The Steiny Road Poet offers this hit-and-run tale about who wrote The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.
In late January 2006, Artistic Director Nancy Rhodes organized an intimate party to celebrate the coming season of events by New York City's Encompass New Opera Theatre. The party was held at the home of an art dealer who has a salon reminiscent of Gertrude Stein's living room at 27 rue de Fleurus.
Notable on the program were two songs from Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On (words by Karren Alenier, music by William Banfield) sung by Eve Gigliotti, who created the role of Gertrude in the June 2005 Encompass world premiere production, and one song from Ned Rorem and J.D. McClatchy's Our Town, which premiered February 24 at Indiana University Opera Theatre. Jody Sheinbaum gave a passionate interpretation of Emily's Aria from Our Town. The background on this song is that Emily has died but is given an opportunity to go back to her town for one last visit. Rorem's music is lyric and haunting.
Among the guests at this Encompass season kick-off party was Ned Rorem who quietly took a seat at some distance from the piano and staging area. At the end of the performances, Rhodes invited Rorem to make a few comments. Probably not wanting to jinx the upcoming world premiere of his new opera, he turned the attention to Gertrude Stein and said The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was really written by Alice Toklas.
The Steiny Road Poet smiled quietly to herself knowing that Mr. Rorem had written the same statement in one of his memoirs. However, the Poet was not off the hook, several guests at the party whispered to her wanting to know if what composer said was true. The Poet, loving Ned Rorem's bravado much in the tradition of Stein and Dorothy Parker, suggested the following:
Alice typed everything Gertrude wrote and no one else could read Gertrude's handwriting.
When Alice was asked to write a cookbook, she had a terrible problem getting started and finishing. Finally she asked all her friends and acquaintances to send her recipes. This is how she inadvertently became a cult figure of the turned-on Sixties generation. One of the recipes, which she did not bother to test, was the infamous hashish brownies from the prankish artist Brion Gysin.
According to James Mellow in his celebrated biography Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein & Company, "Stein, when asked by her publisher William Bradley to write an autobiography of herself, would tease Alice" that if Alice wrote about Stein, Alice would make a lot of money. Stein also suggested that Alice use one of the following titles: My Life With The Great, Wives Of Geniuses I Have Sat With, and My Twenty-Five Years With Gertrude Stein. The point is that Stein did not want to write such a book but it became easier when she made it a game and took on Alice's voice. In many of her experimental works, she quotes Alice as a voice in her daily landscape. So to write from Alice's point of view was not foreign territory for Stein.
Because the book stirred up a hornet's of bad feelings from such friends and disciples as Picasso and Hemingway, it is unlikely that Alice would have put her beloved Gertrude into such a stew pot of trouble. In any case during 1933, Gertrude Stein wrote The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in six weeks during a spell of beautiful fall weather enjoyed at their country home in Bilignin.
The Steiny Road Poet applauds controversy and hopes that this column will net Stein new readers and provide Rorem with full houses for Our Town. Gossip and spit pique an audience's imagination and may even open their purses!