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.