Toklas, Alice B.

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TOKLAS, Alice B.

Born Alice Babette Toklas, 30 April 1877, San Francisco, California; died 7 March 1967, Paris, France

Daughter of Ferdinand and Emma Levinsky Toklas; life partner Gertrude Stein (died 1946)

Alice B. Toklas was born into San Francisco's upper-middle class Jewish society. When she was thirteen, Ferdinand Toklas moved his family to Seattle, where Toklas enrolled in the music conservatory of the University of Washington to study piano, but her mother's failing health forced the family to return to San Francisco. After her mother's death in 1897, Toklas became the "responsible granddaughter" to a house full of male relatives. She made brief contact with the bohemian life in San Francisco, but largely concentrated on domestic duties. Henry James' novels filled her with longing for Europe and fueled her desire to escape her situation.

In 1907 Toklas left America. Soon after her arrival in Paris, she met Gertrude Stein and the two became intimate friends. Toklas recalled her first impression of Stein, of a "golden brown presence, burned by the Tuscan sun." The two women agreed to a marital relationship in 1908. Toklas soon joined Stein and her brother Leo in their apartment—Leo Stein left in 1913—and the two women lived together until Stein's death in 1946.

Toklas devoted herself to the care, ease, and fulfillment of Gertrude Stein. As Stein's secretary, Toklas typed, edited, and organized the writer's manuscripts. As her companion, she made travel arrangements, scheduled meetings, entertained visitors, and maintained their home. In the years following Stein's death, Toklas was instrumental in publishing Stein's unpublished works, worked with biographers and critics of Stein whose approaches pleased her, and annotated abstruse and allusive aspects of Stein's writing. In 1957 Toklas formally entered the Catholic Church to insure an afterlife with Stein.

Toklas collaborated with Stein on at least two books. She helped, in Stein's words, "to reduce tenses grammar spelling and genders into some kind of order" in Stein's Picasso (1938), then translated this work into English. It is problematic how much Toklas contributed to Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, but clearly she contributed anecdotes, observations, and judgements. There is some evidence Toklas and Stein jointly wrote Stein's "Ada" (1908 to 1912, exact date uncertain) and A Novel of Thank You (1925, 1994).

After Stein's death, Toklas published a number of books and articles. The most substantial of these is her volume of memoirs, What Is Remembered (1963). The material here is much the same as that in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, but the tone is frequently more caustic and the scenes more carefully composed. The anecdotes are finely polished; they have the ring of having been told many times before and so brought to this final form. Toklas' skill in rendering an event and portraying an acquaintance displays her finely honed intelligence. Though she devotes herself largely to fleshing out Stein's legend in her memoirs, Toklas' accomplished style shows her to be a prose writer in her own right.

The same anecdotal style pervades Toklas' The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook (1954, reprinted several times, most recently in 1994 and 1995). This work consists of both her own recipes and those of friends. More importantly, it includes reminiscences of friends, servants, and journeys. Toklas' writing is witty, laconic, and precise; her anecdotal style taut and ironic. The book reads as a memoir, with foods the emblems of memory. Aromas and Flavors of Past and Present (1958), edited by Poppy Cannon, is simply a collection of Toklas' recipes.

Toklas also wrote several articles in which she reminisces about literary life in Paris. In 1956, she published a translation of a book of fables, The Blue Dog and Other Fables for the French, written by the adolescent daughter of some friends. After her death, a volume of her letters appeared. Staying on Alone: Letters of Alice B. Toklas (1973) includes only letters written after Stein's death. They are gossipy, irreverent, and full of devotion to Stein's memory. They deal with Toklas' adjustment to life as a widow and her difficulties with Stein's heirs. When Toklas writes of herself as a woman, it is in the reflected glow of Stein's genius.

Toklas' writing is largely autobiographical. She presents an impression of herself as a loving woman devoted to the comfort of her spouse. She writes a carefully controlled prose, precise of phrase, concise and strong in its evocation of person and place. Toklas' role as secretary to Stein and her involvement with several generations of writers and artists earn her special interest as a participant in the expatriate American world of letters.

Other Works:

Baby Precious Always Shines: Selected Love Notes Between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas (with G. Stein, 1999).

Bibliography:

Bridgman, R., Gertrude Stein in Pieces (1970). Levy, H., 920 O'Farrell Street (1947). Friedrich, O., The Grave of Alice B. Toklas and Other Reports from the Past (1991, 1989). Lord, J., Six Exceptional Women: Further Memoirs (1994). Mellow, J. R., Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein & Company (1974). Rogers, W. G., When This You See Remember Me (1948). Simon, L., The Biography of Alice B. Toklas (1977, 1991). Souhami, D., Gertrude and Alice (1999). Stein, G., The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1993). Steward, S. M., A Pair of Roses (1993). Thomson, V., Virgil Thomson (1966). Windham, D., The Roman Spring of Alice Toklas: 44 Letters by Alice Toklas in a Reminiscence (1987).

Reference works:

Norton Book of Women's Lives (1993). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

Biography (Spring 1999). Modern Fiction Studies (1996). People Weekly (February 1996). Prose (Fall, 1973). Twentieth Century Literature (1999). Women's Studies International Forum (May 1993).

—JANIS TOWNSEND

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