IN THE FALL of 1907, weary of life in the United States, Alice B. Toklas packed her bags and expatriated to Paris. During her first week there she attended a party at the famous rue de Fleurus home of Gertrude Stein. They met again a few days later. From the first their personalities seemed ideally suited. Alice was modest, somewhat self-effacing, subdued - traits which complemented Gertrude's extroverted vigor and nagging need for attention. Alice's secure and gentle manner had the effect of putting others, particularly the restless and unnerved, at perfect ease; it put Gertrude at ease. Alice was an excellent listener; Gertrude loved to talk. Alice was well enough informed and secure enough in herself to be able to stand up to Gertrude, too offer moral support but also forceful and shrewd criticism when called for. Most important, Gertrude needed to be loved, had all her life searched for someone to shower her with affection, "the real thing " she termed it. Alice, for her part, needed to love someone, desired to devote herself to some person or cause. Theirs was a nearly perfect union, intimates Linda Simon in this perspicuous and well-researched book, a first biography of Alice Toklas, publised to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of her birth. A previous memoir, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, ny Gertrude Stein, was in reality about its author and not its subject; it was Gertrude's autobiography, her first major commerical success, the volume that in 1933 put her on the literary map. But the book at hand is all objectivity and more objectivity, a study that shows Toklas as she must have been not "Miss Stein's obedient shadow" as Edmund Wilson once described her, but a multifaceted and complex creature, with her own tastes and standards.
Within a year of their initial encounter Alice was living with her cherished friend, having taken on an essential and multiple role in the writer's life. She was both confidante and adviser, as well as traveling companion, amanuensis, nursemaid and alter ego. It was she, so to speak, who "kept house"; on her fell "the tedium of servants, provisions, upkeep and finances." Her most vital function, however, was to act as "sieve and buckler." She shielded Gertrude from the outside world, the bores and throngs of new faces that appeared almost daily for interviews or advice or mere blessings. No one saw Gertrude who had not first been screened and thoroughly interogated by Alice. "She was the power behind the throne," insisted a friend.
In that capacity she frequently exercised her own set of prejudices, directed at times toward those who had already gained access to the inner sanctum, even toward those who were regulars at Miss Stein's celebrated Saturday salon. Tchelitchew, whose paintings hung on the apartment's walls alongside the canvasses of Picasso, Matisse, Renoir and other luminaries, was noting but "a dreadful little arriviste" in Alice's eyes. Natalie Barney, hostess of her own salon, was an indiscreet and heedless gossip, not to be trusted. Hemingway, of whom Alice seemed always a bit jealous, appeared "crude" to her; she though him an opportunist, interested mainly in using Gertrude. Fitzgerald, on the other hand, was everything Hemingway was - genteel and distinguished, surely the most gifted and imaginative member of the so-called "lost generation."
If they occasionally disagreed on the subject of personalities, Alice and Gertrude saw eye-to-eye on the need for modernity in the arts, not only in literature but in music and painting as well. Their respective sensibilities, their mutual attraction to the avant garde, was probably the result of their startlingly, similar backgrounds. Of approximately the same age (Gertrude was three years older), they were both the offspring of upper-middle-class jewish families. They had each traveled through Europe as children and had both been raised in San Francisco. Gertrude had lost her mother as a child, just as Alice had. Both were subsequently brought up by domineering fathers. And both, of course, had eventually deserted America for Paris.
To what extent these circumstances may also have determined Alice's or Gertrude's particular sexual proclivity is unclear. This area, touchy as it is, becomes the book's sole sore spot, its singular weakness. One need not delve into explicit detail concerning such matters, but to reduce their relationship as the author does to the simple formula of "husband and wife," with Gertrude playing the male lead, is to do them, both an unjustice. Nevertheless, this fault-line endures. After her companion's decease in 1946, we were informed by Simon that Alice "left the American Hospital a widow." To me at least this seems a rather trite way of putting it.
Minor objections aside, the story of Alice Toklas is an emotionally stirring experience. Especially telling are those years that she lived alone, after Gertrude death. During that 20-year period she produced four of her own books, including that now infamous Cookbook, with its inventive hashish fudge recipe. But she is commemorated here for far more than her culinary skills, as well as she should be.