May 2024

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A Biography of Clarence F. Toklas

Hans Gallas


It had been uncharacteristically warm in the City, 72 degrees, that Monday the 23rd of August 1937, a pleasant day to walk along the paths of Lands End in San Francisco. The following day an obituary appeared in the local papers about a suicide that had happened from one of those paths. It wasn’t the conventional write-up of a person’s life presenting the usual details and ending with where and when the funeral would occur. Instead, it contained so much information, intimate information about the deceased and his family, that without too many additions, it would have made a scintillating and provocative 8-part television series or in its day a masterful Perry Mason radio drama.

Then there was the last name of the individual in the headline, “Toklas, Legion Leader, Found Dead in Ocean.” “Toklas,” (pronounced “tock-less”, according to the family, as in tick-tock), a name that had had many more column inches in the newspapers just two years earlier linked to the name “Gertrude Stein,” as she and Alice B. returned to the Bay Area for a lecture tour. (Among the survivors, the article mistakenly identified Alice as “authoress and companion to Gertrude Stein.” Alice would not write a book for another seventeen years.)

Most families have skeletons in their closets. These are often fleshed out by stories that have become embellished over the years about a relative who did this or that and forever became the black sheep of the family. Biographers of well-known people relish unearthing these bones to get all the facts from “never before released letters” or “recently opened personal archives.”

It was almost 70 years after this news story appeared that I found it on microfilm in the San Francisco Public Library and printed the thick, black splotched text. I had gone to the library to find more information about Clarence Ferdinand Toklas, prompted by a recent visit to the Toklas plot in the Jewish cemetery in Colma outside of San Francisco.

As I wandered among the gravestones, I found a prominent one with the family name in bold, raised, ornate letters. Two smaller markers were nearby for the parents of Alice and Clarence, Emilie, and Ferdinand. There was no marker for Clarence. (Alice is buried in Père-Lachaise in Paris next to Stein.)

The news article indicated that Clarence had been an engineer in the army during World War I. An online search of military cemeteries located his burial site in San Francisco’s historic military base, the Presidio, now a national park. A plain white headstone, typical of military cemeteries, marked his grave. Another identical one marked the grave of his wife, Claire.

A group of headstones in a cemetery  Description automatically generated

Slowly information emerged about Alice’s only sibling who is barely mentioned by either Alice or Stein in their writings or in biographies or essays about them. No letters appear to exist either.

In The Autobiography of Alice B.Toklas two stories are told about “her brother.” One pertains to their experiences during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the other to a horse-riding accident in which he was uninjured.

Though Clarence did not marry until 1915, Stein included him in her first word portrait “Ada” written about Alice in 1910 in which he is named Barnes Colhard:

“When he was a good deal older he married a very rich girl.  He had thought perhaps he would not propose to her but his sister wrote to him that it would be a good thing.  He married the rich girl and she thought he was the most wonderful man and one who knew everything.”

Then the name “Clarence” appears in a poem “All Sunday” that Stein wrote in 1915 the year of his marriage. The Toklas family also live in Seattle from 1890 to 1895. Coincidences? :

Please be rich.



Puget Sound.



No mosquitoes at all.

After their mother’s death, Alice was responsible for raising her brother. (photo Alice and Clarence circa late 1880s) He was eleven, she was twenty. In an oral history interview arranged in 1952 by the University of California-Berkeley, Alice fondly recalls Clarence’s smudged face as a boy after touring a locomotive with his grandfather, which made him look like a raccoon.

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There are several references to her brother in her 1963 memoir, What is Remembered. She reveals that she feared she would no longer be the center of attention when he was born, but her mother reassured her that she would still always come first. Along with their father, they also experienced the 1906 San Francisco earthquake together. Their house was not destroyed but when she remembers visiting the house in 1935, she only mentions her father and herself as being there. Lastly, during her 1912 trip to Spain and Morocco with Stein, their guide in Tangiers mentions the date the Sultan planned to abdicate. “The date happened to be my brother’s birthday, so I remembered it.”

By the time Alice left for Paris in 1907, Clarence was twenty-one. He had completed his engineering degree at UC-Berkeley.

A person in a suit and tie  Description automatically generated

By 1915, he was in the army and married to a Catholic girl from Sonoma, Claire Burns. One year later they had their only child, a son, Clarence, Jr. known as Teddy who died in San Francisco in 1998. According to a Toklas family story, as a wedding gift Alice gave Clarence a painting of Mount Tamalpais, the highest mountain in the San Francisco Bay Area, by the well-known landscape artist Francis John McComas.

A watercolor painting of a river and hills  Description automatically generated

Whether they corresponded or saw each other again after 1907, possibly during Stein’s U.S. lecture tour during their visit to San Francisco in 1935, isn’t known.

Some of the facts in the life of Clarence F. Toklas have been pieced
together, many still remain.  The shadowy life is becoming clearer.

A lonely figure walks along a path at Lands End. He has not been feeling well for months and has had innumerable quarrels with his wife. He removes his heavy coat because of the unusually warm day, making sure that the three letters in his coat pocket don’t fall out. He reaches the summit and notices a fisherman in the distance and two swimmers in the cold water below. He looks to the horizon and remembers telling Teddy, “Look hard enough and you’ll see Japan.”



Cover art:
Caspar David Friedrich (1818)



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Hans Gallas is a longtime collector of all things Gertrude Stein/Alice B. Toklas. He is completing a novel The Autobiography of Clarence F. Toklas and lives in San Francisco with his partner.

©2024 Hans Gallas
©2024 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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