ENTERING THE SALON
The literary salons of the feminists in Paris during the 1970s marked the time when Renate Stendhal began to deeply appreciate Gertrude Stein. Stendhal, who grew up in Germany but sought refuge in Paris from her country's Nazi past, was part of the first generation of post-war rebels who believed "85% of all grand German culture had been created by Jews." Some of these young protestors, including Stendhal, learned Yiddish and contemplated conversion to Judaism. In the small circle of intellectuals and artists who raged against Germany and their own parents for remaining silent about the Nazi past, Gertrude Stein was one of the few admired women writers. Stendhal as a schoolgirl was drawn physically to Gertrude Stein: her "huge wet-nurse body," "Caesar haircut," and androgynous appearance. Yet no one seemed to know or say at that time that Stein was Lesbian.
Stendhal "tried on this and that text" but could not read Stein. However, the soon-to-be translator in German of Stein's Blood on the Dining Room Floor lived with Stein as a source of energy as Stein "spooked around in [Stendhal's] interior landscape always beckoning." Initially Stendhal identified with Stein because she was a "multiple outsider" who was "hard to codify" and who had to struggle for her survival. In Paris, Stendhal hooked up with a group of English-speaking feminist poets who were well versed in Stein texts and who helped her find her way in reading Stein. From this experience, Stendhal learned to love Stein's "chutzpah, naughtiness, and sense of play."
Today, Stendhal reflects that Stein's sense of self-assurance and unshakable belief in herself as a writer came from her "alliance with Alice Toklas." This commentary, plus Stendhal's remark about Stein's recorded reading of her portrait of Picasso being "pure Rap," prompted the Steiny Road Poet to wonder out loud if Toklas' training to become a concert pianist during her youth in San Francisco might have been the source of Toklas instantly becoming the perfect reader for Stein. Stendhal nodded appreciatively and added, "Alice saved Gertrude's sanity and became the indispensable reader every writer longs for."
Turning back to the subject of the literary salon, Stendhal mentioned Gloria Orenstein who, with four other feminist writers, organized and led the Women's Salon in New York City from 1975 to 1985. Here, the Steiny Road Poet had a eureka moment realizing the "at home" literary parties she organized in the late 1970s and early 1980s in Washington, DC, were part of a larger contemporary trend. From her studies of French literature, the Poet knew about Madame de Stael's salon in the late 1700s in Paris and, of course, she knew about the one held by Gertrude Stein. Under the initial influence of the Word Works founding director Deirdra Baldwin, the Poet annually held a salon on February 3 to celebrate Gertrude Stein's birthday. What the Poet had not realized was that women had been organizing literary and artistic salons consistently in every century, especially in France, since the seventeenth century and that these salons were significant in shaping the world of literature until the Twentieth Century when mass media, especially newspapers, seemingly overtook the need for the literary salon.
STEIN IN GERMANY VERSUS STEIN IN AMERICA
Renate Stendhal originally wrote Gertrude Stein In Words And Pictures in German and had the book published in 1989 in Germany. In Germany, her readings from the book attracted hundreds of eager Gertrude Stein fans. Much to the author's surprise, the English version, published in the United States in1994, earned rave reviews and a Lambda Award, but did not trigger a Stein renaissance as it had in Germany. There seemed to be no "fertile ground to receive a photo biography of Stein."
Asked about women's reception of opera, Stendhal thinks that the women's community (comprised of both Lesbians and feminists) in the United States tends to be "very politicized, activist, and party-happy." On the one hand, Stendhal thinks gay men would "more likely adopt Stein as an icon" [over gay or feminist women] and, on the other, Stendhal believes that Stein has the "great love story with Alice and the mythical radiance that would touch a large segment of the women's community." However, Stendhal shrugged her shoulders and offered, "What do I know? I'm not much of an activist these days. I'm a hermit writer, not a party girl."
COMEDIENNES AND SONGWRITERS
Scratching her head, the Steiny Road Poet asked, "Who are the popular leaders of the American women's community—who do they look up to?" With no hesitation, Stendhal answered, "The comediennes—Margaret Cho, Ellen DeGeneres, Lily Tomlin—there's a long list. There are still great feminist leaders like Gloria Steinem and writers like Dorothy Allison. Also women's music is huge and with a huge impact." To understand these predilections better, the Steiny Road Poet suggests the reader visit singer/songwriter Margie Adam's website where she lists others contributing to women's music such as Betty, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Holly Near, and Janis Ian.
INGREDIENTS FOR A BRILLIANT OPERA ABOUT STEIN
Knowing that. Stendhal is co-author of a book on the coloratura mezzo-soprano Cecelia Bartoli and because what the women's community likes does not seem far afield from Gertrude Stein's humor and musical sounding texts, the Poet, undaunted, asked Stendhal what she would hope to experience in an opera about Gertrude Stein. Brightening and with a certain look of mischief in her eyes, Stendhal said, "two things—all the famous things we know [about Stein] but also something that takes off in Steinese fashion but is not faithful." "Woman after my own heart," the Poet blurted unabashedly. Stendhal said she was tired of the "sweet, well-intended plays that lack any kind of daring and brilliance." She countered that a writer writing about Stein couldn't show what a brilliant person Stein was unless that writer was also brilliant.