Secrets of Gertrude Stein: CJM exhibit spotlights life and legacy of bohemian writer

In 1934, on a speaking tour of the U.S., Gertrude Stein made a stop in her hometown of Oakland. The modernist writer hadn’t been back since moving to Paris 30 years earlier. But when she went to look for her childhood home, she found it torn down. “There is no there there,” she wrote of the experience in her book “Everybody’s Autobiography.”

The quote, widely misinterpreted as a criticism of the city as a whole, has haunted Oakland ever since. It’s a fitting legacy, really, for a writer whose most famous line is the simplistic-to-the-point-of-being-inscrutable “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”

Stein lived from 1874 to 1946, spending most of her adult life in Paris. Despite her role in the city’s bohemian scene of the 1930s (at the center of a social circle that included Picasso and Ernest Hemingway), her widely recognized foresight as an art collector and, later, her emergence as a feminist icon, Gertrude Stein — the actual person — has remained something of an enigma.

“Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories,” an exhibition running at the Contemporary Jewish Museum now through Sept. 6, seeks to get beyond the larger-than-life persona. Through photos, music, original manuscripts, interactive displays and contemporary art inspired by the writer, the exhibit explores Stein’s public and private identities: as a Jewish-American expatriate, as a lesbian and as a patron of the arts. The exhibition also explores her lesser-known collaborations in opera and ballet, her friendships and family relationships, which were volatile at times.

“One of our goals was to humanize her,” explained guest curator Wanda M. Corn on a walk through the near-ready exhibition May 9. A distinguished professor in art history at Stanford University and an expert on modernism, Corn has authored a book with the same title as the exhibition, which will move to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., in October. In San Francisco, the exhibition runs in conjunction with one at the MOMA that focuses on Stein’s private collection.

Gertrude Stein, circa 1903 photo/courtesy of the therese erhman papers, the magnes collection of jewish art and life, the bancroft library, university of california, berkeley

“Yes, she was this iconic figure, but she was also a person,” Corn said. “She had a sense of humor, she could be difficult to get along with — not everyone thought she was the cat’s pajamas.”

The five stories referred to in the exhibition’s title explore different chronological stages of Stein’s life, as well as the complex, sometimes contradictory aspects of her character.

Story 1, “Picturing Gertrude,” paints a portrait of Stein’s middle-class upbringing. Born in Pennsylvania in 1874 to well-educated German Jewish parents, Stein was the youngest of five children. When she was 3 years old, the family briefly moved to Vienna, then Paris, before settling in Oakland in 1878. Stein attended the First Hebrew Congregation of Oakland’s Sabbath School.

Both parents had died by the time she was 17. Stein’s relationship with her brother Leo would direct her life in many ways for the next two decades, until their falling out in 1912. When he went to Harvard University, Gertrude followed him, attending Radcliffe College and later Johns Hopkins University to study medicine.

In 1903, the two left for Paris, where they lived together in the sixth arrondissement and began to collect art. They visited Henry Matisse and Pablo Picasso in their personal studios and bought pieces directly from the artists, and became fixtures at modern art exhibitions around town.

As their collection, which was the first privately owned collection of modern art in the city, grew in size, the siblings began inviting others in the arts community into their home for intellectual “salons” on Saturday evenings.

In 1907, Gertrude Stein met Alice B. Toklas, who would become her lifelong partner; the two moved in together in 1910.

Story 1 also focuses on Stein’s imposing physical appearance, which made her a favorite subject for artists. A 1923 photo of Stein sitting for a sculpture shows the writer in a Buddha-like position, looking on as sculptor Jo Davidson perfects her likeness.

“Sir Francis Rose and Gertrude Stein, Bilignin” by Sir Cecil Beaton, 1939 photo/courtesy of the cecil beaton studio archive at sotheby’s

“She took great care with how she presented herself,” said Corn. “And she consciously changed her appearance several times over the course of her life.” At the age of 52, she cut her long hair into a severe “Julius Caesar”–style bob and began dressing in a more masculine style; both were regarded as explicit expressions of her lesbianism.

In Story 2, “Domestic Stein,” the writer’s identity as a lesbian and her relationship with Toklas take center stage. Corn said she commends the CJM for being willing to undertake that aspect of the exhibition.

“I do think this is the first time Alice has been recognized, truly celebrated for her role,” she said, gesturing toward a wall of photographs depicting the couple in their first home together. A book featuring the hashish brownie recipe for which Toklas is probably best known is also on display.

In the context of their domestic life, Alice comes into focus as, for all intents and purposes, a fairly traditional wife figure. The couple made three homes together, and divided household duties along traditional gender lines. When Hemingway came over to visit, he and Stein would retreat to discuss writing, while Toklas chatted with Hemingway’s wife.

“For all the bohemian aspects of her lifestyle, she was really very conventional in most other ways,” said Corn. “That was something that she and Hemingway shared.”

Story 3 focuses on Stein’s famous friendships. She happily took credit for having launched Picasso’s career, a move that solidified her as a taste-maker with the power to propel or ruin budding artists. A portrait of Stein, done by Picasso when he was 24 and she was 31 (and not yet famous), would become the only painting Stein bequeathed to an institution, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The painting currently hangs as part of the SFMOMA’s exhibit.

Other collaborations, such as those in the theater world, have received very little attention. Her friendship with American composer Virgil Thomson produced “Four Saints in Three Acts,” an opera based on the life of Saint Teresa of Avila, and “The Mother of Us All,” an opera based on a libretto by Stein about Susan B. Anthony and the suffragette movement.

“Gertrude Stein posing for Jo Davidson” by Man Ray, 1922 photo/courtesy of the national portrait gallery, smithsonian institution, © 2010 man ray trust / artists rights society (ars), new york / adagp, paris

Story 4 sheds light on Stein’s later years as a veritable celebrity in the U.S., following the 1933 publication of her bestselling book “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas,” a rumination on the bohemian scene the couple had helped to shape in Paris. In 1934, at the height of interest in her work, Stein returned to her home country after more than 30 years away; an interactive display allows museum visitors to track the stops on her speaking tour.

This section of the exhibition also delves into one of the most mysterious times in the duo’s life together — the years they spent and, miraculously, survived, in Nazi-occupied France.

“They didn’t leave,” Corn said, “and for a long time no one knew how it was possible [that they lived through World War II] — they were Americans, they were lesbians and they were both Jews.”

It is now understood that they were protected by someone high up in the Vichy government, though the extent of the protection is unclear. One thing the war did affect: Stein’s sense of pride in her American homeland. Though she had always been something of a conflicted patriot — politically, she was conservative, and spoke highly critically of FDR and the New Deal — World War II solidified a deep nationalism within the writer.

Stein was 72 when she was diagnosed with stomach cancer in July 1946; she died two weeks later. She was buried in the Jewish section of Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, near Edith Piaf. Toklas would live another 21 years — many of which she spent directing the publication of Stein’s unfinished writing.

Fittingly, story 5 of the exhibition deals with the legacy Stein left behind: the artists she continues to inspire and the communities that have adopted her as a matriarch of sorts. In the 1970s, pop artists, feminists and queer activists alike came to see Stein as an innovator — a role model both for her art and the way she took her private life public. In 1980, Andy Warhol included her alongside Golda Meir, Sigmund Freud and the Marx Brothers in a series titled “Ten Portraits of Jews of the 20th Century,” which was displayed at the CJM in 2008.

This final section of the exhibition brings the visitor back up to the present, with drawings, sound installations, and even comic strips based on the life of the woman with whom Hemingway once claimed to be “just like brothers.”

Despite her Jewish upbringing, Stein didn’t go out of her way to make Judaism a central facet of her identity, Corn said. And yet she didn’t shy away from it; it was simply part of who she was. “One of her pet names for Alice was ‘my little Jew,’ ” the curator said with a laugh. “And then, after [Stein] dies, of course, Alice converts to Catholicism.”

Regardless, “I don’t know where else I could have done an exhibition like this other than at the CJM … We wanted to thicken the way people think about her,” said Corn, who spent a decade preparing the exhibition.

“She was a force on so many levels — as a woman in the avant-garde, as an intellectual, as a Jew, as a lesbian who was open about her sexuality,” she added. “We thought, ‘Each of these is a story worth telling.’ ”

cover: painting/courtesy of the national portrait gallery, smithsonian institution; gift of the t. mellon evans foundation and gallery purchase, “Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein” by Sir Francis Cyril Rose, 1939

“Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories” runs now through Sept. 6 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. Information:


Stein also at the MOMA

While the CJM explores the woman behind the legacy, a concurrent exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art celebrates her vision as an art collector. “The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde,” running now through Sept. 6, reunites the modern art collections of Stein, her brothers Leo and Michael Stein and Michael’s wife, Sarah, all collectors in their own right.

Jointly organized by SFMOMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Réunion des Musées Nationaux in Paris, the exhibition includes 200 iconic paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints by Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne, Renoir and many more. In total, the collection reflects the artistic legacy of a family credited with having helped shape European modernism in the first half of the 20th century.

SFMOMA is located at 151 Third St., S.F. For more information, visit



Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.