When the name Gertrude Stein comes to mind, it is often associated with Paris in the 1920s. Her home at 27 Rue de Fleurus was a fabulously bohemian outpost, where she, Renoir, Picasso and writers such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald discussed the merits of art.
Today, Stein’s residence has become the most celebrated literary and artistic salon of the 20th century. The stories of the writer’s “salon years” have been well documented. But little is known about her triumphant return to America for a lecture tour in 1934 and 1935. Stein traversed the country for 191 days, giving 74 lectures in 37 different cities. While her trip was highly publicized at the time, little is known now, even though, as Gertrude Stein expert Wanda Corn asserts: “It is the trip that creates her solid, American celebrity.”
During Stein’s peak in the 1920s and 30s, those closest to her urged her to visit America, suggesting that the trip would help establish a new audience for her writing. Stein, who grew up in San Francisco, had left for France in 1903, and had not returned for nearly three decades. “I used to say that I would not go to America until I was a real lion, a real celebrity at that time of course I did not really think I was going to be one,” Stein later wrote in Everybody’s Autobiography.
You can probably tell by that last quote that Stein indeed had a unique style of her own. Many did not take to it, believing it too confusing with its repetition and scant use of punctuation. In 1933, however, Stein made a decision to implement a clearer, more direct voice—what she later dubbed her “audience voice”—in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. The book, a fictive memoir supposedly written from the perspective of Stein’s partner Alice Toklas, became a best-seller and Stein had finally found mass appeal. The popular American publication, The Atlantic Monthly, even featured an excerpt from the fictive. The following year, Stein found more success with her libretto to American composer Virgil Thomson’s opera Four Saints in Three Acts, which enjoyed a six-week run on Broadway.
“People were buzzing about who she was,” says Corn. The prestigious Vanity Fair even featured Stein in an issue with the caption: “Please, Miss Stein and Miss Toklas, don’t disappoint us: we do be expecting you!”
Stein arrived in New York City on October 24, 1934. She had barely set foot on shore when reporters flocked around her, eager to get a look at the much-talked-about writer. “She might have been a name prior to her coming on this trip, but it was a name without substance, because very few people had actually seen her,” says Corn.
“What they did know is that she was a very difficult writer,” she continues. “So they were pleasantly surprised when she arrived and talked in sentences and was straightforward, witty and laughed a lot.”
The one question that was continually proposed to Stein was why she did not speak as she wrote? “Oh, but I do. After all it’s all learning how to read it. I have not invented any device, any style, but write in the style that is me.” At one point during her tour she even answered the question: “If you invited Keats to dinner and asked him a question, you wouldn’t expect him to reply with the Ode to a Nightingale, now would you?”
While Stein had only given a handful of lectures before, she engaged her audiences with her sharp wit and floral style of language. “Even if people couldn’t follow her, she was so earnest and sincere,” says Corn. “People loved listening to her.”
Stein was instantly elevated “from curiosity to celebrity,” says W.G. Rogers, a journalist and close acquaintance of Stein’s.
Wherever Stein went, “people kind of dreamed up things that they thought would amuse her or be interesting to her,” says Corn. In New Orleans, writer Sherwood Anderson took her on a tour of the Mississippi River. In Los Angeles, she chatted with Charlie Chaplin about the future of cinema. And in Chicago, two police officers took her for a ride along.
Such excursions provided ample fodder for the media, who followed Stein’s every move along her tour. “No writer for years has been so widely discussed, so much caricatured, so passionately championed,” stated the Chicago Daily Tribune.
Stein left America to sail back to France on May 4, 1935. And she left with a great smile on her face, as she had just finalized an agreement with Random House to publish pretty much anything she would choose to write. From this point onwards, Stein’s name was a trademark. And somehow, Stein remains one of the most well-known, but least-read of writers. “People aren’t going to pick up Stein’s work and make it their bedtime reading,” says Corn. “It’s not easy stuff. Modernism asks viewers and readers to be patient and to work at it.”
Her trip to America certainly cleared up some of the enigma that surrounded the modern arts. At a time when quite few writers and artists embarked upon lecture tours, Stein took bold steps and set precedent, becoming the ambassador of the Modernist movement. Even though her lectures may have been convoluted and relatively abstract, through her warm disposition and magnetic personality, Stein convinced Americans to take the Modernist movement into serious consideration. “She put a face on Modernism that people liked,” says Corn. “She made Modernism human.”