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Alice B. Toklas (1877-1967)

 

San Francisco-born American literary figure, a close associate of the author Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) in her literary salon. Toklas was a chain smoker with a slight mustache, Gypsy earrings, and manicured nails. After moving to Paris, Stein met Alice B. Toklas in 1907; she called her "Pussy" and Gertrude was "Lovey" to Alice. From 1903 to 1909 Stein lived with her brother Leo, who left in the early 1910s the couple to continue their life together. Their apartment on the Rue de Fleurus became a famous meeting place for artists and writers.

"To cook as the French do one must respect the quality and flavour of the ingredients. Exaggeration is not admissible. Flavours are not all amalgamative. These qualities are not purchasable but may be cultivated. The haute cuisine has arrived at the enviable state of reacting instinctively to these known principles." (from Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, 1954)

Alice Babette Toklas was born in San Francisco into a middle-class Jewish family. She was the only child of Ferdinand and Emma (Levinsky) Toklas. Her father left Poland at the age of twenty and moved to the United States, where he worked first as a bookkeeper. After marrying Emma Levinsky, whose family also came from Poland, he established with his partners a mercantile firm in Seattle. Eventually he became a prominent and successful merchant on the coast

Toklas was educated at public schools and at the University of Seattle and the University of Washington. After the death of her mother, Toklas returned to San Francisco to take care of her father and brother. Her life changed at the age of 29 when she decided to go to Paris at the suggestion of Leo Stein. There she met Gertrude Stein: "She was a golden brown presence, burned by the Tuscan sun and with a golden glint in her warm brown hair."

In 1908 Toklas began typing manuscripts for Gertrude Stein, and by 1909 she was part of her life. They moved in 1910 into 27, rue de Fleurus, their famous home. An excellent cook and fond of paintings, furniture, tapestry, houses and flowers, Toklas took soon the reigns of Stein's household.

Many of her recipes she later collected in The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook (1954), her first book. "The French like to say that their food stems from their culture and that is has developed over centuries," Toklas wrote. "We foreigner living in France respect and appreciate this point of view but deplore their too strict observance of a tradition which will not admit the slightest deviation in a seasoning or the suppression of a single ingredient." Toklas began to work on the book in the hamlet of Bilignin, where they had leased a seventeeth-century stone manor. Toklas and Stein came there every spring and stayed until the fall. Stein devoured food; she was fat but accepted herself as she was.

Stein, who has been considered the "masculine" part of the relationship, was the soothing and listening partner; Alice called her a "strong-strong husband." However, A Movable Feast (1964), Hemingways's memoir of his years in Paris after World War I, gives the impression that Toklas commanded Stein outside the saloon. Stein wrote an erotic poem 'Lifting Belly,' to Toklas between 1915 and 1917 – it was not published in Stein's lifetime. At that time it was accepted that women shared homes, but physical relationship was something else. Another poem to Toklas, inspired by Cubism, was built around four sentences: "Do you really think I would yes I would and," "Do you really think I could, yes I could," "Do you really think I should yes I should," and "Do you really think I do love all you with all." Other sides of the crystallike poem are left "unvisible" – perhaps including the verbs "must" and "ought."

During the period Toklas and Stein were together, they frequently exchanged love letters. Alice was an early riser, and Gertrude, who wrote late into the night, left her tender, passionate notes to cheer up her mornings. "Baby precious Hubby worked and / loved his wifey, sweet sleepy wifey, / dear dainty wifey, baby precious sleep," Stein once rhymed.

Toklas gained wide attention with the publication of The Autobiogrphy of Alice B. Toklas (1933), which is actually Gertrude Stein's memoirs. It records Toklas's first-person observations of Stein's life and her friends, among them Ernest Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Georges Braque. The book appeared first in an abridged form in The Atlantic Monthly magazine. Stein's writing style is conversational and clear. Toklas notes how many wives of geniuses she had to sit with while Stein has been with their husbands. The book also tells of the trip Toklas and Stein made to Alfred North Whitehead's home in England and of their wartime involvement with the American Fund for the French Wounded. They visited hospitals and were later decorated by the French government. When the memoirist James Lord met Toklas after Stein's death, he noticed for his surprise that "Miss Toklas liked to talk. She did it well, without restraint and at length. But she enjoyed being talked to as well..." (from Six Exceptional Women, 1994)

According to Estelle C. Jelinek, Toklas's presence as the narrator legitimized Stein's role as memoirist. Placing Toklas, the most important person in her intimate life, in the center of the autobiography, she could pay homage to their story. Toklas is the observing partner, not the directly observed, but at the same time Stein controls the picture she gives of herself: "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 I have 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."

Stein's book provoked an attack by other Parisian writers and artist in Testimony against Gertrude Stein (1935). Stein died in 1946 and Toklas twenty-one years later. Toklas's own account of her life with Stein appeared in the impressionistic What Is Remembered (1963). Their last conversation in a Paris hospital has been much quoted: "I sat next to her and she said to me early in the afternoon, What is the answer? I was silent. In that case, she said, what is the question?" However, ten years earlier Toklas wrote in a letter: "About Baby's last words. She said upon waking from a sleep – What is the question. And I didn't answer thinking she was not completely awakened. The she said again – What is the question and before I could speak she went on – If there is no question then there is no answer." (Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice by Janet Malcolm, 2007, p. 172)

After Stein died during surgery, Alice cherished her reputation. In the end she found Catholicism, stating that she wanted a ticket into the afterlife, since she considered Gertude immortal – she would be reunited with her in Heaven. Toklas died on March 7, 1967. She was buried beside Stein in Le Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris.

The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook came out when Toklas was 77. It contained 300 recipes of such dishes Artichokes Stravinsky, Gigot de la Clinique and Breen Peas à la Goodwife. Many of the receipts are rather advanced, reflecting the avant-garde spirit of her friends. The book became famous because of one special dish, Toklas's Haschich Fudge ("which anyone could whip up on a rainy day," as she wrote), originally given by a friend. It was not printed in the first American edition, but was included in the British edition. Toklas's close friends assured, that the writer herself had not tested the fudge, and she did not realize what the ingredients were; this perhaps wasn't true. "This is the food of Paradise  –  of Baudelaire's Artifical Paradises: it might provid an entertaining refreshment for a Ladies' Bridge Club or a chapter meeting of the DAR. . . . Take one teaspoon black peppercorns, 1 whole nutmeg, 4 average sticks of cinnamon, 1 teaspoon coriander. These should all be pulverized in a mortar. About a handful each of stoned dates, dried figs, shelled almonds and peanuts: chop these and mix them together. A bunch of canibus sativa can be pulverised. . . . " Aromas and Flavors of Past and Present (1958) presented over two hundred recipes and practical and philosophical notes on cooking, starting from frozen aiolli and anchovies in poultry and game dishes.

For further reading: Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice by Janet Malcolm (2007); The True Story of Alice B. Toklas: A Study of Three Autobiographies by Anna Linzie (2006); Baby Precious Always Shines, ed. by Kay Turner (1999); Lesbian and Bisexual Fiction Writers, ed. by Harold Bloom (1997); 'Exotic Autobiography Intellectualized' by Estelle C. Jelinek, in The Tradition of Women's Autobiography (1986); The Biography of Alice B. Toklas by Linda Simon (paperback, 1991); The Grave of Alice B. Toklas by Otto Friedrich (1989); Roman Spring of Alice Toklas: 44 Letters by Alice Toklas in a Reminiscence  by Donald Windham (1987; Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas: A Reference Guide by Ray Lewis White (1984)

Selected works:

  • The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, 1954 (foreword by M.F.K. Fisher; publisher’s note by Simon Michael Bessie; illustrations by Sir Francis Rose, 1984)
  • Aromas and Flavors of Past and Present, 1958 (introduction by Poppy Cannon)
  • What Is Remembered, 1963
  • Dear Sammy: Letters from Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas, 1977 (edited with a memoir by Samuel M. Steward)
  • Staying on Alone: Letters of Alice B. Toklas, 1973 (edited by Edward Burns, with an introd. by Gilbert A. Harrison)
  • Baby Precious Always Shines: Selected Love Notes Between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, 1999 (edited by Kaye Turner)


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