Whenever people gather, ideas seem to flow more freely when they take place around a table that includes some “refreshments.” This was part of the idea behind a tea party, or a salon, where a witty host brought together friends for art appreciation and clever conversation.
One notable series of salons took place about a hundred years ago in the Parisian home of poet Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas. You may be able to quote a line or two of Stein’s poetry, and perhaps associate Toklas with marijuana brownies, but their Saturday salons remain famous in art and literary circles. And that’s why they are currently being re-imagined at the Bancroft Library on the UC-Berkeley campus, in an exhibit called A Place at the Table: A Gathering of LGBT Text, Image & Voice.
KALW’s Steven Short had a conversation, without the refreshments, with Martin Meeker, Interim Associate Director of the Bancroft’s Regional Oral History Office. Here’s what he had to say about this exhibit.
MEEKER: Toklas and Gertrude Stein were both raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, but by different means found themselves in Paris together at the same time in 1907. Gertrude Stein was living there with several of her siblings and Toklas had traveled to Paris with her friend and fellow San Franciscan Harriet Levy. One day they said, “Let’s go over to see the Steins.”
At this point in time Toklas had no idea who Gertrude Stein was. She wasn’t a well-known published author or convener of a salon yet. She went over to the Steins’ apartment in Paris and was immediately impressed with this remarkable woman, both her physical stature and the way she commanded a room while mostly being silent.
From that day on Stein and Toklas had a connection. Later on they would join forces, move in together, and they would host a salon that has since been quite famous in American and French literary and artistic history.
SHORT: You found tapes of an interview from 1952 that was conducted by Roman Duncan with Toklas and you got a chance to actually hear her voice.
MEEKER: Yes, the lost tapes! Very few people know about them. I was excited when I picked up the tapes and started reading and listening to the interview. I was amazed at what a phenomenal, lively, sometimes combative, always opinionated, and rather amusing personality Toklas was.
It is always Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas. Toklas is always in the shade of Stein. The interview brings her out of the shadows. It shows her to be every bit Gertrude Stein’s equal and partner as an intellect and a unique personality.
SHORT: At the center of your exhibit you have a ceramic teapot, as you would have at a salon. How did it come about that you have a teapot as the center of this exhibit?
MEEKER: A couple of years ago Bill Benemann came to me and suggested that we curate a show at the Bancroft library, really the first show there exhibiting materials related to the history of sexuality. He said one thing that we had to have in the exhibit was a teapot that was once owned by Alice Toklas.
It’s a small white porcelain teapot that is still filled with rose petals from Gertrude Stein’s rosebushes that were growing at her summer home in southwestern France. If you open up the lid of the teapot, this lovely aroma of roses comes out.
It brings you back; it is a remarkable item that became the centerpiece of this exhibit. We decided we should have Stein and Toklas host a tea party. They convened a famous salon in their prime, so really the exhibit is trying to create an imagined modern salon.
SHORT: Have you given any thought as to what Ms. Toklas and Ms. Stein would feel about this salon?
MEEKER: It’s very unique. I certainly hope that they would feel at home. With the design of the exhibit itself we’ve tried to create a more domestic atmosphere. The colors are very saturated colors of the late 19th and early 20th century. There’s a little viewing lounge in the middle of it that is set up like a living room. We tried to physically make it welcoming and comfortable, which is somewhat different from a lot of exhibits that you’ll see.
As far as the content, I think there would be some things that they would find fascinating and appealing, but I have no doubt, given their strong opinions about art and literature, that they would object to or simply not be interested in a lot of the items in the exhibit as well.
They were passionate about fine arts, the avant-garde and pushing the boundaries. We were intrigued not only by the avant-garde but the regular, the commercial, and the every day, as well. Because of this we have comic books and postcards in the exhibit and we even have an album of paper doll cutouts so you could dress your drag queen paper dolls.
I think that Toklas and Stein might scoff at that a little bit but I think that they would be interested in other elements of the exhibit, such as the first edition we have of Allan Ginsberg’s Howl or some of the rare lesbian feminist poetry from the early 1970s that is on display.
A Place at the Table is on display through July 9, 2012 at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.