October 2014

UnderCover Lovers: Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas - Karren LaLonde Alenier - Scene4 Magazine Special Issue - October 2014

Karren LaLonde Alenier

What were the terms of endearment, the pet names, between Gertrude Stein and Alice Babette Toklas? Why should we as readers of Stein's immense oeuvre care about these private nicknames of a loving couple?


Baby precious, birdie, sweetie, wifey, my boss, my little ball, my treasure—so Stein addressed Toklas in private notes that often were talisman to prime Stein's imagination as she began her late night creative work or to finish the night's work with the eager anticipation that Toklas would care for this new work by typing it. Stein would sign such notes as Y.D.—short for your darling. Lovie, baby boy, Mr. Pottie, sweet pinky were among the love monikers that Toklas used for Stein.


Stein also lovingly called her partner Pussy and good-naturedly referred to herself as Fatuski but she was also, in her own words, Hubby, the gender normative male spirit of the couple. In World War II, the pair extended their intimacy of private names to Carl Van Vechten, the man who promoted Stein in the United States and later became her literary executor. Baby Woojams was Stein, attended to by Mama (Toklas) and Papa (Van Vechten) Woojams. This baby talk, as Stein's opera partner Virgil Thomas labeled these names, might have been a perverse way to obscure their real names against enemy censors. Nonetheless these amusing pseudonyms—truly noms de guerre—smacked of familial love.


What is important to know is that Stein's love for Toklas was wrapped tightly around her creative impulse. Their marriage—indeed, they called their relationship a marriage—was predicated on producing babies but the offspring were Stein's writings. Tender Buttons, Stein's first invited book by the small press publisher Marie Claire in 1914, stands as a marriage journal, setting out how they will live together and what they did to live together as Stein wrote each subpoem and section of this enigmatic prose poem. Everything is encoded in Tender Buttons because, as we denizens of the 21st century know, in Stein and Toklas' time, same sex relationships were not tolerated in a culture regulated by stated (and unstated) religious and ethical dictates. Thus come lines like this:


A cushion has that cover. Supposing you do not like to change, supposing it is very clear that there is no change in appearance, supposing that there is regularity and a costume is that any the worse than an oyster and an exchange.

from "A Substance In A Cushion." (Tender Buttons, "Objects")


Here one might see after reading Tender Buttons in its entirety that Alice is alluded to in the multiple use of the article "A." Alice is Gertrude's cushion, the one who cares for Gertrude as she sets out to become a writer of notable genius. Alice's cover (costume) is that she is Gertrude's secretary. This disguise, which is perfectly true, allows them to live in regularity and within certain regulations. This disguise sets them free to create pearls together—Stein's babies, Stein's writings. It is a give and take (exchange) for an intolerant public.


Recently within the United States, laws are being written and revised to allow same sex marriages. Renewed interest in Gertrude Stein's work has spawned careful examination of her texts.Tender Buttons and Stanzas in Meditation, another book-length love poem to Toklas, recently were published in corrected editions. Is this because of the gay rights movement? Maybe to a certain degree. What is clear is that more accessible books by Stein like The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and Lifting Belly (another love poem inspired by Stein's love for Toklas) are enjoying bigger audiences.


Let me tell you about kissing. We saw a piece of mistletoe. We exchanged a pillow. We murmured training and we were asleep.

This is what happened Saturday.

from Lifting Belly


If you cannot say you exchanged kisses, a pillow will do. What this writer loves about Gertrude Stein is her repeating—well, a cushion that has a cover could very well be a pillow. Stein had to train herself not to let the cat out of the bag or was that a bird?

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Scene4 Magazine — Karren AlenierKarren LaLonde Alenier's most recent book is The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas. She also writes a monthly column in Scene4
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©2014 Karren LaLonde Alenier
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October 2014



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