By Mary Helen Barrett
The most-quoted, least-read author ever to come from East Oakland was, without a doubt, Gertrude Stein. Another irony: Stein’s most famous line is always used to say something which she never intended. “There’s no there there” meant no insult to the old hometown. It was simply an expression of painful nostalgia.
Stein lived in Oakland from age six to 17—crucial years in a child’s life. It was 1880 when the Stein family (her father, mother, Gertrude, and four siblings) moved into Tubb’s Hotel until they could find a suitable home. In 1881 they settled at a 10-acre farm in rural East Oakland. Gertrude described the life as “half country, half city.” The “country” half was completely rustic, as was the Mills campus at the time. The Steins cultivated a large vegetable garden and kept a cow. A drive which led to the house was lined with eucalyptus trees, as were the roads at Mills. The “city” was the heart of Oakland, where one went for entertainment and the necessities of life.
In East Oakland, the Steins were exotic, being both Jewish and rich. They had a gardener, a cook-housekeeper, and a German governess. Gertrude’s father commuted each day to San Francisco where he was a vice-president of the Union Street municipal railway. Mrs. Stein drove him to the ferry in the family’s horse-drawn buggy.
Gertrude’s Oakland years were, at first, happy and conventional. She loved sports and games and books. She played with neighbor children. Gertrude and her brother Leo were constant companions. She often went on shopping trips with her mother into the heart of Oakland.
It was Mr. Stein who cast the only shadow on this childhood bliss. His odd behavior humiliated all the Stein children. Their father walked down the street, whipping the air furiously with his cane. He shouted loud, profane imprecations at unseen companions. He fell into sudden fits of rage, both at home and in public. Only Gertrude’s very conventional, and long suffering, mother kept the family life moderately serene.
Gertrude’s first literary triumph came when she was in grammar school. Her essay about an East Oakland sunset won a prize. She later entered Oakwood High School for what was to prove a short time.
When Gertrude’s mother died of cancer, in 1888, the Stein children fell under the dubious care of their father. Inevitably, the household was chaotic. Daily life was unplanned and unpredictable. For Gertrude, adolescence was a time of horrors. The experience, as she put it, in Wars I Have Seen, was mediaeval:
“Mediaeval means that life and place and the crops you plant … all are uncertain. They can be driven away or taken away, or burned away, or left behind … Fifteen is really mediaeval and pioneer and nothing is clear and nothing is sure, and nothing is safe and nothing is come and nothing is gone. But all might be!’
Deeply depressed, the young Gertrude dropped out of high school. Then, in 1891, her father died, and Gertrude’s California life was almost over. For a year the Stein children stayed on together, in San Francisco. Then Gertrude left for Baltimore, to live with an aunt. She would not see Oakland again until she returned in triumph 30 years later.
It was 1934. Stein’s opera Four Saints in Three Acts, with music by Virgil Thomson, was an instant, colossal success in New York City. Stein’s name was in lights over the theater and every night the house was packed. Rave reviews appeared in all the newspapers. Tickets were in great demand. Most people liked best, and quoted to one another, that part of the play which came in the second of the three Scene Twos, which came before three of the Scene Ones of the two Act Threes:
“Pigeons on the grass alas,
Pigeons on the grass alas.”
Stein had spent futile years of hard work trying to succeed as a writer. After countless rejection letters, her sudden fame was exhilarating. She had to go where the excitement was.
Stein and her life-long companion, Alice B. Toklas, sailed to New York where they were quickly “discovered” by everyone who mattered in the literary world. They were wined and dined and lionized.
Saints was also being performed in Chicago, and Stein and Toklas decided to make that their next stop. In spite of their fear of airplanes, they flew there. As they embarked on this trip, the famous photograph was taken of the odd-looking pair, each holding a doll in her hand, in the door of the plane. In Chicago, as in New York, they wallowed in celebrity.
The two were inspired to set off on a triumphant lecture tour. Along the way, they called on Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and Mrs. Roosevelt, among other luminaries.
Gertrude insisted that audiences in every city be limited to 500. The lectures were very popular, in spite of their arcane subject matter. In one lecture, for example, “Poetry and Grammar,” Stein declared to her enchanted audience, “Commas are servile.”
At last the two women headed for California, arriving first in Los Angeles. There they rented a car to drive north. Stein was scornful of the driving test she was required to take. Even Toklas, who had never driven in her life, could have passed the test easily, Gertrude announced.
In San Francisco, Alice’s hometown, Stein received a key to the city. For Toklas “coming back to my native town was … disturbing!’
It was even worse for Gertrude at their next stop—Oakland. Nothing was as she had left it.
She described her visit to the old family farm in Everybody’s Autobiography. With customary disregard for “servile” commas, and for periods as well, she wrote, “The big house and the big garden and the eucalyptus trees and the rose hedge naturally were not any longer existing … What was the use of my having come from Oakland it was not natural to have come from there yes write about it if I like or anything I like but not there, there is no there, there.”
She had come “home,” but home was gone.
Mary Helen Barrett served as editor of the Mills Quarterly from 1980 to 1988. Previously she had worked as a journalist, an editor for Compton’s Encyclopedia, and the editor of Drury College’s alumni magazine. She is co-author of the book, The Young Brothers Massacre, and the author of several mystery stories. In addition, Mary Helen is one of those rare people who actually has read all of Gertrude Stein.