Worth a try, amiright?!
For the first installment of Ex-Pats Theme Week, we’ll be turning to everyone’s favorite 20th century lesbians, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas who were, admittedly, not that hot. Or scandalous, if we’re being honest. Explicitly at least. Because even in 1920s hipper-than-austin-tx-during-a-film-festival Paris, to be a lady who was into other ladies was still pretty taboo. But regardless of their scandalosity, Stein and Toklas were the uncontested leaders and organizers of the 1920s expat scene in Paris and no For Shame! ex-pat theme week would be complete without them. So we’ll do the best we can here, and if I have to make up some imaginary lesbian sex dialogues, so be it.
Stein and Toklas met in Paris in 1907 on Toklas’s first day in the big city, and it was love at first sight. This is what Alice wrote about Gerty the first time she saw her:
She was a golden brown presence, burned by the Tuscan sun and with a golden glint in her warm brown hair. She was dressed in a warm brown corduroy suit. She wore a large round coral brooch and when she talked, very little, or laughed, a good deal, I thought her voice came from this brooch. It was unlike anyone else’s voice– deep, full, velvety, like a great contralto’s, like two voices.
Did your heart just melt a little? Yeah, mine too. Bitches be sweet. They were swapping panties from that day until 1947, when Stein died of stomach cancer. During their life together, their home in Paris was the most important Salon for budding writers and artists during Europe’s interwar period.
They collected paintings, they read manuscripts, they sat for paintings, they rejected paintings, they rejected manuscripts, they sold paintings, they stood for paintings, they sat for readings – Stein and Toklas were the artistic and literary barometers of 1920s Western Europe. It is arguable that Thornton Wilder, Ernest Hemingway, and Pablo Picasso among others are all well known because Stein encouraged and promoted their work and deemed it good. If she had told Hemingway that he sucked and his work was no good, we probably wouldn’t know who he is now. If she hadn’t started buying Picasso’s painting or letting him paint her, or other people, in her salon, he’d just be some Spanish douchebag with a paintbrush and sex problem. Point is, we have these bitches to thank for, like, half the MOMA’s permanent collection, and probably a third of the Penguin Classics. As they say, behind every good artist is a good lesbian.*
To keep this puppy short, let’s just do a good ol’ list of ways that Stein and Toklas scandalized shit up in their time as Europe’s #1 lesbian couple:
- Stein’s book, Q.E.D. (Things As They Are), which was published by Toklas posthumously, is considered to be the first coming out story in history. Pretty big fucking deal if you asked me. It was also the first book to use the word “gay” to mean “homosexual.” And she used it over, and over again. So people who didn’t understand that thought it was just a book about a lot of really happy women.
- Stein’s most famous book, from which you probably read an excerpt in high school, or on an AP exam or something, is called Tender Buttons. WHICH I JUST FUCKING REALIZED IS A METAPHOR FOR CLITORISES!!! How did I miss that all these years? She was the biggest lesbian in the world and her most famous book is called Tender
Buttons. DUH. OF COURSE IT IS. Why didn’t Mr. Snyder, my 11th grade English teacher, tell us that?! In the text, she repeatedly uses the words “snatch” and “box,” (MRG and my favorite vaginal euphemisms, respectively.) That sneaky, sneaky bitch. Tender fucking buttons. You sneaky bitch, Gertrude Stein!
- I just learned this while doing my “research” for this post. Did you know that Stein and Toklas were hard-core political conservatives? Weird, right? Considering they had vaginas, and liked vaginas so much, and were both Jews from the Bay Area. But it’s true. During WWII, they retired to a little cottage in the French countryside and weren’t bothered by Jew Hunters because they had a friend in politics who collaborated with the Vichy government. Wuuttt?? And then, after the war, when their buddy was imprisoned for being a collaborator, they helped to fund his escape! So maybe that wasn’t exactly scandalous, but kind of surprising right? It subverted my expectations, ‘aight?
And now, as promised, an imagined lesbian historical dialogue from For Shame!’s resident thesBian (that’s me), unto you:
Gerty: Alice, TWAT did you think about Pablo’s latest work?
Alice: I TWAT it was rather pedestrian.
Gerty: Really? I was thinking I might SNATCH it up!
Alice: That’s curious, because I would put it in my BOX of things that suck.
* Joke courtesy of good friend and lover of the blog, LP.
Listen. I know. Be quiet. I get it. Our silence is getting old. And we’re sorry. And I promise these lags in posting will become less frequent and less prolonged, and eventually we won’t have to begin every post with an apology. How do you know that we’ll never wrong you again? Well, I guess you can’t know for sure. But just trust that bringing tales of scandalous and historical titty-touching and pepe-pleasuring directly to you is back at the top of our collective to-do lists. Let us begin.
Harry Crosby was born in Boston’s swank-ass Back Bay neighborhood (where I’m going to live when I grow up) in 1898 to kabillionaire parents who set him up with a nice little trust fund and sent him off to all the best schools for blue-blooded beantown boys. In order to escape the “horrors of Boston virgins,” Harry signed up for the Ambulance Corps during WW Uno and was shipped overseas to tote sickies around the Western Front. So in between the Sommes and Verdun, I’m sure he was able to score plenty of Belgian poon. He arrived home in 1919 with a fresh case of PTSD and that characteristic post-war melancholia that made people make art with lots of weird shapes, drink espresso, and fuck as many bitches as they could manage to roofie at the neighborhood speakeasy. Shortly after returning, he decided that what he really needed was some learnin’, so he entered into an accelerated veterans program at a little college called Hogwarts, I mean Harvard, where he cultivated his passion for literature and noncommittal coitus.
When he was 22, his mom arranged for a bunch of his friends and some suitable snatches, I mean matches, to go on an afternoon outing (because apparently in 1920 it was normal for parents to arrange playdates for their grown children.) Mama Croz asked her friend Mrs. Richard Peabody to keep everyone’s hormones under control as their chaperone. I worry about his mother’s judgement because Mary Phelps Jacob (aka Mrs. Richard Peabody) was only 6 years Harry’s senior and also happened to be the inventor of the bra. No big deal. Girlfriend had a huuuuge personality. And young Harold just could not take his eyes off of it. Within two weeks, their love affair had become the talk of Boston society.
It took him, like, a year, but eventually Harry managed to convince the well-endowed Mrs. Peabody to get a divorce from her husband, and he put a ring on it in 1922. Shortly after, they moved, along with Polly’s children, to Paris. Because Paris in the 1920s was a great place to raise a family. And by “great place to raise a family” what I mean is that Paris was where people went when drinking absinth and smoking salvia with a prostitute at an illegal bar in Manhattan wasn’t really doing it for them anymore. Paris was where people went when the bar in H – E – double hockey sticks had to close early because of too much sinning. Paris was where people went to find a sensitive-and-STD-ridden artist/writer/adventurer to inspire/become inspired by through constant sexhaving and cafe claches. Do you get it? Is it clear what I’m getting at? Paris was a motherfucking hotbed of sex, drugs, alcohol, jazz, sex, alcohol, fun, and sex, and more sex.
Luckily, child rearing wasn’t Mr and Mrs Cosby, I mean Crosby’s, primary concern. Instead, it was how many extramarital D/V wetting sessions they were able to fit in between dinner and breakfast Thursday through Sunday each week. They were both known for having a wide open marriage and Harry was known to have had one night trysts with young women who may or may not have been studying for their Bat Mitzvahs. Or taking 7th grade algebra. I’m uncomfortable.
Because of Harry’s charmingly irresponsible use of his trust fund, the loving spouses led an extravagant lifestyle that involved living in lavish apartments and holding “dinner parties” out of their giant bed. They also apparently hosted a party once that involved playing polo on donkeys, stick in one hand, a 40 in the other. (I almost typed “dolphins” and then I thought, “now, that would have been fucking cool.” If only they’d had a little more imagination.) Ernest Hemingway, the most famous alcoholic writer, like, ever, used to say that Harry Crosby could drink anyone under the table. I mean, if Hemingway is saying that, then Jesus fucking Christ, you have a problem, ok? I’ll say no more.
Except that’s not true at all BECAUSE I HAVEN’T EVEN SCANDALIZED YOU YET HAVE I?!?! Well listen the fuck up because it’s about to get all Prince Rudolph up in here, ifyouknowwhatimsayin??
Harry met a girl named Josephine Rotch in Venice while she was shopping for, get this, her wedding dress. (Who would have thought it? Bridal Salons. Great place to pick up chicks.) The two started a steamy affair which continued until her wedding later that year at which point, it stopped. JUST KIDDING. Within, like, 20 minutes, they were transatlantically sending each other depressing love poetry again. Plus Jo kept telegramming him, demanding that the next time he come stateside, he bed her immediately. Girlfriend knew what she wanted.
A consummate gentleman, Harry obliged. In December of 1929, the couple met at a friend’s studio apartment in Manhattan and the next thing you know, Harry is late to a pre-show dinner, his wife gets worried, his friend goes to check on him at the studio, has to break the door down because it’s locked from the inside, bada bing bada boom, Harry and Josephine are lying on the floor, clutched in each other’s arms, with matching bullet-holes in their temples. Awkward.
I know, shit’s whack. It came out that right before, the two had written a bunch of charming poetry to each other and in their diaries about death and love and marriage and dying and blah blah So the whole ordeal was looking like a suicide pact. BUT THEN the coroner’s report came back and it determined conclusively that Josephine had died, like, 2 hours earlier than Harry. Again, awkward. So, kind of up in the air on whether or not shit was consensual is all I’m saying. Needless to say, the suicide/murder-suicide speculations were plastered all over the tabloids – the press had a motherfucking field day with this shit. It was like when they figured out that they could make Brad and Angelina into one word. THAT BIG.
Even though my general tone towards Harry has been a little judgmental, his suicide is considered now to be sort of emblematic of the post-war Lost Generation. And that’s really sad. And makes my throat a little tight. Because while I do think that the expats had some whiny tendencies that I could do without, I have a pretty major hard on for interwar Europe and I actually think they were pretty brilliant people, expressing some very real and legitimate concerns about the world around them.
I know this post is getting ridiculously long, but I should add one thing about Harry’s contribution to interwar Modernism and Parisian art culture: When they weren’t partying til dawn and scamming on hot young things, the Crosbys were busy being the first to publish TS Elliot, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound – all before they were famous, in a publication that they founded called the Black Sun Press. It was and still is kind of a big deal.
On that note, what have we learned? Having a lot of affairs and being on a lot of drugs all the time might make you kind of unstable and lead to your tragic, yet super famous, demise? Yeah, I don’t know either. Those interwar motherfuckers are so goddam ambiguous.
LHB (with some much appreciated guidance and collaboration and title-writing from JAF)