Gertrude Stein had a problem. She’d always had the problem but it was all the more acute in 1934 when she stood before 500 people and tried to speak.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. Her stutter caused obvious discomfort among her adoring fans and that caused her to lose confidence and when Gertrude Stein lost confidence, she lost her line of thought. Which was not easy to follow to begin with.
The first couple of lectures on her long-awaited U.S. tour were described in the American press as disappointing and worse, confusing.
And this would never do, as she had six months of lectures across the United States lined up, each limited to 500 people maximum and each had been sold out months ago.
In a bit of a panic, Stein told an assistant to reach out to her good friend Mina Loy, a bohemian Everywoman sort, living in Paris. A feminist, painter, poet, playwright, novelist, designer — god knows, if it was about art, Mina had done it. If anyone could punch up a speech and clear up her, um, diction issues, Stein reasoned, it would be Mina.
The young assistant, only recently attached by the publisher to Stein in New York and better versed in Hollywood stardom than Parisian modernism, mistakenly assumed she was seeking the U.S. actress Myrna Loy who’d recently starred in the hit movie “The Lady and the Prizefighter” with heavyweight champion Max Baer.
A girl could make that kind of mistake in 1934.
“Hello, Mina darling? This is Gertrude. I’m in the U.S. and I desperately need your advice as an actress. How’s Paris treating you by the way? I so miss it. America is just as unruly as I remembered it. Hasn’t grown up much in 30 years.”
Myrna Loy: “I’m sorry. Who did you say you are?”
Stein: “It is me, Gertrude. For heaven’s sake, I haven’t been gone that long. Look, I really really need your help.”
Loy: “You may need someone’s help, my dear. But I’m not sure it is mine.”
Loy: “No, Myrna.”
Loy: “Myrna. Say, we could keep this up all day but it’s not going to do either of us any good. Are you really Gertrude Stein? If so, we have tickets for your lecture in Los Angeles. I’m so looking forward to your talk. So say, what’s this all about.”
Stein: “My dear, I think that there has been a horrible mistake. I was trying to reach my old friend Mina Loy in Paris. She is an actress and writer. I asked my assistant to connect me to her for some desperately needed advice. And you say you are Myrna Loy, the actress in Hollywood.”
Loy: “That’s the one, sister.”
Stein: “How delicious. I just saw you in ‘The Lady and the Prizefighter’ when we arrived in New York. You were marvelous opposite that brute. What is his name? He has sort of a primal talent and he is most convincing as a boxer. Reminds me a bit of my young protegee Earnest, a huge boxing fan and decent writer but your man had – What’s it called? – ‘presence.’ “
Loy: “Oh, you mean Maxy. Max Baer. Yeah. He has potential. But I think he’s eventually going to get the charisma punched out of his head in the ring. If he doesn’t kill somebody first. As boxers go, he’s a brute alright. But as an actor, he’s a sweetheart to work with.”
Stein: “You know, coincidentally, Mina was married to a boxer. A charming fellow named Arthur Cravan. He was also a poet and was related in some way to Oscar Wilde. Arthur fashioned himself to be one of the Dadaists and he took Mina to Mexico City where they lived in absolute dreadful poverty.”
Loy: “You don’t say …”
Stein: “Oh, I’m sorry. I seem to be running on.”
Loy: “Not at all. What happened to Mina’s boxer friend, if you don’t mind my asking?”
Stein: Well, it was all so long ago but Mina and Arthur got married in Mexico City and as I said, it was a life neither of them was prepared for. The poor dear got pregnant and traveled to Buenos Aires to have the baby. Arthur was supposed to follow her there.”
Stein: “Uh-oh is right. Arthur simply vanished.”
Loy: “Just like a man.”
Stein: “Perhaps. They say he drowned off the coast of Mexico in some leaky old boat. Others say his body was found in the middle of the desert. The main thing is, nobody has heard from Arthur in the 20 years since. Perhaps he’s in the same grave with that old gringo, what was his name, Ambrose something. A newspaperman or something.”
Loy: “Ambrose Bierce. He was a columnist for a newspaper. As a child, I recall hearing that he was heading to Mexico to help Poncho Villa win the freedom of Mexico.”
Stein: “Yes, well they both sort of disappeared down there, didn’t they? Just like men. Always heading off on some selfish adventure or other, then disappearing when what they are really doing is running away from some sort of unsolvable problem.”
Loy: “Yes, a problem. You started out mentioning a problem. Perhaps I’m not the right person to help you, then?”
Stein: “Oh, my dear. You have been so kind to listen to this old crone prattle on. You know, it is so interesting and I dare say in a way, cosmic, that I connected with you. Here you are still in the glow of your boxing movie. My friend Mina was married to a boxer. And my former student Earnest is forever going on about boxing — well he actually does put on the gloves and has even punched out another writer or two.”
Loy: “Good heavens! Can he help you with your problem?”
Stein: “Oh, my no. Hemingway has turned into a little, dare I say, shit. He can’t keep his boxing in the ring. He feels like he has to knock out every decent writer who ever came before him as if he were in the ring with them. He ridiculed Sherwood Anderson and wrote a nasty satire based on one of his books. Sherwood was at one time his mentor, as I was. For a time Paris was quite taken with boxers and all the writers were amused by Hemingway who aspired to be both. Quite mediocre an ambition if you ask me.”
Loy: “So what did he do to you?”
Stein: “My dear, he accused me of stealing his ideas! Can you imagine?”
Loy: “Did you? “
Stein: “My goodness, have you ever read anything by Hemingway? It is all testosterone. I’m sure that if I stole from him, I wouldn’t have the slightest idea of what to do with it.”
Loy: “So he’s no help. Mina is no help. What’s a girl to do?”
Stein: ‘Well to put it in boxing terms, I’m off my game. I’ve delivered two lectures here in the States and I wasn’t able to land a punch in either bout. If this keeps up, I’m headed for the floor. I need something drastic to get me out of the corner and smelling salts just won’t do it.”
Loy: Chuckling. “Well aren’t you the one with the words.”
Stein: ”Yes, my dear. That is why I am traveling about this god-forsaken country. But it is the words coming out of my mouth that lack the punch. The newspapers are saying that I talk like I write and apparently, they don’t mean that in a nice way. They are even quoting psychiatrists who are diagnosing my stutter without even talking to me! It is all so horrid!”
Loy: “You know what I think? You need Maxy.”
Stein: “Your co-star? Max Baer? I can’t even …”
Loy: “Hear me out. Max is a lug. But he’s got brains. Like I said, for how long, I don’t know, but he doesn’t have another fight coming up for a while and nobody in Hollywood is knocking down his door to do another boxer movie.
“People don’t know it, but he’s a pretty funny guy. And he’s pretty kind. We spent a lot of time going over our lines together and in his own way, he really really helped. So what I’m thinking is, you need a coach. I’ve got rehearsal for a movie with Bill Powell coming up, so I need to be on my toes. Otherwise, I’d be in your corner.
“But maybe Maxy could do you some good. You speak his language and so maybe he doesn’t speak yours but it sounds like a lot of folks in your audience don’t either. He could tell ya where your punches aren’t landing, if you know what I mean. You want me to make the call? Say, where are you anyway?”
Stein: “Alice and I are in Saratoga for a few days before the lectures begin in earnest.”
Loy: “Say, that’s swell. Maxy is in Buffalo. I just heard from him the other day. He could be at your door tomorrow morning.”
Stein: “This is all so grand of you. Are you sure he’ll help?”
Loy: “If I say so, he’ll be there. Say, your pal Mina sounds like she might have a movie or two in her. What’s she up to?”
Stein: “I understand she’s back in Paris and Peggy Guggenheim has set her up with a little shop where she designs lampshades, one-of-a-kind things for Peggy and her money crowd. I’m sure she’s still writing, too.”
Loy: “Well ok. Listen I gotta run. Listen for Maxy tomorrow. His knock will be the one that sounds like it’s busting your door down but don’t worry, he’s a sweetheart. I’ll look for you when you get to L.A. Charlie Chaplin said he’s keen on hearing you talk, too. Maybe we can all get together after your show.”
Stein: “Well, I don’t think of it as a ‘show’ per se but, yes, let’s do that. I haven’t seen Charlie in ages.
Stein: “Goodbye, dear. And thank you.”
By the end of her tour, 74 lectures and 37 cities later, Gertrude Stein was a modern-day celebrity. Very few people could say with any certainty what she was talking about but they loved how she said it and everyone commented on her vivacious and engaging personality.
As for the stutter, a growing confidence and charming demeanor pushed it mostly into the shadows. Just enough, as it was.
She still talked like she wrote — intriguingly incomprehensible — but for the most part, she found a compromise, a voice and delivery that made people feel like they were getting something special for their money.
In boxer terms, she maybe landed every third punch but when it hit, it hit good and hard.
Did Maxy save the day? He never spoke about it. Nor did Gertrude Stein.
Some people, in different cities, say they thought they saw Max Baer in the audience but, to be honest, this wasn’t his crowd, so nobody could say for certain.
Put more magic in your life!
If you enjoyed this post, consider subscribing and passing on the link to friends. It is all free. To subscribe, click on the three-bar thing at the top of this page (in the red circle). Feel free to share this post!
5 thoughts on “Fiction: The secret life of Gertrude Stein in America”
This is delightful! I can’t tell how much is you, how much is Gertrude, and all the other assorted characters, but it doesn’t matter. To continue the movie theme — it has a Marx Brothers edge in those great misunderstandings.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Bob… I assume it was you who created the dialogue. If so, it was pretty amusing and amazing. Enjoyed.
I did Jeff. I just started with two similarly named people in the same era and played with it.
Excellent Bob. Great fun
Your breadth of interests is impressive
Thank you, Jim!