“Gertrude Stein gone gone is gone,” to paraphrase the American press. Is it really true that she is gone? Stein had become a San Francisco neighbor, someone to say hello to across the street, back and forth between SFMOMA and CJM with a stop at Peets in between. Suddenly to have lost her presence, Gertie all packed up and shipped to DC, seems unreal. The long Summer of Stein being over, I was able to take my nostalgia to Paris for a few days. Did it help?
I keep thinking of moments that stand out for me in this Summer of Stein. There was the complaint often heard, the question often asked when I gave a talk or salon: how did Stein and Toklas survive the war? How come the Contemporary Jewish Museum hardly mentioned it? How come Seeing Gertrude Stein didn’t look at this Jewish question par excellence? The controversy brewing over Stein’s being protected by a Vichy collaborator even exploded in a panel discussion where I had to come to her defense against wild accusation of Nazi sympathies by local author Fred Rosenbaum. I maintain there is a slew of misunderstandings, and that the new book on the topic, Barbara Will’s “Unlikely Collaboration” is heavily tendentious and tries to grind an axe against Stein (like Janet Malcolm in her vicious Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, and other authors before her). But that deserves a post on its own, stay tuned.
On a more charming note, at my North Beach Gallery Canessa salon, an audience member told the story of visiting the site of Nathalie Barney’s parallel salon to Stein’s, and getting her caretaker, Berthe, to show her around long before Paris Was A Woman filmmaker Greta Schiller arrived with her crew. I imagine this audience member had stepped into an ancient limo at the strike of midnight that day…
Another member reported she used to have Stein’s quote “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” on her bedroom wall already as a child, and her father told her there was nothing special about it — anyone could have made that up. Ah well, but nobody did, did they? Not even Shakespeare with his “rose by any other name.” Google counts some 1, 221 rose poems in Western literature, and they are long and they are short, but only one of them recreates the rose as the modernist and post-modernist rose of our time.
What also stands out for me, no matter how much you know and have read about Stein: there is always another treasure trove to discover. Did you know that in the last 15 years some 30 academic studies have been published on Stein — and 70 dissertations written on her? One of them, Mama Dada: Gertrude Stein’s Avant-Garde Theater by Sarah Bay-Cheng, reminded me that there are some 70 plays written by the author! Just in time, on my Paris visit, I met artist/performer/filmmaker Elizabeth Lennard who has done many of these plays and even plans to produce one at the end of the Paris run of The Steins Collect at the Grand Palais: a play with 500 characters! Who but Stein could have come up with such an idea? How is Lennard going to solve that little casting hurdle? Employ the audience!
In Stein’s Operas and Plays you can see for yourself, and you can also read up on Four Saints in Three Acts as you won’t have understood more than a few words in the Yerba Buena performance of the “opera installation,” sung without supertitles and lacking the kind of direction that would have let you in on the fun and wit of it. The veritable Stein opera, as I said in my last post, happened next door to The Steins Collect, at SFMOMA, in David Clearbout’s video piece, “The American Room” which had all the radical modernist qualities Stein would have called “peaceful and exciting.”
I confess that my nostalgia made me rent the old hippy movie I Love You, Alice B. Toklas with Peter Sellers as a stiff who needs some hash brownies to get a life. Very sweet and silly and just right to console one after having seen Midnight in Paris a few times too many.
And finally, the good-bye in San Francsico was sweetened for me by learning that museum gift stores do sell books: all together nearly 1000 copies of Gertrude Stein in Words and Pictures flew off the shelves, straight into the Summer of Stein…