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Monday, January 24, 2011

The Steins

Imagine if you will, 1910, a third-floor walk-up apartment in one of the better neighborhoods of Paris. On the walls of the modest, 7-room flat are works by Pablo Picasso, Paul Cezanne, Geroges Braque, Edward Manet, Paul Gauguin.  In a hall closet are more paintings for which there is no room to hang, by names such as Matisse, Rousseau, Daumier, and Derain. A not-particularly-attractive woman of well-to-do means and her brother are entertaining in the living room. Both are Harvard-educated Americans. They are well-traveled.  She is a would-be writer, her brother, an unexceptional painter. Today we would deem them jet-setters.   
Present are some of the artists mentioned before as well as writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Sherwood Anderson.
Also intermixed amongst the guests are  a number of musicians, art collectors, art dealers, dancers, intellectuals, and socialites.  here is good wine, croissants, fruit, perhaps a bouillabaisse in the kitchen. Cigarette smoke hangs in the air strong enough to burn the eyes. Most guests set casually on the somewhat worn furnishings while others stand about in small groups and still others lounge about on the floor. At times the noise is deafening, at other times it is merely a jabbering cacophony of French, English, Italian, and German, spiced with accents thick enough to cut with a palette knife.

None of these people are well-known. For some, fame is perhaps ten years or more in the future. They are bright, boisterous, thoughtful, creative, talented, eloquent, and exciting. By in large they are young, mostly in their twenties and thirties. Some of them are there because of the free food. The wine is good, not exceptional, and of course, plentiful.  But it is the conversation the brings these people together, and holds them until the wee hours of the morning when they are either too tired or two inebriated to continue talking, listening, performing, discussing, arguing, sometimes even ranting and raving. They discourse on everything, politics, painting, music, poetry, love, war, economics, exhibitions even birth control. You are at a impromptu "party" presided over by Gertrude and Leo Stein.  Did such a gathering ever take place? Yes, regularly almost, not every night perhaps, not always with such luminous hangers-on, but often enough to be the stuff of which legends are made.

Gertrude Stein, 1906,
Pablo Picasso

Leo Stein, 1937,
photo by Carl Van Vechten

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