Alice B. Toklas arrived in Paris in 1907 and soon met writer Gertrude Stein. She started out as an assistant to Stein, but the pair soon formed a romantic bond. The couple spent much of their life together in France. Toklas published several books after Stein’s death in 1946, including the popular 1954 work The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book. She died in 1967.
Born on April 30, 1877, in San Francisco, California, Alice B. Toklas is best remembered as the companion of writer Gertrude Stein and as a cookbook author. She was raised in an upper middle-class Jewish family, and at one point aspired to a music career, having studied piano for a long time. She even briefly studied music in college. The death of her mother in 1897, however, led Toklas to take on a caregiving role to her father and younger brother for several years.
Toklas decided to escape her challenging family situation in 1907, choosing to travel to Paris with her longtime friend Harriet Levy. There she met writer Gertrude Stein, and she soon began to assist Stein in her literary work by typing up her manuscripts for her.
Life with Gertrude
A love developed between Toklas and Stein that would be one of literature’s longest-lasting relationships. They officially moved in together in 1910, and they gave each other numerous pet names. Stein often called Toklas “wifey” and “baby precious” and Toklas referred to Stein as “husband” and “lovey,” according to Baby Precious Always Shines: Selected Love Notes Between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Toklas seemed to take the “wife” term to heart, tackling all of the traditional duties of the day. She ran their household while Stein devoted herself to her craft.
At their home, Stein and Toklas hosted an array of the eras literary and artistic greats, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Pablo Picasso. These special gatherings were known as a salon, and Toklas and Stein divided up their parties. While Stein talked with creative stars, Toklas gathered with their wives in another room. She even cooked for the guests sometimes, and she later earned some acclaim for her food. However, their life together wasn’t all fine meals and stimulating conversations: During World War I, Toklas and Stein served as volunteer ambulance drivers.
In 1933, Stein published The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, using her lover as the narrator to explore her own life. The book made Toklas famous, and the couple traveled to the United States the following year for a tour. They returned to France and even stayed in the country during World War II—a dangerous choice for two women from Jewish backgrounds. Still, they survived the German occupation of France, and once their beloved city of Paris was freed in 1944, they returned to hosting salons at their home.
Toklas was by Stein’s side when she passed away on July 27, 1946, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France. According to several reports, she heard Stein’s final words, which were “What is the answer? . . . In that case, what is the question?” Stein tried to make lifetime provisions for Toklas in her will, as there was no way to officially recognize their relationship at the time.
Cookbook Author and Memoirist
After Stein’s death, Toklas finally got up the courage to do some writing of her own. She published The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book in 1954. The book contained a mixture of recipes, cultural reportage and stories of her life with Stein. The recipe for hashish brownies raised some eyebrows and was omitted from the first American edition. She went on to write another cookbook, Aromas and Flavors of Past and Present, with some contributions from her editor, Poppy Cannon, in 1958. Famed cooking expert James Beard later told the New York Times that “Alice was one of the really great cooks of all time. She went all over Paris to find the right ingredients for her meals. . . . The secret of her talent was great pains and a remarkable palate.”
In 1963, Toklas published her memoir What Is Remembered. She was evicted from the last apartment she had shared with Stein around this time, and she was in poor health. Toklas was battling arthritis and had cataracts. She spent her final years relying on support from such longtime friends as writers Janet Flanner and Virgil Thomson. Toklas died in Paris on March 7, 1967, and was buried beside Gertrude Stein in Père-Lachaise cemetery.
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