Alice Toklas survived for twenty years after the death of Gertrude Stein, a period that began in loneliness and ended in loneliness. In between she made a sufficiently full life for herself, writing two cookbooks and memoir, several articles, many letters, and becoming for me a brief and treasured acquaintance, so that ultimately her memory need not be entirely dependent on the achievements of her more celebrated friend.
First, however, Gertrude Stein, a four rose general with an army of one marching behind. Alice Toklas established that order long ago, and no one ignores it. Alice Toklas brings up the rear.
I met her first through her voice, by way of Gertrude Stein’s imitative prose when in 1946 at the age of sixteen, I discovered The Autobiography Of Alice B. Toklas included in Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein. A Friday afternoon stop at the New Books shelf in my high school library had already become a habit by the time I spied that stout beige book and then saw the frontispiece of two elderly ladies chatting in a garden – one of them had a large nose, the other one had a crew cut – followed by six hundred pages of tight type. The memory is as fresh now as it every was: I thumbed from back to front, from front to back, and lit on this:
Nearly all of it to be as a wife has a cow, a love story. All of it to be as a wife has a cow, all of it to be as a wife has a cow, a love story.
That was the first paragraph, so I read the second one:
As to be all of it as to be a wife as a wife has a cow, a love story, all of it as to be all of it as a wife all of it as to be as a wife has a cow a love story, all of it as a wife has a cow as a wife has a cow a love story.
It went right on down the page like that, a broken record that knew its own grooves pretty well and when to get stuck and when to go on playing. I flipped around to find some classy nonsense that made me smile: descriptions, called Tender Buttons, of household props like petticoats and red roses and potatoes and chicken – there were four about chicken, one dense, one smutty, one impenetrable, one funny – and chairs, tables, breakfasts, handkerchiefs. I flipped again, this time to “Sweet sweet sweet sweet tea,” which I somehow knew right away ended with “sweetie,” although I have never had a strong ear or eye for puns. Maybe that poem turned up several flips later – time would prove there was as much of Gertrude Stein to forget as to remember – before I turned the page to find “Toasted Susie in my ice-cream.” I spent the rest of weekend alarming my parents with snippets of what seemed to be patent foolishness or at least a typesetter’s nightmare, but by Monday I knew it had all been somehow touched by my own fairy godmother’s wand.
How many others first read The Autobiography Of Alice B. Toklas through to the last page before discovering Gertrude Stein’s surprise in her last line? I got to it on Sunday afternoon. All day long, she’d dropped names across the pages I had never heard before. I had read little current literature at that point, having progressed instead from Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys to historical novels put out by the Literary Guild.
The explanatory sections in Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein were nearly as baffling as her Tender Buttons – to this sixteen-year-old, anyhow – but I liked just about everything, including the gossipy babble at the end of the book about the French Occupation and the G.I.s, and all for the same reason: none of it was like anything I’d ever read or even thought about before, and its variety seemed endless. Then a few months later I heard a Sunday afternoon radio broadcast of the truncated version of an opera by Gertrude Stein with music by Virgil Thomson, called Four Saints in Three Acts. It was not like anything I’d ever heard or even thought about before either, not at least on those Saturday afternoon broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera House that I’d been listening to for as long as I could recall.
But then I took a two-year vacation from Gertrude Stein, stashing her away somewhere on my head’s hard drive, after those initial encounters. School got in the way, I suppose, and beginning to try to write, and then getting ready to go away to college. Two years later I was en route to campus for the first time when I heard a radio program called Author Meets the Critic, devoted that afternoon to a new book called When This You See Remember Me: Gertrude Stein in Person by W.G. Rogers. The animosity of one of the critics and the joking derision of another were surprising, but they persuaded me to buy the book the next day, and then I read it during the three-hour wait at registration. I wonder how many freshmen put their time to such good use during their own inescapable stone-age lines every September. I purchased Yale’s recently released Four in America too – bewildering biographical speculations about Ulysses S. Grant as a religious leader, Wilber Wright as a painter, Henry James as a general, and George Washington as a writer – and discovered a riveting paragraph that will serve anybody in search of a key into Gertrude Stein’s treasury:
Clarity is of no importance because nobody listens and nobody knows what you mean, nor how clearly you mean what you mean. But if you have vitality enough of knowing enough of what you mean, somebody and sometimes and sometimes a great many will have to realize that you know what you mean and so they will agree that you mean what you know, what you know you mean, which is as near as anybody can come to understanding any one.
Also, I bought my own copy of the Selected Writings; and by the end of my freshman year, I had built up a fairly good shelf that included Geography and Plays, still pristine in its 1922 dust jacket, Lectures in America, Brewsie and Willie, the 1934 abbreviated edition of The Making Of Americans, all for list price or less, a snazzily boxed copy of Blood On The Dining Room Floor that had be hand-set and hand-sewn into French marble boards – I’d never seen so beautiful a book – and an autographed copy of The World Is Round bound in white vellum.
In 1951, and by that time in the navy, I remembered that the Banyan Press, which had produced Blood On The Dining Room Floor, had printed a limited edition of Things As They Are, Gertrude Stein’s unpublished first book. It cost ten dollars – about one-third of a month’s salary for me – but it was difficult to think of the colorful military scrip in which we were paid overseas as having any real value because it looked so much like Monopoly money. When my copy of the book arrived, a letter accompanied it, untidily typed, from Carl van Vechten:
Dear Mr Kellner, … the … Banyan Press has handed me your letter as I am the literary executor of Miss Stein …. Much of past work is out of print, but if you will tell me what you have I may be able to supply some of your lacks. Miss Stein would be happy to hear this voice out of Korea, but she would not be surprised as the army and navy and most young people have been for her for a long time.
That letter initiated a long correspondence and an intimate friendship embracing the last thirteen years of his life. “The Banyan Tots,” as Carl Van Vechten called Claude Fredericks and Milton Saul, the young owners of the Banyan Press, had thought he’d be amused by a sailor reading Gertrude Stein. So he was, following that first letter with books, magazines, clippings, programs, phonograph records, an occasional package of exotic foods from Bloomingdale’s, and an astonishing number of letters and postcards of celebrated people he had photographed, all to get me through an otherwise stultifying enlistment.
And now, having given Gertrude Stein her due – here as well as in a hefty reference work called A Gertrude Stein Companion: Content With The Example (Greenwood Press, 1988), and in a sixteen-volume edition of her major works for publication in Japan (Hon-no-tomosha, 1995), and having done so first – I can turn to Alice Toklas second, in the order of which she would have not only approved but demanded.
“Tell me anything you like,” Carl Van Vechten wrote in his second letter to me which was filled with questions, concluding, “I’m sure, in any case, you’ll omit something that Alice wants to know.” His third letter contained this:
Incidentally in writing to Alice, I copied a part of your letter and she wrote to me in return: “And the sailor isn’t only intelligent, but delightful. Thanks so much for copying so much. Would you like me to send you a copy of Lucy Church to send to him?”
In time, Lucy Church Amiably did arrive, and as Carl Van Vechten had requested, suitably inscribed, though I would learn later that the sentiment suggested Gertrude Stein rather than Alice Toklas in its flavor:
To Bruce Kellner.
In Deepest appreciation of his appreciation of the work of Gertrude Stein.
Paris. 24-IX-51 Alice Toklas.
I knew nothing about Alice B. Toklas beyond what Gertrude Stein had had her say about herself in The Autobiography Of Alice B. Toklas: she’d been born and raised in California, liked to sit with her back turned to the view, and served as housekeeper, gardener, Sunday night cook, needlewoman, secretary, editor, and amateur veterinarian – all for Gertrude Stein who had written her autobiography for her because she didn’t have time to write it herself. In those far-off innocent days, it may have crossed my mind that she was Gertrude Stein’s muse and mistress as well, but I did not at twenty-one know exactly what that meant, nor was I perceptive enough to grasp the coded secularity in so much of Gertrude Stein’s work.
In answer to my letter thanking Alice Toklas for Lucy Church Amiably, I received a brittle postcard, printed some time during the First World War, of Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas and the car they had converted into an ambulance so they could deliver supplies to the French War Wounded. I recognized that strange, hearse-like tramcar from its description in The Autobiography Of Alice B. Toklas, recalling that Gertrude Stein never learned how to shift into reverse with ease: “She goes forward admirably, she does not go backwards successfully,” Alice explains – a cogent observation about Gertrude Stein’s progress as a writer, I would learn in time. They named the car Auntie, after Gertrude Stein’s Aunt Pauline who “always behaved admirably in emergencies, and behaved fairly well most times if she was properly flattered.” “A small souvenir to add to your collection with a kind remembrance from A.B. Toklas,” the card read, again in a spidery script.
I did not write again for over a year, and then only with the excuse of acknowledging the death of Basket II, the white poodle she and Gertrude Stein had bought in 1938. She answered almost immediately, saying I would “understand that the flat is even more lonesome now than before.” Was there any suggestion in her remark that I continue to write. I didn’t, and only learned long after her death how important correspondence had been to her. Another year passed. I longed to correspond on a weekly basis, as I did with Carl Van Vechten – for certainly those letters had altered my life – but probably I feared I had little to say that would interest her. Then, when Donald Gallup’s edition of letters written to Gertrude Stein, The Flowers of Friendship, came out in 1953, I took a chance on writing again. I was back in California by that time after a tour of duty in Japan, which prompted some interest:
You must indeed be happy to be back in California but are you never going to be liberated, be through with your service, return to civilian life, enfin to a life of your own. But I must not refer to it, only to make you more impatient. If you ever get to Santa Barbara or Monterey give them my love and devotion, for they were happy stomping grounds of my youth.
Although Gertrude Stein had allowed her friend’s early life scant attention in The Autobiography Of Alice B. Toklas, those first years were not barren of interest. Alice Toklas had studied to be a concert pianist and even gave pubic recitals. She traveled rather more widely than most young women of her generation to Germany, Austria, and England. She smoked a lot. She read widely, learned how to garden from her mother and how to cook from the family domestics – chores that would serve her well in later years during her marriage to Gertrude Stein. After her mother’s death she kept house for her father and brothers, escaping for holidays along the California coastline. She lived through the San Francisco earthquake – her father observed that it would “give them a black eye in the East” – picnicking on the sidewalk and burying the family silver in the garden in case the fire spread.
Gertrude Stein’s brother Michael and his wife Sarah hastily returned from Paris because of the earthquake, to inspect their San Francisco properties for damage, and bringing with them some paintings by Henri Matisse, the first to come to America. In her own memoir, What Is Remembered, dictated in her old age when her memory was perhaps not entirely reliable, Alice Toklas uses her response to the paintings as part of her impetus for accompanying the Steins back to Paris. She met Gertrude Stein the day she arrived. It was love at first sight.
Their life together has been often told: the long years of obscurity alternating with ridicule; then financial success for a book that had little to do with Gertrude Stein’s work; a successful American lecture tour; surviving the German Occupation by hiding out in the South of France where they had a summer home. It was not always serene – what marriage is? – but they were indispensable to each other, and when Gertrude Stein died, just four months before I first discovered her work in Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein in 1946, Alice Toklas was devastated. Over the remaining twenty years of her life she gradually discovered her own voice, not only in her books but in her remarkable letters.
I didn’t reply immediately to her inquiry about my release from the navy, and a few months later Alice Toklas wrote again, a long and chatty letter, full of information and sufficiently friendly to urge me on to more frequent communications. We became occasional if not regular correspondents. A month later she wrote to thank me for some photographs that Carl Van Vechten had taken of me, “though they are very different one from the other, almost as if they were of two young men.” Apparently I had sent some information concerning Gertrude Stein, doubtless something several others had already told her about:
And thanks a lot for all the news of Gertrude Stein’s works. You will understand that if it is already known to me it is the kind that gives me the greatest pleasure to hear again.
The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book came out that year, with its line drawings by Sir Francis Rose about which she wrote, “You see how fortunate a mere little cook can be.” I thought they were not very good, but Sir Francis Rose had been one of Gertrude Stein’s last protégés – I believe she owned thirty of his paintings at the time of her death – so I kept my mouth shut. Most of the recipes came from “the archives of French families,” but she no longer had the time or strength or money – “particularly the latter,” she added in parentheses, “for it would make the other reasons less serious” – to perform in the kitchen as she had so often done for Gertrude Stein and their guests, especially In Bilignin, the tiny hamlet near Belley, in the French Alps, where she and Gertrude Stein had spent half the year in a rented manor house. She doubted the book would sell in America, since the recipes were probably “not made for American palettes or kitchens,” but I assured her that some of them were when, the following year, as a graduate student I began to cook for myself. Then as the “disagreeable necessity” of which she once spoke became more and more a preoccupation and fascination, I discovered that Alice Toklas and I had something else in common to write about.
The following fall, when I had a new job, teaching in Cedar Rapids, Alice Toklas wrote to congratulate me, remembering that Gertrude Stein “used to say that Iowans all had a distinction.” Some time later, when I groaned about the grim landscape there – intellectual as well as geographical – she chided me gently. It must have been about this time that I asked her if she would not address me as Bruce; I got my comeuppance with the salutation that followed: “My dear Kellner.”
Your complaint about Carl [Van Vechten]’s native town reminds me of the answer a woman in Belley gave me when I told her I had discovered a fantastic baker in small dull little town not far away. Ah then she said it cant be a dull little town if it has a fantastic bakery. And she was right. If Grand Rapids [sic] produced Carl and Coe College it has great distinction.
She was furious about a new biography of Gertrude Stein. Carl Van Vechten aid that was no surprise. Except for Donald Sutherland’s obliquely scholarly study, Gertrude Stein: A Biography of Her Work – a masterpiece of the so-called new criticism in its final decadence, in which Alice Toklas is never mentioned – anything written about Gertrude Stein could only encourage Alice Toklas’s wrath, especially if it dared to tread on the private life they had shared for nearly forty years:
If you haven’t heard of an odious book, Gertrude Stein Her Work and Life [sic] by a Mrs Sprigge I hope you haven’t and will desist from looking at it. It quite upset me when I first saw it. The American edition is just out. Now I am quite callous to its vulgarity. But let me warn you. Not of course that either Gertrude Stein or her work need any defense.
A few months later, Alice Toklas’s temper has sweetened somewhat when she wrote again:
This is the day nearest to spring and so I am celebrating by writing to Iowa where you may still be.
The heating system at 5 rue Christine, she wrote, had been improved and the plumbing in the bathroom had been repaired. That was “a comfort, at a ruinous price but I refuse to consider this.” She was about to depart with Anita Loos – an old friend from the Twenties – for northern Italy to take the mud baths at Aqui to ease the arthritis which plagued her annually. It was in this letter that she sent me the first of several recipes, some of which did not appear in either of her cook books. Some I never attempted, but one for ratatouille of extremely complex flavors was perfection. It is well worth substituting now and again for the more familiar, robust version, and like many of Alice Toklas’s recipes, bears following closely:
Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil, 1 oignons cut in thin slices, 1 pulped tomato from which the seeds have been removed, 1 sliced unpeeled zucchini, 1 peeled sliced egg plant, 2 sliced peppers seeds removed, 1 crushed garlic bead, 1 sprig thyme, 1/3 bay leaf, I cubed piece of Hubbard squash. Simmer 1 hour covered. Stir occasionally so that it does not scorch, add another tablespoon of oil if necessary. Enough for 2 or 3 persons. Serve hot or cold. Delicious.
Once, in describing a meal she had prepared for friends, she sent along a recipe from a new Indian cook book, with which I would “have great success.” She had made this fish dish “followed by a baron of mutton with 8 (!) cloves of garlic.” The dessert sounded more extravagant han anything her own cook books contained: wood strawberries with cream and “disguised” strawberries and chestnuts:
Disguised strawberries are fresh ones dipped in strawberry fondant (icing). Disguised chestnuts are made with concentrated puree of chestnuts dipped in an icing of syrup boiled until it is coffee colored. The lunch was easy to cook, the fish was the only complicated dish and there was all morning to prepare it, set the table and cook the rissoles potatoes (butter “rendered” clarified) the day before.
Sometimes, a whole letter consisted of cooking hints, no salutation, no signature:
If your lettuce is getting old soak it root down in 1 inch of water. The Indian way to blanch almonds. Soak almonds overnight. Next morning peel them. The skins will slip off easily. The almonds will be somewhat tender. Almonds blanched in boiling water are hard and quite tasteless.
A couple of years later, Alice Toklas wrote to ask about a small payment she had received from Hartwick College in New York, where I was teaching at the time. With her permission I had staged some pieces from The Gertrude Stein First Reader, but my budget had allowed me to offer her only a pittance for royalties.
About the cheque, I am confused, how can there be royalties if there is no admittance charged? I shall not cash it until you let me know the answer. I cannot accept it if it was part of your shoestring.
She was in Rome at the time, taking a lava bath cure for her arthritis. “Roman ruins and renaissance palaces bore me,” she wrote, “but the markets and cooking are wonderful …. Have you a garden,” she queried, “can you grow artichokes?”
In the summer of 1962 my wife and I took an extended holiday in Europe. I had written to Alice Toklas before out departure, saying I hoped to be able to see her and offering an approximate date. From Austria, Margaret and I side-tripped to stop in Aix-les-Bains and ferret out Bilignin where Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas had spent fourteen happy summers. We spent three enchanted days discovering their manoir, the church at Lucy from which came Gertrude Stein’s novel Lucy Church Amiably, Culoz where they sat out the Second World War, and the beautiful Rhône Valley. Then we stopped in Paris only long enough to locate a hotel, drop off our extra luggage, and post a note to Alice Toklas before driving up to Le Havre to deliver our car for shipment back to the United States.
But Alice Toklas had already written to us, in care of American Express. She had just returned from Italy where she and Donald Sutherland had been taking the lava baths, she wrote, and “now I am here from which I do not budge. But please let me know as far in advance as possible when you would propose coming to see me for I have several boring engagements (dates uncertain) that I must keep.” And her invariable and familiar “Always Cordially” had given way to “Appreciatively.” I sent her the name of our hotel – the Hotel “At Home,” with arguably the narrowest grand lit in allof Paris, just a few blocks from 5 rue Christine – and proposed several alternative dates. There was a letter at the hotel when we returned from Le Havre, inviting us for tea on the fifth.
Margaret and I sight-saw on August second, third, and fourth, ferreting out the Bateau Lavoir, 27 rue de Fleurus, and other locations so memorable in The Autobiography Of Alice B. Toklas. On the fifth, we were called to the lobby of our hotel to discover Alice Toklas’s Spanish servant in volatile conversation with the manager. Had we forgotten our appointment on the fourth, yesterday afternoon? In hurtling French and forgotten high school Spanish I translated the confusion for her, and she departed wreathed in smiles, having assured us we were still expected. I had already wondered if, at eighty-five, Alice Toklas’s memory would have suffered any deterioration. Who would have thought that five years later, wasted and infirm, should would tap her forehead with her fingers and say, “This will be the last to go!”
We arrived on the stroke of four, to be admitted by the Spanish maid into the high-ceilinged hallway on 5 rue Christine and led from there to the large drawing room, its stark-white walls revealing the larger and smaller square and rectangles where paintings had hung before their removal by the French authorities – at the insistence of Gertrude Stein’s greedy heirs – to the vault of the Chase Manhattan Bank in Paris. There they would sit, thirty Picassos among them, until Alice Toklas’s death, thereby denying her the right to sell any of them – or all of them, for that matter – for her maintenance, in accordance with Gertrude Stein’s will.
It was a large, comfortable drawing room, with tall windows and an ornate fireplace with a crowded mantel, over which a cloudy, crazed mirror hung, facing a brown satin horsehair sofa. There was a large double-door cabinet, in which had lurked, I supposed, those thousands of pages of Gertrude Stein’s manuscripts before they’d been shipped off to Yale some years before, a small pie-crust table with a collection of silver gewgaws, faience jars, a doll made of shells, a silver pedestal ashtray with a cherub handle, and under everything worn, oriental carpets.
Alice Toklas sat in an enormous armchair, nearly hidden in its recesses, in a corner of the room against the tall windows that gave a gray afternoon light through the drizzle of rain. I remembered her remark about landscapes: she liked a view but she liked to sit with her back turned to it.
“Will you forgive me? Will you forgive me for confusing the days?” the bass voice croaked, rich from years of cigarettes.
The tables on either side of her chair had ashtrays overflowing with Pall Mall butts, and she added to the debris, chain-smoking as the afternoon progressed. A rosary lay on one table, a reminder of her recent conversion to Roman Catholicism, and from time to time during our visit she held it or wound it around her wrist. Her black hair, only lightly streaked with gray, was combed forward over her forehead to just above her eyes, and she wore glasses with lenses as thick as coasters for a davenport. A large, beautiful brooch of some dull stone rested hat the neckline of her loose dress, and she had old sandals on her feet. Her nose was beaked, her eyes bright, her skin tissue-papery, and she had a quite definite, quite dark and downy moustache.
Alice Toklas’s vision was severely impaired by that time – I read a couple of letters aloud for her – but a magnifying glass helped her for really important matters, she said. Her hearing was weak as well, but she was less bothered by that than by her failing sight. When I asked about the paintings – their loss or theft – she saw them in her memory sufficiently, she said, tapping her forehead. I commiserated by telling her about the hearing problems that Carl Van Vechten and his wife had been having. Did I overstate it? For the rest of the afternoon she referred off and on to the Van Vechtens’ deafness, “poor old Carl” and “poor old Fania.” By the end of our visit she’d persuaded herself that their hearing was far worse than hers.
But we spoke primarily of Bilignin and Aix-les-Bains and described as best we could our visit there: the back roads in search of that particular view across the Rhone Valley that had first urged Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas to negotiate renting the manoir at Bilignin; our circuitous drive to Lucey to see the church, by that time fallen to disrepair; the good food; the climate; and, in Bilignin itself, the rich and heady odor of fresh manure. She had never had the courage to return, she said, since they’d been forced to leave during the war.
We talked about cigarettes too. Both Margaret and I smoked at that time, but we could not have kept up with our hostess. She sometimes lit a fresh one from the butt of another; she seemed, too, to enjoy having a match struck for her, bending toward it, inhaling deeply, then holding her cigarette between her fingers in a modestly outstretched hand while she exhaled. Had Gertrude Stein smoked, I wanted to know. Only in the early days, Alice Toklas said. At some point around 1915, when they were sitting out part of the First World War in Majorca, they’d run out of cigarettes, and Gertrude Stein smoked something local. Apparently it was not tobacco but a form of cannabis sativa of other drug. It disoriented her thinking, and that frightened her. She never smoked again. Also, she drank alcohol only sparingly for much the same reason. Nothing mattered to Gertrude Stein but that her head be clear for her writing. She would have wanted no part of Baudelaire’s “artificial paradises” that poet Brion Gysin had promised in his recipe for hashish fudge, included in The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book. Alice Toklas herself had never tried it, but the stories that grew up after her death about her marijuana brownies that inspired Gertrude Stein’s literary flights had no foundation at all.
At some point the Spanish servant gave us a sweet sherry and two pastries that Alice Toklas had not made, her time in the kitchen by then long behind her, and she apologized because she could not offer us something memorable for the occasion of our meeting.
What do I remember most clearly? Her vivacity despite her infirmities, her sense of fun and malice, the croak of her voice and the deadpan economy of her wit, her warmth to two virtual strangers, her mustache.
When we prepared to depart after about two hours, she seemed in no hurry to terminate the visit and pressed on for answers to questions that, I continue to believe, she asked out of genuine interest: How did my students respond to Gertrude Stein’s writing? Did I teach The Making Of Americans, since Gertrude Stein considered it her magnum opus? What of my own writing? My biography of Carl Van Vechten, then making the rounds of publishers? Would I not call a friend of hers about it? Surely he would help me if she asked him to. Did Fania Marinofff still wear beautiful hats? When would we return to France? Could we come again before out departure?
It did not occur to me for several years – and then only in reading accounts of her last, lonely days, or in seeing Fania Marinoff abandoned by nearly all of Carl Van Vechten’s friends after his death – that Alice Toklas might have desperately wanted us to stay on.
I wrote a few more times after that, but she did not reply beyond an immediate letter of thanks for our visit, until What Is Remembered was published. I had written to tell her how much I had enjoyed her memoir of her years with Gertrude Stein, although it was a tired book, suffering from inconsistencies and factual errors. My enthusiasm was only a slight exaggeration, only a white lie. When next I did hear from her, an amanuensis has taken over. In answering, I insisted that she no longer feel compelled to acknowledge my notes, although I said I would write now and then to say hello, and I did that.
My last direct knowledge of Alice Toklas came to me through Robert Lescher – earlier her editor and later briefly my agent – who had visited her not long before her death in 1967. She had been evicted from 5 rue Christine by that time, and her new surroundings were grim. But she was as quick as in the past. Bed-ridden and impatient to join Gertrude Stein in some immortal garden where roses always grew in circles, she held her usual court, elegant and economical, under a beautiful patchwork quilt, her rosary in one hand and her Pall Mall in the other.
Ten years later, to observe Alice Toklas’s one hundredth birthday, Margaret and I gave a dinner party and prepared everything from recipes in the Toklas cook books and my letters from her: Savoury Biscuits, Puree of Artichoke Sound; Bass for Picasso, decorated in designs that he’d said should have been made in honor of Matisse instead of him; Covered Cock in cumin, which included among other oddities in the stuffing some poached calf brains; Extravagant Mashed Potatoes, mad with a half a cup of butter per potato; Green Peas à la Goodwife; and Bavarian Cream Perfect Love. Inevitably, I suppose, we concluded with Hashish Fudge, thanks to the enterprising efforts of one of my students who got some good Colombian for me. As The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book rightly observes, “ … it should be eaten with care. Two pieces are quite sufficient.” Our hangovers were monumental, intermittent gales of hilarity from my wife all day long, a friend who had to crawl on hands and knees from bed to bathroom, my own inability to read more than three consecutive lines in the morning paper.
Three years earlier, in 1974, at the time of Gertrude Stein’s centennial, I prepared a fairly extensive observation at Millersville University, where I was teaching: an exhibition of my own collection of books, dozens of photographs, a rotating slide show of of paintings that had hung at 27 rue de Fleurus and 5 rue Christine, a Stein manuscript loaned by the Beinecke Library at Yale University, and three gallery lectures, as well as a program of readings, with some texts set to music. There were, of course, several references to Alice Toklas throughout, including one section of a display case in which I arranged her books, some letters and recipes in her remarkable, spidery holograph, Carl Van Vechten’s touching portrait of her with Basked II, made in her lonely old age after Gertrude Stein’s death, and the recently published volume of her correspondence, Staying On Along, edited by Edward Burns. The centennial belonged to Gertrude Stein, but Alice Toklas had spent her life ensuring its observation, so she deserved her widow’s mite. After all, she was for over twenty years a bereft widow, so unobtrusively I put in a rosary and a Pall Mall.
Nealy a quarter of a centruy later, I brought her briefly back to life in Staying on Alone: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Alice B. Toklas, a monologue based on her letters, cookbooks, and memoirs. Designed and directed by Ted Vitale, it was produced as a staged reading, 21 and 22 May 1998, to benefit the Theater of the Performing Arts on Cape Cod, with Julie Harris (yet another noble dame).
From: Kiss Me Again Turtle Point Press – ISBN 1 885586 24 8