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I consider Gertrude Stein one of the most important figures of 20th century art and literature and find her fascinating. Not for her writing of course. I’m all for experimental writing styles – but, wherever that experiment goes the reader should be able to understand what the hell is going and time has proven that having a plot to your stories is helpful too. Trying to get a bead on Gertrude’s writings is like trying to navigate the Horn without a rudder. My fascination is more in what really went on at 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris and the influence she had on her guests. Whatever it was certainly helped shape many a talented artist and fueled some great inspiration in the era’s best authors. For that, I consider Gertie a literary force. And, of course her lifestyle choices, which certainly revolutionary for the time (kind of out without being out) are as captivating as her relationships with the framers of twentieth century art in most of its forms.
For years I couldn’t remember my first exposure to the woman and then recently was forced to look through some old college notes as a cleansing exercise for a move to another house. On one of my English creative writing course notebooks from 1988, I found this coffee stained blurry sentence written in blue ink exactly as such:
“I bet this piece of junk would love to have been lying on a divan with ol’ Gertie rubbing her scratchy crew cut all over this dilettante’s naked breasts, nuzzling her nipples with that huge bulbous crater laden nose while listening to the Indigo Girls of the period and trashing Gertie’s latest piece.”
Not my best sentence. The note was written about this train wreck of a student teacher replacing the regular professor of a writing class (who was the reason I signed up for the course) that particular semester. Her hatred for me was palpable and I returned it with wild abandon. This woman was one of those people who couldn’t write to save her life but had no problem reducing to tears many a good writer unfortunate enough to fall under her wayward tutelage. I can’t remember in what context Stein was brought up in during the class, but my detective senses are telling me this is when I started my quasi obsession. By the way, I’m more than reasonably sure this person was screwing the course professor and that’s how she got the job – there couldn’t possibly be any other reason.
I’m a lover of biographies and at some point began reading every single one I could find on Gert. Most of them are very dryly written I must say, but I believe that is probably due to (my opinion) there being few ballsy biographers at the time of Gertie’s death in 1946. I’m willing to bet a donut most of those biographies are censored. I think it would be fantastic to travel back in time and see what really went on in that salon. Did Picasso bring his mistresses and canoodle with them while sipping Absinthe and sketching inappropriate scenes on their inner, upper thighs? How did Hemingway react to Gertie’s lifestyle? It’s not that I think he would be intolerant; I would just love to know the nature of his reaction. Like, when Gertie sent Alice to hang with the women while she congregated with the men – did he see Gertrude as a man, the husband in the relationship and go shot for shot with her (I bet Gertie could drink Ernie under the table)? Or what? Likewise, Fitzgerald. What great dynamic it had to have been.
And, what did these people think of Gertrude’s art? Did they provide scathing liquor/drug induced honest criticism, or hold their tongues, knowing her influence could make or break them? These things run through my mind all the time and vex me to no end. Were the musicians she invited into her chamber made to change tunes like a DJ working a Mac in a Chi-Chi, exclusive NYC or LA dance club?
I’d love to know what she said to her guests. It had to be powerful and I’m sure shaped some of their work. From time to time, I’ll come across a phrase or sentence in one of her lieges’ work and think to myself; I wonder if this was a Stein influence. I say liege because I see Gertrude Stein as being by nature a “superior personality”. Someone who commands attention and to whom even the most egotistical, talented or successful person would have to stop, listen and process her every word. My reasoning for this frame of thought is the consistency and passion of the love notes Gertrude and Alice passed between each other over their lives. Some intellectual mensch dug these notes out of Bieneke at Yale sometime in the last 50 years and they have been bandied about all over the place (you can find them online anywhere), and the letters clearly show someone who when invested in something, or someone – goes all the way. People like that have huge influence over even the greatest of minds.
Intellectuals and pseudo intellectuals alike love trying to analyze why Gertrude’s writings were so scattered and her life so different from that of the times. They make reference to her family’s wanderlust and Bohemian style. I think that’s bullshit and she just had a lot going on in her mind. Rapid fire thoughts bouncing in and about her skull so fast they were hard to harness and I think she was able to slow down those thoughts in order to brain storm with her artist friends long enough to help them with their own creativity, something I bet she wasn’t able to do for herself. I believe she was the brake person on the rails of their speeding imaginations, slowing them down long enough to glean a point from which to start and possibly end this or that piece of work. From her notes to Alice, it’s obvious she had no problem putting more of herself into others than into Gertrude.
So, who’s the Gertrude Stein of this century? There isn’t one.