Monday, February 3, 2014

Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas and Jenny Reefer



Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas
Born on February 3, 1874 was the hostess with the mostest, art collector extraordinaire, avant-garde writer and wit Gertrude Stein.

Much has been made of Stein's longtime companion Alice B. Toklas and her hashish fudge, a recipe for which appears in The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, published in 1954When Toklas's American publisher objected to the "illegal" recipe, she reportedly feared many would assume Stein's writing happened while under the influence (which certainly seems possible, if you read it).

Toklas disavowed knowledge of the recipe, writing in a letter to Donald Gallup* composed on 12-19-21 October 1954, "I hope you were as shocked as I was by the notice in Time of the hashish fudge. I was also furious until I discovered it really was in the cook book! Contributed by one of Carl's most enchanting friends—Brion Gysin—so that the laugh was on me. Thornton [Wilder] said that no one would believe in my innocence as I had pulled the publicity stunt of the year—that Harper had telegraphed from London to the Attorney General to see if there would be any trouble in printing it." Hear Toklas reading the recipe and commenting about it in a 1963 interview.   

It's possible that Stein and Toklas were more conduits for a younger generation of partakers, like Gysin and his friend VIP Paul Bowles, who lived with Stein and Toklas for a time. The Lost Generation was, after all, mostly lost in liquor. However, among Stein's art purchases was the first painting ever sold by Marie Laurencin, which appears to be a painting of a hashish party held in 1908.

Robert Indiana's costume for Jenny Reefer.
An interesting character by the name of Jenny Reefer appears in "The Mother of Us All," a 1947 opera about the life and career of suffragette Susan B. Anthony for which Stein wrote the libretto. Reefer is described as "a mezzo-soprano; a comical feminist, outspoken and opinionated." Sounds like a pothead to me.

Stein and Toklas's greatest significance was in bringing expatriate writers and artists together at their Parisian salon. That tradition was carried on by 1970s superagent and pot lover Sue Mengers, of whom CBS President Leslie Moonves said,  “She was the modern-day Gertrude Stein. People would gather and exchange ideas and talk about things that were not talked about anywhere else in town.” Tokin' Woman Mama Cass Eliot was also compared to Stein. 

Kathy Bates played Stein in Midnight in ParisPat Carroll played her in the one-woman show Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted in 1989 to rename a block of Myrtle Street between Polk Street and Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco as Alice B. Toklas Place, since Toklas was born one block away on O'Farrell Street.

Agnes Moorehead as Endora in TV's Bewitched
In the 1968 film I Love You, Alice B. Toklas, Leigh Taylor-Young turns Peter Sellers onto pot brownies, causing him to transform.

An episode called "Tabitha's Weekend" that aired on TV's Bewitched on March 6, 1969 has this interesting exchange: Endora (the grandmother witch) is offered cookies by Darrin's (straight) mother. "They're not by chance from an Alice B. Toklas recipe?" Endora asks. When told they were not, "Then I think I'll pass," is her answer. Tabitha, the junior witch, then turns herself into a cookie. (Mrs. Stevens suffers from headaches and gulps the more prosaic sherry.) The episode may be the reason Rob Thomas's first band was called "Tabitha's Secret."

*Donald Gallup was a well-known scholar of American Literature, who served as the curator of the Yale Collection of American Literature for over thirty years. In 1940-41 he and Robert B. Haas prepared for the Yale University Library A Catalogue of the Published and Unpublished Writings of Gertrude Stein, and he and began collecting Stein and Toklas's materials after meeting them while he was stationed in Paris during World War II. In 1958 he succeeded Carl Van Vechten as the literary executor of the Stein estate. 

Apparently Gallup and Van Vechten (presumably, the Carl of mention) had a hand in producing Alice's cookbook. Toklas wrote, "It's not necessary to tell you that the pieces selected and their arrangement move me deeply. Gertrude always used to say—Let's put them first into groups and then break them up by contrasts—which is just what you have done. You and Carl have done such marvels because of the purity of your purpose which permits inspiration to flow unimpeded. Thank you—dear Donald." 

Gertrude and Alice met the younger painter and writer Brion Gysin in the 1930s when he lived in Paris. Toklas wrote Gysin in Tangiers on 26 February 1952, giving motherly advise about finances, and calling Jane Bowles [the wife of VIP Paul Bowles, a friend of Gysin's]  "strange as an American but not as an Oriental." She signed off, "Affectionate good wishes to you—dear Brion always." Bowles had lived with Stein and Toklas. On 24 February 1954 she wrote to Gysin offering help with a UNESCO investigation being conducted on him. On 11 June 1957 she wrote congratulating him on a New York showing, signing it, "So many good wishes to you and fond love." On 27 November 1958, in a letter to Ned Rorem, she wrote that Gysin "is here [in Paris, or maybe staying with her] and painting beautifully—working hard." 

On 14 March 1953, Toklas wrote to her friend Louise Taylor, letting her know that in order to receive an advance on the cookbook, she needed to come up with 12,000 more words, and so was opening up a chapter to contributions from friends. She asked Taylor if she could include Taylor's Circassian Chicken recipe, and said she would be including contributions from the Van Vechtens, Marie Laurencin, Isabel Wilder, and "undoubtedly" Brion Gysin. She complained in the letter of exhaustion from jaundice; Toklas was in ill health and so depended on contributions from friends. The book has a section titled, "Recipes from Friends," in which the Hashish Fudge recipe appears, attributed to Gysin and misspelling cannabis as "cannibus." 

On 24 April 1953, Toklas wrote to Carl (who she called "Sweetest and only Papa Woojums") about the "difficulty in getting the miserable cook book finished" which had been a "tormenting and very unsatisfactory effort." (In this letter she recounts the last words of Baby (Stein). "About Baby's last words. She said upon waking from a sleep—What is the question. And I didnt answer thinking she was not completely awakened. Then 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."

Source: Letters of Alice B. Toklas: Staying on Alone. Edited by Edward Burns. Vintage Books Edition, January 1975. 

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