From the Archives: Letter from Alice Toklas on the death of Gertrude Stein
Gertrude Stein, Alice Toklas and Basket.
Photo by Carl Mydans.
Among the many avant-garde artists and writers with whom Donald Sutherland was friends were Gertrude Stein and her life partner, Alice B. Toklas. Sutherland's friendship with Stein began when she praised his 1937 book, Child with a Knife. In 1951, he wrote the first text dedicated to a stylistic study of Stein's writing, titled Gertrude Stein: a biography of her works. Although the two maintained a long correspondence, one of the most revelatory, emotionally-charged items in the Sutherland collection in the Auraria Library Special Collections Department came not from Stein, but Toklas.
Toklas spent much of her life in the background of Stein's endeavors; she was mostly content to be a partner to Stein, widely considered to be the love of her life. The two met in 1907 on Toklas's first day in Paris, and maintained a relationship until Stein's death in 1946. Together they hosted salons in Paris that were frequented by such contemporaries as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot and Richard Wright.
Stein was a luminary in the world of art and literature, and her death was a major cultural loss -- but no one felt the loss as acutely as Alice Toklas. Following Stein's death, she sent Sutherland and his wife, Gilberte, a heartbreaking letter that gives a glimpse into Toklas' post-Stein life:
Dear Donald and Gilberte,
Thank you so much for your letter -- it touched me deeply because Gertrude was very fond of you both. She had so much enjoyed your letter and had taken it and your manuscript to the country with her -- not yet six weeks ago -- to write you a long letter and now she is gone. And Basket and I are alone here where we stay on with no desire but to stay on. You are very sweet to ask me to stay with you in your house or to do anything for me but there is nothing I need if there is at any time it is something I will not forget. I count upon seeing you next summer. It will be a comfort to me. If you will allow me I will keep the manuscript to read and I will send it to you early next month. I hope you are both well and happy as I am sure you are.
According to Auraria archivist Rosemary Evetts, the manuscript that Toklas describes may have been Sutherland's play Coming and Going, given the timing of his writing and Stein's death. Basket is probably Basket II, the second poodle of the same name in Toklas's life; there would ultimately be three Baskets.
As if that letter weren't sad enough, things seem to have gone further downhill for Toklas after 1946. Stein willed much of her estate, including her world-renowned art collection, to Toklas, but Stein's family soon had everything locked in a vault, leaving Toklas to survive on her writing and help from friends, as her relationship to Stein had no legal standing. She was eventually evicted from the home they shared on Rue Christine in Paris, ailing and destitute; she died in 1967 and was buried next to Stein.
Though Toklas is more famous for her relationship to Stein and their long-running Parisian salons, there is one cultural contribution for which many should be thankful: her popularization -- if not invention -- of the recipe for what she called "Haschich Fudge," more colloquially known as "weed brownies." The recipe appeared in her 1954 part-cookbook, part-literary-memoir titled The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook; it called for fruit, nuts, spices and "canibus sativa."
When asked about the recipe, according to her New York Times obituary, Toklas shrugged and said, "What's sauce for the goose may be sauce for the gander. But it's not necessarily sauce for the chicken, the duck, the turkey or the guinea hen." in other words, different strokes for different folks.
The Times was silent on the issue of whether the term "toke" was inspired by Toklas.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Denver art and theater scene.