Gertrude Stein: The Novel Ida, Fame and Celebrity

Picasso's 1907 painting of Gertrude Stein.

Alice B. Toklas was 29 years old in 1908 when she left her home in San Francisco for Paris. She met Gertrude Stein the day she arrived in Paris and the star struck Toklas was moved to write:

“She was a golden brown presence, burned by the Tuscan sun and with a golden glint in her warm brown hair. She was dressed in a warm brown corduroy suit. She wore a large round coral brooch and when she talked, very little, or laughed, a good deal, I thought her voice came from this brooch. It was unlike anyone else’s voice– deep, full, velvety, like a great contralto’s, like two voices.”

It must have been love at first sight. Pablo Picasso had his own ideas for Stein; this famous portrait was painted in 1907, the year before Toklas arrived in Paris.

The Steins' apartment in Paris. The Picasso portrait of Gertrude Stein is on the back wall.

Picasso’s portrait of Stein recently came to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) as part of the exhibition: The Steins Collect. The painting was beautifully displayed along side a floor-to-ceiling photograph of the apartment.

The exhibit kicked off a flurry of Stein shows. A concurrent exhibit at the Jewish History Museum emphasized the public life of Stein and Toklas and Stein’s 1934-35 lecture tour of the United States:

“It was Stein’s first visit in 30 years and Toklas accompanied her. From the moment the women arrived in New York harbor, the American press followed them every step of the way, yielding far more coverage, headlines, and news photographs than Stein had ever elicited abroad. It was a triumphant homecoming and Stein became America’s most famous expatriate.”
Jewish History Museum.

I had never read anything by Stein (or by Toklas, for that matter) so I downloaded from the Kindle store Stein’s, ironically titled, but highly popular memoir: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Well, the book was a total flop for me; I got bored with Stein praising Stein in the words of Toklas and couldn’t get connected to the story. Echoing Stein’s words about Oakland—“there was no there there” for me.

I abandoned Stein’s Autobiography, but I didn’t want to give up on reading Stein. There was a new critical edition of Stein’s 1941 novel Ida on Kindle so I downloaded the first chapter to give it a try before buying.

Man Ray's photo of Picasso's Stein looking down on Stein, author of Ida The Novel

The publisher’s description of Ida: The Novel says that the novel deals with fame and celebrity:

Gertrude Stein wanted Ida to be known in two ways: as a novel about a woman in the age of celebrity culture and as a text with its own story to tell.

This new edition has the full text of the novel, an essay by Logan Esdale (the editor of the edition) and a fist-full of reviews, Stein’s working materials and letters—quite a package.

Ida A Novel (as Stein titled it) begins with the beginning of Ida:

“There was a baby born named Ida. Its mother held it with her hands to keep Ida from being born but when the time came Ida came. And as Ida came, with her came her twin, so there was Ida-Ida.

“The mother was sweet and gentle and so was the father. The whole family was sweet and gentle except the great-aunt. She was the only exception.
“So Ida was born and very little while after her parents went off on a trip and never came back. That was the first funny thing that happened to Ida.
–Ida, Kindle Location 484

Of course, Ida went to live with the great-aunt, but nothing bad happens to Ida. It’s not that kind of story.

Like most children, Ida had a dog; she named him Love:

“Yes Love she said to him, you have always had me and now you are going to have two, I am doing to have a twin yes I am Love, I am tired of being just one and when I am twin one of us can go out and one of us can stay in, yes Love yes I am yes I am going to have a twin. You know Love I am like that when I have to have it. And I have to have a twin, yes Love.”
–Ida, Kindle Location 533

Now there was Ida, Ida-Ida (the birth twin) and Love the dog, but Ida was growing up and wanted another twin. And so Winnie enters the novel:

“Ida went on living with her great-aunt, there where they lived just outside the city, she and her dog Love and her piano. She did write letters very often to her twin Ida.

Dear Ida,
So pleased so very pleased that you are winning, I might even call you Winnie because you are winning.
Your twin, Ida-Ida

And so Winnie was coming to be known to be Winnie.
–Ida, Kindle 679

The novel is getting complicated, and Ida is still young. She has yet to discover men. Soon she will meet Arthur and will enter the first of her many marriages, and she will move; she is always moving.

I read on through these complications, sometimes shaking my head in disbelief, but eventually I finished the novel. All in all, I give it thumbs up for inventiveness.

One of the strengths of this edition of Ida is that newspaper and magazine reviews of Ida The Novel are included. Many reviewers in 1941 complained that the book had no plot and some reviewers were unkind enough to imply that the book was mostly nonsense.

A reviewer for Book of the Week suggested:

“Don’t bother about the commas which aren’t there, read the words. Don’t worry about the sense that is there, read the words faster. If you have any trouble, read faster and faster until you don’t.”
–Ida, 5038

Strangely enough, this advice seemed to work for me. I accepted my role as reader, and not copy-editor. When I couldn’t find meaning, I went on reading—though, not necessarily faster and faster.

Stein’s publisher Bennett Cerf (a dear friend) wrote a note for the flap of the first edition of Ida A Novel. Cerf first praised Stein’s courage and indomitable spirit in working on the novel while living in German occupied France during the early years of WW II (1937-1941).

Cerf concluded the note by noticing that this was her first novel in eleven years and:

“Ida was the name she chose for the new one, and here it is, presented faithfully to you by a publisher who rarely has the faintest idea of what Miss Stein is talking about, but who admires her from the bottom of his heart for her courage and for her abounding love of humanity and freedom.”
–Ida, 5049

I don’t know if that much honesty was really necessary, but it underscores the avant-garde nature of the novel.

My recommendation: read Ida with an open mind, don’t look for secret meanings and, above all, enjoy the sound of the words. Read parts of Ida aloud. If you want to hear a professional reading of the first half of Ida, you have only to check out the site of UMBC professor/actor, Wendy Salkind.

Here is Salkind’s introduction to Ida on the web site Gertrude Stein Aloud:

“Welcome to Gertrude Stein Aloud, a website of audio recordings of four prose pieces by the Modernist American writer, Gertrude Stein. I am a performer who has been reading Gertrude Stein’s writings aloud for many years, and exploring the performative nature of her prose writing. Her extraordinary explorations with language are a challenge to an actor, such as myself, who was trained to interpret literary images so that an audience will discover meaning.”

Salkind’s piece is 38 minutes long. I have listened to it twice, marvelous work.

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in Paris, Beinecke Library, Yale.

The workshop critical edition of Gertrude Stein’s Ida was made possible by the Beinecke Library at Yale, which houses the Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers.

Stein and Toklas, truly a lifelong partnership.


Week 8-2012: Ida: A Novel—Gertrude Stein, Logan Esdale (Editor), Yale University Press (2012).

About carto

Retired software engineer who grew up in Montana, went to Montana State College in Bozeman, and moved to California to work at Stanford Research Institute (SRI). Carto's Logbook is about photography, travel and adventure; Mt. Maurice Times is tall tales mostly biographical; Carto's Library is about books I've read and liked.
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5 Responses to Gertrude Stein: The Novel Ida, Fame and Celebrity

  1. Reblogged this on Becoming Madame and commented:
    A few days ago I wrote a post about the literary Salons of yesteryear’s Paris. This is an intriguing look at one of the American salonnière of the early 20th century, Gertrude Stein, as an expat in Paris, a writer and a literary influence.

  2. Someone reminded me. The Steins Collect–Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde is on exhibit at the New York Metropolitan Museum from Feb. 28 to June 3, 2012.

  3. mabonnetoile says:

    Dear ,

    It is a wonderfull exhibition .

    And what a pleasure to see the portrait of Gertrude Stein by Riba-Rovira .Beside Tchelitchew and Balthus .

    And also the Preface Gertrude Stein wrote for his first exhibition in the Galerie Roquepine in Paris on 1945 .
    Where we can read Gertrude Stein writing Riba-Rovira “will go farther than Cezanne…will succeed in where Picasso failed…I am fascinated ” by Riba-Rovira Gertrude Stein tells us .

    And you are you also fascinated indeed as Gertrude Stein ?

    But Gertrude Stein spoke also in this same document about Matisse and Juan Gris .And we learn Riba-Rovira went each week in Gertrude Stein’s saloon rue Christine .
    With Edward Burns and Carl Van Vechten we can know Riba-Rovira did others portraits of Gertrude Stein .

    But we do not know where they are ;and you do you know perhaps ?

    With this wonderful portrait we do not forget it is the last time Gertrude Stein sat for an artist who is Riba-Rovira .

    This exhibition presents us a world success with this last painting portrait before she died .

    Both ,it is one of the last text where she gives her last art vision .As a light over that exhibition now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York .

    Coming from San Francisco “Seeing five stories” to Washington and now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York for our pleasure .

    And the must is to see for the first time in the same place portraits by Picasso, Picabia, Tall-Coat, Riba-Rovira, Valloton .

    You have the translate of Gertrude Stein’s Riba-Rovira Preface on english Gertrude Stein’s page on Wikipedia and in the catalog of this exhibition you can see in first place the mention of this portrait .And also other pictures Gertrude Stein bought him .

    And you have another place where you can see now Riba-Rovira’s works it is an exhibition in Valencia in Spain “Homenage a Gertrude Stein” by Riba-Rovira in Galleria Muro ,if you like art …


  4. mabonnetoile says:

    With the current controversy about Gertrude Stein and after the Edward Burns’s answer it is interesting to Know one of the last Gertrude Stein’s vew before dying when she speaks about art it is also politic .

    Stein’s preface to the exhibition by Francisco Riba Rovira at Roquepine Gallery in May 1945:
    « It is inevitable that when we really need someone we find him. The person you need attracts you like a magnet. I returned to Paris, after these long years spent in the countryside and I needed a young painter, a young painter who would awaken me. Paris was magnificent, but where was the young painter? I looked everywhere: at my contemporaries and their followers. I walked a lot, I looked everywhere, in all the galleries, but the young painter was not there. Yes, I walk a lot, a lot at the edge of the Seine where we fish, where we paint, where we walk dogs (I am of those who walk their dogs). Not a single young painter!
    One day, on the corner of a street, in one of these small streets in my district, I saw a man painting. I looked at him; at him and at his painting, as I always look at everybody who creates something I have an indefatigable curiosity to look and I was moved. Yes, a young painter!
    We began to speak, because we speak easily, as easily as in country roads, in the small streets of the district. His story was the sad story of the young people of our time. A young Spaniard who studied in fine arts in Barcelona: civil war; exile; a concentration camp; escape. Gestapo, another prison, another escape… Eight lost years! If they were lost, who knows? And now a little misery, but all the same the painting. Why did I find that it was him the young painter, why? I visited his drawings, his painting: we speak.
    I explained that for me, all modern painting is based on what Cézanne nearly made, instead of basing itself on what he almost managed to make. When he could not make a thing, he hijacked it and left it. He insisted on showing his incapacity: he spread his lack of success: showing what he could not do, became an obsession for him. People influenced by him were also obsessed by the things which they could not reach and they began the system of camouflage. It was natural to do so, even inevitable: that soon became an art, in peace and in war, and Matisse concealed and insisted at the same time on that Cézanne could not realize, and Picassoconcealed, played and tormented all these things.
    The only one who wanted to insist on this problem, was Juan Gris. He persisted by deepening the things which Cézanne wanted to do, but it was too hard a task for him: it killed him.And now here we are, I find a young painter who does not follow the tendency to play with what Cézanne could not do, but who attacks any right the things which he tried to make, to create the objects which have to exist, for, and in themselves, and not in relation.
    This young painter has his weaknesses and his strengths. His force will push him in this road. I am fascinated and that is why he is the young painter who I needed. He is Francisco Riba Rovira. »
    Gertrude Stein

    Perhaps you have something to tell about when Gertrude Stein tells us on Cezanne, Riba-Rovira, Matisse, Picasso, Juan Gris…

    Because why did she help Riba-Rovira ?

    Was she only fascinated by his art ?

    Was it a politic mistification and manipulation to make on his back a new vitginity for her…
    Because as she tells ,he was persecuted by the nazi .Certainly arrested after “sabotages” in coke working in St Etienne ,if he would not escape from Vannes in a transit camp where the ss wera from Holland he would be send to Mathausen as a red and republican spanish .
    But in all that when we saw in the Met the portrait of Gertrude Stein he did we can read in his way of painting a kind touch of something hieratic ,very straight ,as you must to be after beeing down .
    All his life fighting the faschism as with Picasso when they did the book to support coke miners in the Asturies who were on stricke in in the sixties …

    • Thank you for your extended comment. I read the article by Edward Burns, reprinted in Jacket 2, and found it quite interesting. I’ll look up Riba Rovira when I return from vacation. Stein led an interesting life, but her extended stay in France is controversial. Carto

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