L'Atelier Balmain Podcast - Episode 4

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A NEW FRENCH STYLE: GERTRUDE, ALICE AND PIERRE

Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas, the two women seated in the front row of the house’s first presentation were two of Pierre Balmain’s earliest and most important supporters.

If you’ve ever seen a movie or read a book about the amazing artistic fervor that set apart early twentieth century Paris, you’re probably already well aware of just who Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas were. And by the time that Pierre Balmain first met them, the couple was already world famous.

Photo Credit: Maira Kalman painting of Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas of the new edition of The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas. By Gertrude Stein and Illustrated by Maira Kalman Penguin Press New York 2020

MAIRA KALMAN’S NEW AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF ALICE B TOKLAS

Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas’ great fame is due in no small part to the publication, in 1933, of The Autobiography Of Alice B Toklas.

In spite of what the title may say, that book was entirely written by Stein, who channeled Toklas’ voice and point of view to drive the story that Stein wanted to tell.

And it did exactly what the author knew it was destined to do—it became a best seller, made the couple money and promoted Gertrude Stein, (who was, to put it mildly, an incredible narcissist).

Very different from a typical Stein work, the Autobiography is an easy, gossipy read with a focus on the many fascinating relationships that the couple formed with that era’s intellectual and artistic avant-garde talents, providing an inside look at the absolutely incredible period that they lived through.

For almost 90 years, that Autobiography has remained both popular and respected—in fact, the Modern Library's editors rank it as number 20 in their list of the top 100 nonfiction titles of the 20th century.
Maira Kalman, the award-winning illustrator, author and designer, recently oversaw the creation of an entirely new edition of that famous Autobiography.
Kalman, the creator of several iconic New Yorker covers, is known for her masterful use of colorful paintings to complement compelling stories.
Her distinctive illustrated stories have been the basis of New York Times on-line columns, as well as the more than thirty books that she has authored for both adults and children.
For this new edition of the Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, Kalman has created 70-plus color illustrations, all based on Stein's text—helping to give a surprising and welcome vivid infusion of color and content to the beloved 88-year-old classic.
Kalman joined us on the podcast to speak about this new Autobiography, as well as Alice and Gertrude’s fascinating lives. She also, very generously, allowed us to use a few of the paintings from that new edition to help illustrate this brief overview of the couple’s life.

Photo Credit: Cover of the new edition of The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas. By Gertrude Stein and Illustrated by Maira Kalman Penguin Press New York 2020

THE LOST GENERATION

Stein was an extraordinary and charismatic character. She was an avant-garde writer and poet, and although much of her writing might be more than a little difficult for most of us to read and comprehend, she is recognized today as having been a literary pioneer.

Stein is also celebrated for her decisive influence on English-language experimental theater and modern American literature. She was an important champion of some of the greatest authors of the twentieth-century, including the leading writers of the so-called Lost Generation—a term that she herself coined.

Stein forged close relationships with many American writers—motivating, mentoring and sometimes helping to kick-start the careers of talents like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, T.S. Eliot, Thornton Wilder, Ford Maddox Ford, Sherwood Anderson and many others.

Photo Credit: Ernest Hemingway, painted by Maira Kalman for the new edition of The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas. By Gertrude Stein and Illustrated by Maira Kalman Penguin Press New York 2020

THE WORLD’S FIRST MODERN ART MUSEUM

Gertrude Stein also had an incredible eye. She had incomparable talent for seeking out and championing the most talented of painters. The income that she received from her American family’s investments wasn’t enough to allow her to buy the popular Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings displayed in the French capital’s most important galleries. So, Gertrude Stein—along with her brothers Leo and Michael—decided to instead concentrate on buying original works from the newest crop of young artists.

And at that moment, there were some pretty amazing unknown talents for them to discover in Paris. The Steins were among the first to recognize the power and genius of the radically new visions of artists like Picasso, Matisse, Gris and Braque. And the eventually priceless and iconic creations that they purchased from the then-unknown, now-legendary artists seemed to cover every spare inch on the walls inside Stein and Toklas’ apartment.

Just as incredible were the guests who flocked to the salons held in that same space.

Each Saturday evening, Stein and Toklas managed to assemble some of the greatest talents of the modern age —melding together avant-garde poets, composers, dancers, painters and writers, (along with the wealthy and curious who were dying to get to know them).

Jam-packed with masterpieces and bursting with geniuses, Stein and Toklas’ apartment at 27 Rue de Fleurus became one of the most important centers of the modern era’s creative and intellectual life.

Photo Credit: Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas with Basket, painted by Maira Kalman for the new edition of The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas. By Gertrude Stein and Illustrated by Maira Kalman Penguin Press New York 2020

AN INCREDIBLE WEEKLY SALON

Each Saturday evening, Stein and Toklas managed to assemble some of the greatest talents of the modern age —melding together avant-garde poets, composers, dancers, painters and writers, (along with the wealthy and curious who were dying to get to know them).

Jam-packed with masterpieces and bursting with geniuses, Stein and Toklas’ apartment at 27 Rue de Fleurus became one of the most important centers of the modern era’s creative and intellectual life.

Photo Credit: Stravinsky and Nijinsky, painted by Maira Kalman for the new edition of The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas. By Gertrude Stein and Illustrated by Maira Kalman Penguin Press New York 2020

THE COUNTRY HOUSE

Alice and Gertrude spent the war years far from Paris, at their beautiful country estate. They’d been spending time in the region ever since the summer of 1924, when—while driving from Paris in their Model T, on their way to visit Picasso in the French Riviera—they decided to cut their journey short and just stay in that beautiful area, instead.

In the decades that followed, the established a country home there, and over the years, they entertained many vacationing Parisian friends and artists.

The country home was not far from Aix Les Bains, where Pierre Balmain’s mother had one of her dress shops. During the occupation, whenever he was visiting his mother in Savoy, Balmain would make the long bike ride out to meet Alice and Gertrude, bringing them needed supplies from Paris, as well as the special wool outfits and coats that they asked him to create for them.

Pierre Balmain's total dedication to the couple can be seen in the clothing that he created for them during the occupation. He’d first bicycle out to their estate with his cutter, to measure and fit the couple’s new creations.

Later he’d bike out again, to deliver the final designs.

He was actually stopped by the authorities once, who saw that he was loaded down with enormous packages and suspected him of trafficking in black-market goods.

Since Alice and Gertrude stressed that they needed warm and comfortable clothes that reflected their personalities as much as their country lifestyle, Balmain crafted tweed suits and dresses that—while making clear his expert skills—were nothing like the couture collections that he was designing in Paris at the same time.

Photo Credit: Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas’ country home, painted by Maira Kalman for the new edition of The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas. By Gertrude Stein and Illustrated by Maira Kalman Penguin Press New York 2020

A LONG DEDICATION

When Gertrude died, Pierre wrote to Alice promising that he will remain dedicated to her, his other “American Mother.”

And, just as he promised in that letter, Balmain remained very close to Alice B Toklas for her 21 years of widowhood.

As you can see in this house photo, he always reserved a front row seat for Alice at each Balmain presentation. And when he was awarded the French Legion of Honor medal, he invited her to accompany him to the ceremony.

Photo Credit: Alice B. Toklas seated in the front row of a Balmain presentation, possibly in 1949. Balmain house photo.

J’AI DEUX AMOURS

For an episode that concentrates on some of the many amazing expatriates who transformed both the life of this city and the history of art—what could be a more perfect song that the classic 'J'ai Deux Amours' from Josephine Baker?

Josephine Baker, immortalized by Picasso and described by Ernest Hemingway as "the most sensational woman anyone ever saw,” led an amazing life of art, resistance and engagement—and Balmain is proud of its long association with this French legend.

Baker, born Freda Josephine McDonald in East Saint Louis, first sang this love song to her adopted home of Paris in the ‘30s and she sang many versions of it for many decades after that. Most versions being with the lines: “On dit qu'au-delà des mers. Là-bas sous le ciel clair. Il existe une cité. Au séjour enchanté. Et sous les grands arbres noirs. Chaque soir. Vers elle s'en va tout mon espoir. " ("They say that beyond the seas. Over there under the clear sky. There is a city. In the enchanted land. And under the great black trees. Every evening. All my hope goes towards her.") This city, beyond the seas, is the city of light that welcomed and embraced Josephine Baker—as well as so many other refuges, artists and intellectuals—drawn to creativity and freedom that helped set Paris apart in the time of Josephine, Alice, Gertrude and all those amazing talents who visited that famous salon on rue de Fleurus.



"J'ai deux amours. Mon pays et Paris. Par eux toujours. Mon cœur est ravi.
I have two loves. My country and Paris. For them always. My heart is filled with delight.

Photo: Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

JANET MALCOLM’S “TWO LIVES”

Janet Malcolm, the great New Yorker writer, investigated how the couple managed to survive the war for her book “Two Lives,” which was published in 2007. If you want a full picture of the lives of this couple you many want to read the book or the New Yorker article that Malcolm wrote about Stein and Toklas during the war.

Malcolm showed how Gertrude Stein turned to Bernard Faÿ, a long-time friend that she first met in 1924, for support and protection. Faÿ had been appointed head of the Bibliothèque Nationale during the occupation. He was a vile man who seems to have done many vile things—and after the war he was convicted and sentenced to hard labor for them and his collaboration with the Nazis.

Obviously, this was a dangerous time and the circumstances the couple found themselves in were very far from secure and safe—they were, after all, a Lesbian, Jewish and American couple living in rural France during the very darkest days of Vichy and the Nazi occupation.

And, of course, many people during that time did feel compelled to make compromises, in order to hope for protection—and, often, just to survive.

Discover now

Credits

Balmain Creative Director: Olivier Rousteing
Special Podcast Guest: Maira Kalman
Music: J’ai Deux Amours — Josephine Baker
Additional Music: Jean-Michel Derain
Episode Direction and Production: Seb Lascoux
Balmain Historian: Julia Guillon
Episode Coordination: Alya Nazaraly
Research Assistance: Fatoumata Conte and Pénélope André
Digital Coordination/Graphic Identity: Jeremy Mace
Episode researched, written and presented by John Gilligan
Podcast Webpages Design and Text: John Gilligan

To explore further:
The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas; By Gertrude Stein, Illustrated by Maira Kalman (Penguin 2020)
Pierre Balmain’s Autobiography: My Years and Seasons (Doubleday, 1965)

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