"I came to dinner." Chris the Citizen in The Mother of Us All
Recently Chris the Citizen, one of Gertrude Stein's characters from The Mother of Us All contacted the Steiny Road Poet. Perhaps, Dear Reader, you might remember that Gertrude Stein's and Virgil Thomson's second opera about the life and work of Susan B. Anthony was populated with an anachronistic cast based on historic, imagined, and living people who were friends of the great Modernist. Stein gave Chris the Citizen (also she noted him as "Chris a Citizen" and at least once as "Chris Blake a Citizen") lines about the difference between rich and poor and strife between white and black people.
STEIN'S LAST GI PROTÃ‰GÃ‰
At age 91, Christopher Blake claims to be the "last protÃ©gÃ© of Gertrude Stein as a young GI in Paris." He says in 1945, he was "with Gertrude Stein and Alice B most every day for the better of a year till [he] quarreled with her." She died before Blake could apologize. The rift occurred over a Frenchman named Bernard Poisson whom Blake was seeing. Stein told Blake not to bring Poisson to her home again, that Blake's lover was not welcomed.
Why did Blake contact the Steiny Road Poet? He wanted her to read his play 5 rue Christine. Blake promotes his play by saying, "My Stein is different from the one they all like to present, even now…frozen in the '20s." Of course he is talking about such works as Woody Allen's film Midnight in Paris. What Blake means is he is presenting the post-war Stein, so ill she could only eat gruel for dinner and intent on promoting the second-rate art of Francis Rose. (He said she kept trying to sell the G.I.'s who visited her paintings by Rose.) The title of Blake's play is the address where Stein and Toklas moved in 1938 after the family of their famed address 27 rue de Fleurus reclaimed that apartment.
And yes, the Poet read Blake's play, but has told the author that her policy is not to comment on an unproduced work, knowing that unproduced work, if it done professionally, will change as the director and actors take ownership as full collaborators. Besides commentary in advance of production might spoil the chance of getting a production. But luckily for the author who has admirable energy, the play has been picked up for a "rehearsed reading" and production in a small theater in Rochester, New York.
So what the Steiny Road Poet decided to do was ask Mr. Blake for a short interview. After Googling "Chris Blake + Gertrude Stein," she got a more complete picture of the young GI who brought "holy paper" (toilet tissue) to the Stein-Toklas household. Among his pursuits post Stein and Toklas were that he had become a noted private chef so acclaimed that New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne had requested that Blake invite him to dinner. Subsequently and for several years, Blake opened and operated a restaurant baring his own name in New Orleans. Blake says his first cooking lesson came from Alice Toklas—she taught him how to make mayonnaise with hazel nut oil. While Blake tries to diminish his career in the food industry, he authored several cookbooks including Christopher Blake's Cooking with and for Alcoholics.
THE INTERVIEW WITH THE CITIZEN
The Poet: What year did you meet Gertrude Stein & Alice Toklas?
Chris Blake: 1945. I was with them most every day for almost a year.
The Poet: Did you feel that Gertrude and Alice were using you to get things they needed to be comfortable?
Chris Blake: Not at all. They loved me from the beginning and once they read my short story, "The Bride Chewed Gum"—they pronounced that I had talent and were so happy. I was only too happy to supply them with needs for their comfort and act as Mercury, as they called me, to mail all their letters to friends in the States, such as Virgil Thomson, Carl Van Vechten and Thornton Wilder.
The Poet: Why did Stein call you Chris, the Citizen in The Mother of Us All?
Chris Blake: She never explained. Anymore than she created Joe, the Loiterer. This character was based on a Capt. Joe Barry. She knew that I was not particularly fond of him and yet in one scene she has Chris, the Citizen and Joe, the Loiterer embracing each other. To make sure, she has me down twice. One as Chris, the Citizen and then as Chris Blake, the Citizen
The Poet: Did you talk to Gertrude Stein about the difference between the rich and poor?
Chris Blake: We GIs were all rich and she often accused me of extravagance.
The Poet: Was Stein under a doctor's care during the time you knew her?
Chris Blake: They never mentioned doctors.
The Poet: Was she open with you about why she could not eat anything except "gruel."
Chris Blake: No, it was all hush hush. I observed it all on my own.
The Poet: What do you consider your biggest success in life?
Chris Blake: Having given up drinking and come into AA. Ironically, today [May 5, 2012] was my 16 years Sober Birthday.
The Poet: What advice do you have for young people trying to follow what they are most passionate about?
Chris Blake: Don't waste time, throw everything to the wind and go for it.
A FEW AFTERTHOUGHTS
The Steiny Road Poet thinks highly of people with cooking talents. In fact, one such friend, Donna Shor, during a fabulous Christmas Eve dinner taught the S.R. Poet how to make dinner table candles from the thin-skinned rind of tangerines. And Donna Shor, besides being friends with Craig Claiborne, knew Joe Barry who, after his service in the military, became a journalist. Donna reminded the S.R. Poet that it was Barry who drove Stein and Toklas to the American hospital in the suburbs of Paris from Bernard FaÃ¿'s summer home in Luceau where the two women had been trying to enjoy some rest and relaxation when Stein was stricken with extreme pain. In 1946, FaÃ¿ was in prison for his World War II collaboration with the Nazis during his appointment as head of the BibliothÃ¨que nationale of the Vichy government. However, Stein and Toklas stayed in close touch with FaÃ¿, who had been a key player in Stein's rise to fame in the United States during her 1934-35 lecture tour, helped her secure her beloved summer home in southeastern France where she and Toklas hid in plain sight from the Nazis, and protected the couple and Stein's artwork which had been left in Paris.
Barbara Will in her carefully documented book Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard FaÃ¿, and the Vichy Dilemma points out in a footnote (p. 256) that Stein's death on July 27, 1946, of uterine cancer (not stomach cancer as her death has been reported erroneously for years) was documented with the American Foreign Service on August 12, 1946, and this file is housed at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, DC. Therefore, what Chris Blake remembers about Stein not being able to eat anything gruel may be one of the reasons people believed she had stomach cancer. The facts are that Stein was at risk for uterine cancer because she was overweight most of her adult life, ate fatty meats which was part of the good life diet at that time, never had any children, and her mother may have died from a similar cancer. Compounding Stein's illness were her medical studies which may have made her think she did not need medical assistance until it was too late and the war years in hiding that may have made it hard for her to recognize she was falling ill and to get the proper diet and care necessary. One thing that was clear from what Blake told the S.R. Poet, Stein continued to encourage Alice to cook fancy meals and invite people who could enjoy her partner's cooking.