as a captain he would not do at all and then besides when he retired he would have to be paid a pension as a captain and now in two or three years he retires and they only have to pay his pension as a lieutenant, but said George perhaps he could go to Morocco that would be good for him he would get more money for active service and he would leave the house free.... A month after the proprietor wrote and said the lieutenant was going to Morocco and was ready to sublet the house to us.


Excerpted from TWO LIVES by JANET MALCOLM Copyright © 2007 by Janet Malcolm. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Janet Malcolm is the author of The Journalist and the Murderer, The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, and Reading Chekhov, among other books. She writes for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books and lives in New York City.

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Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In 'Two Lives' by Janet Malcolm, Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas live out, once again, their forty year relationship, ending in a village in Vichy France. Part biography and part literary criticism, 'Two Lives' shines a spotlight on two key issues: How did the pair escape deportation? and What does Stein's most famous work,'The Making of Americans' mean? Malcom uncovers the hitherto unknown fact that Stein had a benefactor in the person of a Nazi collaborator, Bernard Fey, who shipped her delicacies from Paris during World War ll and who protected her and her companion from the fate of all other Jews. In her work, 'Wars I Have Seen',Stein laments the life of one Jewish boy who was sent to his death , ignoring six million others who shared the same end. Stein, in fact, never made her Jewish origin a major part in any of her works. Reading about Stein's charmed life, one cannot help but compare her to the unlucky French writer, Irene Nemirovsky,of the same period whose latest novels were recently discovered. Unlike Stein, she had no friend in high places and was sent to Auschwitz where she perished in 1942. Her major opus, 'Suite Francaise', which critics say would have rivaled 'War and Peace' was left outlined but unfinished. Malcolm wrestles with Stein's opus,'The Making of Americans'. She quotes from some of its pages and concludes that Stein had trouble creating characters and plotting their destinies. She describes her attempts to contact Stein's biographer, Leon Katz, a Columbia doctoral student in 1952, who discovered Stein's notebooks and interviewed Toklas extensively. Katz refused to meet her. The contents of the notebooks and results of his talks with Toklas still remain secret, frustrating Malcolm and the huge audience of Stein's works who would have benefited from her findings. In accounts of others who knew Toklas in her later life after Stein's death, Malcolm determines that unlike what most believed, Toklas was the dominating figure in the relationship and Stein was the 'baby'. More that you might want to know. Any work that examines a famous writer like Stein and can shed light on her life and enigmatic works would be fascinating. Malcolm's book piercing the darkness of Stein's writings in an entertaining and matter-of-fact tone is especially valuable.
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