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Gertrude Stein Remembered

from Real Clear Politics

The Inimitable Style of Gertrude Stein

By Carl Cannon

Image from France Culture

Sixty-nine years ago today, as the first crop of baby boomers was being born, iconic American expatriate Gertrude Stein died in Paris. Her life partner, Alice B. Toklas, was at her deathbed.

In one of their last conversations, Toklas later wrote in her autobiography, Stein asked about the meaning of life: “What is the answer?” she inquired.

When Toklas failed to reply, Stein laughed and said, “In that case, what is the question?”

Born in Pennsylvania in 1874, Stein had lived in Paris as a girl before her parents brought her back to the United States. She lived in San Francisco and across the bay in Oakland as a young woman before gravitating to Baltimore, where she had relatives, and then to France after the turn of the century.

It was in Paris that she made her reputation. A famed wit, hostess, and avant-garde writer, she collected artists more than art. Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse were friends and frequent visitors, and after World War I, she and Alice Toklas expanded their salon-type dinners to include a cohort of restless young American writers that included Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and John Dos Passos.

It was to Hemingway, supposedly, that Stein said, “You are all a lost generation.”

Other than the “lost generation” line, Gertrude Stein’s most famous quote is probably her put-down of a teeming California city. Many decades before Jerry Brown resuscitated his political career by becoming mayor of Oakland, Stein dismissed the place by saying simply: “There is no there there.”

Actually, that five-word description — and three of them are the same word — come at the end of a longer, punctuation-less sentence. These days, one must type it carefully, or the spellcheck function on the computer will correct it for you — the consecutive “theres” being confusing to an intelligence of the artificial kind.

Gertrude Stein’s brainpower was the opposite of artificial. Her deathbed conversation with Alice B. Toklas? She was witty that way all the time.

Oakland wasn’t the only place subject to the Stein wit. She was dismissive of entire regions of the U.S., notably the Midwest. Referring to her pal Ernest Hemingway, she once said, “Anyone who marries three girls from St. Louis hasn’t learned much.” (For the record, Hadley Richardson and Martha Gellhorn were both St. Louis natives, but Pauline Pfeiffer, his second wife, was Iowa-born. But you get the point).

As for that lack of a comma in the Oakland put-down, it wasn’t an accident, either. That was Stein’s signature style.

[ click to continue reading at Real Clear Politics ]

Posted on July 27, 2015 by Editor

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