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October 8: Alice B. Toklas

October 8, 2014

autobio_les-1Alice Babette Toklas was photographed by Carl Van Vechten, the literary executor of her lover Gertrude Stein, on this date in 1949, three years after Stein’s death. The San Francisco-born Toklas met her lifelong partner the day Toklas arrived in Paris in 1907. There they co-hosted an ongoing arts salon that attracted numerous writers and artists who would become world-renowned. In 1933, Stein published The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which, in the words of Margaret Soenser Breen (at the GLBTQ Encyclopedia) “interrogates the boundaries between author, narrator, and subject: Where does Stein end and Toklas begin — or rather, where does Toklas begin and Stein end?... Stein’s innovative narrative strategy here attests to her sustained commitment to experimental writing; it made her famous and, perhaps more important, it pays formal homage (albeit in a highly coded way) to her relationship with Toklas.” Although Stein willed much of her estate to Toklas, the lack of legal status for gay marriages allowed Stein’s relatives to plunder the valuable art collection that the women had shared (which included 27 Picassos), leaving Toklas dependent on friends for her sustenance. She wrote two cookbooks and a 1963 memoir, What Is Remembered, and converted to Catholicism before dying in poverty at 89.

“She doesn’t sit in a chair, she hides in it; she doesn’t look at you, but up at you; she is always standing just half a step outside the circle. She gives the appearance, in short, not of a drudge, but of a poor relation, someone invited to the wedding but not to the wedding feast.” —W. G. Rogers