If you missed Paris the Luminous Years on PBS and (and missed the snow falling on Gertrude’s Montparnasse in my last Stein post), there is a there there to console you: Paris Was A Woman, the charming (if not always accurate) documentary by Greta Schiller. It is now available on Netflix.
There is no better way to get a good look at Stein through the movies. Yes, the icon of modernism in front of a home movie camera! She and Alice walk in the Luxembourg Gardens. She gets her poodle excited. She even attacks the tomato patch in the garden of the country house — just to disprove herself: “It takes a lot of time to be a genius you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing.” “Work is something I cannot do.” You hear her voice, the marvelous melody of her rapping on Picasso, and you can decide for yourself if Alice was out of her mind when she met Gertrude for the first time and was blown away by the “contralto” voice that seemed to emanate from the brooch Stein was wearing… “It was unlike anyone else’s voice — deep, full, velvety like a great contralto’s.” Contralto voice coming out of a brooch? Is this an early case of Alice having been involved with a hash brownie? Or simply the violent effect of falling in love?
Live testimony in the film comes from the great Janet Flanner who wrote her regular Paris reports for the New Yorker, and from photographer Gisèle Freund who portrayed all the soon-to-be famous artists who frequented either Stein’s salon in the Rue de Fleurus or Nathalie Barney’s in the Rue Jacob, or both. Nathalie Barney’s housekeeper of 40 years dishes up stories about the “Amazon” of Paris and her guests. Sylvia Beach reminisces at length about the mythic bookstores, her own English-language Shakespeare & Company, and her lover Adrienne Monnier’s French-language La Maison des Amis de Livres. Stein was the first client in Beach’s lending-library-bookstore, faithful until she couldn’t forgive Beach’s obsession with James Joyce. Years later, in an interview, Silvia Beach appears undefeated by the publishing dramas of the past. It’s her friends who disclose the heart-wrenching story: the betrayal by Joyce, who allowed her to ruin herself with the publication of his Ulysses, in 1922, and then jumped ship, not giving her a penny of the $45,000 Random House offered him…
Publishing as we have come to know it. No matter, Paris Was A Woman makes it abundantly clear why creative women at the beginning of the twentieth century chose to be in Paris and no place else.