by Kenneth Brown Mr. Brown, well known for his novels of Virginia and Africa, is of long New England ancestry. His present home in Dublin, N. H., built by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, was occupied by Senator Beveridge when the latter was writing his Life of John Marshall. RECENTLY I sat between Gertrude Stein and Alice […]
By Yankee Magazine
Nov 08 2018
by Kenneth Brown
Mr. Brown, well known for his novels of Virginia and Africa, is of long New England ancestry. His present home in Dublin, N. H., built by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, was occupied by Senator Beveridge when the latter was writing his Life of John Marshall.
RECENTLY I sat between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas at dinner. During the meal the distinguished author talked like an ordinary, quite ordinary person. On the whole I found Toklas rather the more interesting of the two.
After dinner, Gertrude Stein was prevailed upon, easily, to read selections from her “Portraits.” I had always supposed that she wrote her stuff—as a communist friend of mine says he takes the oath of allegiance to the United States—with her tongue in her cheek. But I was mistaken.
As she opened her book, a rapt, almost fanatical look came into her eyes, as if she were approaching the holy of holies. Her voice grew strong, powerful, that none of the score of persons present might miss a word.
And she read sincerely, there was no doubt about that. As sincerely as a small child—a small child of arrested development- holding her book upside down and pretending to read. Only she held her book right side up—I looked to see. She read:
“To be back, to attack back. Attack back. What do you mean by attack back. To be back to be back to attack back.
“What do you mean by, what do you mean by to be clean to be a queen to be mean, what do you mean to mean to be a queen to be clean. What do you mean. What do you mean. What do you mean by readdressing a queen. The address the readdress they readdress in between.
“That is what is said of a cardinal a red cardinal a singing cardinal, a singing red cardinal sing them a song. When you believe that black is red, do you believe that black is red.
“The story of asunder is not thunder the story of the thunder is not asunder. Do tenderly address and run. The story of do tenderly address and run is the story of the sons of a son. And how many whites are there.
“Not anywhere in there.
“What did you say.
“What did he say.
“What did they say.
“What did they say.
“They didn’t say anything.”
This, she said, was a portrait of Jo Davidson. If she’d said it was a vignette of a boiler factory in South Bend, I’d have believed her. But then I’m like that gullible, you know. (I’ve often thought that if I wrote a book of travels, I’d have to call it “Gullible Travels.”)
“I will now read you a valentine to Sherwood Anderson,” she said.
After a beginning which I think may fairly be called irrelevant, she wound up with a dramatic burst:
“A very little snail
“A medium sized turkey.
“A small band of sheep.
“A fair orange tree.
“All nice wives are like that.
“Listen to them from here.
“You did not have an answer.
“Very fine is my valentine.
“Very fine and very mine.
“Very mine is my valentine very mine and very fine.
“Very fine is my valentine and mine, very fine very mine and mine is my valentine.”
The rest of it was more discursive and less passionate. She did not read it all: said it was too long, and I speculated on how jealous a jealous wife would become whose husband received such a valentine. Still I sat silent. Some Works of Art affect me like that: I become positively tongue—tied—dumb, you know. The few words that did pop into my mind weren’t suitable for a mixed company—ladies present and all.
But our host—Bob Lovett’s a wonderful chap: never at a loss for a word—cleared his throat and suggested:
“Couldn’t you—er—read us something about some one we don’t know?”
Personally I did not feel as if I were really acquainted with either Jo Davidson or Sherwood Anderson from what I had heard; but I hoped that my countenance, which is what is called a speaking countenance-—opposite of a poker face-would show eagerness to hear more.
And Gertrude Stein was willing, more than willing. She would read us the portrait of a Frenchman. I never gathered whether he was an artist or some one mixed up in the Stravisky affair. Anyway I was glad she hadn’t spoken to me during dinner the way she wrote. I hardly know what reply I should have made. Just to think of it made me feel as if I had swallowed a bad oyster.
After the Stravisky affair—which, in case you should wish to look it up, was called OR, AND THEN SILENCE she read, SHE BOWED TO HER BROTHER.
“The story of how she bowed to her brother.
“Who has whom as his.
‘Did she bow to her brother. When she saw him
“Any long story. Of how she bowed to her brother.
“She bowed to her brother. Accidentally. When she saw him.
“Often as well. As not.
“She did not. Bow to her brother. When she saw him. Saw him.
“This could happen. Without. Him.
“Everybody finds in it a sentence that pleases them.
“This is the story included in. How she bowed to her brother.
“Could another brother have a grand daughter.
“No. But. He could have a grandson.
“This has nothing to do with the other brother of whom it is said that we read she bowed to her brother.
“There could be a union between reading and learning.
“And now everybody. Reads. She bowed. To her brother.”
Again I found it impossible to think of an appreciative word; but good old Bob came to the rescue:
“That’s a-er-a cartoon, is it not?”
“Yes,” Gertrude replied gratefully, “that is a cartoon.” (It was easy to see that she responded to kindness.)
Then she read something else. I was sorry, when it was too late, that I hadn’t thought of calling it a “lilting ditty” to her. It might have made a hit, like Bob’s “cartoon”—though I’m not sure but that cartoons have a more professional air. “Lilting ditty” sounds a trifle old-fashioned.
She read several other things, in her resonant voice. Some words she accented more: some words she accented less. I had a feeling that it saddened her because she could not accent them all more—those dear, dear words that she had chosen and arranged all by herself. They weren’t just dictionary words to her—one felt that—they were Gertrude Stein words. She might have made them herself, if the dictionary hadn’t thought of them first.
Well, all things come to an end. But that night, as I was fading away in sleep, it occurred to me how fortunate it was that Gertrude Stein and Picasso didn’t marry and bring forth a brood of little Picsteins.