Gertrude and Alice

Diana Souhami

Art History, Artists, Biography, Modernism, Movements, Relationships, Writers
Diana Souhami


"Twentieth century literature is Gertrude Stein". Or at least so thought Gertrude Stein, a sentiment she shared with few others, except of course Alice B Toklas. Gertrude and Alice met in 1907 in Paris and famously shared their lives from that day forth, souls in perfect complement; two magnificently eccentric and idiosyncratic women who became a legendary entity, photographed by Man Ray and Cecil Beaton, painted and fêted by Picasso and visited by writers such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Eliot. Theirs is a fascinating story, and they have found a wonderful and oddly sympathetic chronicler in Diana Souhami, whose book The Trials of Radclyffe Hall met with critical acclaim, and who proves the perfect counterfoil to the "Steins". Her own touch of genius is to barely consider Gertrude's grand oeuvre, sparing the rod to an already spoilt child and freeing her readership from the unpalatable fare she generally served up (by contrast, Alice was a dedicated and talented cook).
Literary success came late to Stein--she was 57 when The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was published-- but like Edith Sitwell she became, to use a Leavis phrase, more a figure in the history of publicity, and the curious thing is that one senses that behind the rhetoric, she knew it. After her death in 1946, Alice became the classic devoted author's widow, finally dying just short of her 90th birthday. She was buried with Gertrude in Père Lachaise cemetery, though her inscription is on the back of the tombstone, as ever behind her lover. Souhami's two lives, refreshingly stripped of biographical dead wood, positively crackle with high-powered gossip and bristle with bitchy anecdotes, though her laconic touch is never asleep to the touching cadences as well as the wonderful absurdities. As a writer, a "literary cubist", who once tried to give up nouns, Stein is more to be admired than respected. As a life force, a mover and shaker, and as a partner for Alice, she was massively successful. Their life together, a third life so to speak, was their greatest creation, and it's done justice by the talented Souhami's glorious account. Gertrude and Alice would have hated it. --David Vincent