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May 15, 2013

Alice B. Toklas' magnificent chicken

A really good thing to read if you have any interest in the gossipy stories about Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne and the circle of Bohemian painters Gertrude Stein collected is “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.” Toklas was Gertrude Stein’s life-time companion, an amused observer of the early-20th century Montmartre atelier scene, and great cook. (Stein wrote this book, but insisted “everything about it is Toklas except the authorship.”)

To read this biography is to learn that Matisse was virile, his wife not so much, but she made an excellent potted hare, and finagled the first sale of a Matisse work to Gertrude Stein and her brother, which began a lifetime of friendship and patronage.

Fernande, Picasso’s deadly dull but gorgeous girlfriend, could only talk about makeup, dogs and hats. Fernande apparently believed a hat was a success only if it drew street attention. This famously dolorous early Picasso lover is comically tolerated by both Stein and Toklas. Stein is always sending Toklas off to keep Fernande busy, while she and Picasso talk about serious subjects. Picasso always seems to be in a state of being driven out of his mind by Fernande’s vapidity, but is unable to abandon what a great model she is, or something else. She also seems alarmingly incapable of taking care of herself, and Picasso feels guilty enough to keep her on. At one point Picasso has ended it with Fernande, but sets her up in an apartment on Montmartre, hoping she can give Americans French lessons to earn a living (and he can therefore quit with helping her.) Stein believes if Fernande is OK than Pablo’s OK, so she sends Toklas off to be Fernande’s first student, first of two, ever.

Stein’s artist friends almost all showed in the great salon shows in the Grand Palais, the glittering glass vaulted building steps from the Seine. But Toklas didn’t like the building. She says that before the war, the Independent show was always in a building that was put up just for the event, and taken down afterward. “They were always putting up and taking down buildings in Paris in those days,” Toklas says. “Human nature is so permanent in France they can afford to be temporary with their buildings.”

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