42 pages 1 hour read

Gertrude Stein

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

Nonfiction | Biography | Adult | Published in 1933

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Summary and Study Guide


The title The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) is misleading, as the work is written by Alice B. Toklas’s partner, Gertrude Stein, and functions mostly as an autobiography of Stein herself. Stein, who had been creating word portraits of her famous friends, including the artists Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, began The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in response to Toklas’s statement that she planned to write her autobiography. Because Toklas’s life was so bound up to Stein’s, Stein believed that Toklas’s autobiography would essentially be a biography of Stein herself and her interactions with the influential Modernist artists and writers at the beginning of the 20th century.

The biography was Stein’s bestselling work and also her most accessible to the average reader, as her other poetry and prose were more obscure and experimental. Stein wrote the biography within six weeks, and while the book was a commercial success, Stein’s brother Leo viewed it as untruthful, and the writer Ernest Hemingway thought it lacked merit. Still, over time, writers and scholars such as Jeanette Winterson and Tamara Ann Ramsay have positioned the work in the tradition of Virginia Woolf’s experimental novelistic biography Orlando (1928), which challenges concepts of gender and singular identity.

This guide uses the 2016 Modern Classics Series e-book edition.


The Autobiography begins by introducing Toklas and Stein individually. The first two chapters describe Toklas’s upbringing in San Francisco and her move to Paris. They are written in the first person and reveal details such as Toklas’s serious musical training up until her mother’s death and the fact that her life was pleasant but not entirely fulfilling before she came to Paris. When she arrived in Paris, she initially resided with a friend in temporary accommodations before meeting Gertrude Stein, whom she recognized as “a genius.” Toklas then moved into Stein’s rue de Fleurus residence and became her life companion and the typist and curator of her works.

The next two chapters relate Stein’s biography in reverse order. The first chapter outlines Stein’s meeting with Matisse and Picasso in Paris and the establishment of the rue de Fleurus salon. The second details her upbringing and how she gave up an education in psychology and medicine to move to Paris and follow her passion for art.

The next chapters describe the women’s lives together and are broadly chronological. Given that Stein made it her mission to continually discover the latest talents in art and literature, there is a divide between the artists she was intimate with in the prewar years, such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, and those of the post-armistice period, such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Although Stein and Toklas were chiefly based in Paris, they traveled around Europe. Toklas especially had a fondness for Spain. During the war years, the women obtained a car and joined The American Fund for French Wounded.

In addition to being a hostess to great artists, Stein was a prolific writer and continually worked on manuscripts of different genres, including poetry, novels, and her word portraits, or biographies, of the artists who painted her. However, she struggled to get her work published because of the average reader’s difficulty in understanding and appreciating it and because of the prejudice of critics. Stein often felt misunderstood, and her style was parodied by newspapers. Toklas, for her part, preferred to sew and knit rather than write; however, she talked about writing her autobiography—a feat that Stein accomplished for her.