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Travels with Gertrude Stein

Arnie Greenberg

There are many reasons for travel. I have been away on business, to family functions, or just to relax. While they are all important and rewarding, I most enjoy the times when I can either research a subject or put my research to a purpose. I’ve been to Grand Cayman for all of the above. (Some day I’ll finish that book I started there.) I lectured on the theme of Gertrude Stein in Stuttgart and in Culoz, France and Italy, of all places. Now I want to relive the places that the great literary and artistic heroes lived in and traveled to. Let’s start with Gertrude.

Those who know me know that she has been the lynch pin of my academic research for 35 years. While I never met the lady, she was responsible for my travels to various parts of the USA and Europe.

I am familiar with many of her haunts but I have never been to Allegheny Pa. Nor have I been on the old Radcliff campus where she studied. Some of my writing did get to Yale (Radcliff for women at the turn of the century). But when these papers were handed over, I wasn’t there.

Just two weeks ago I was in Oakland California. I went to the museum and asked for directions to the home she grew up in. The lady at the desk replied in Gertrude’s own words. “There is no there there”, she announced. Further research proved that she was right. The house, as far as I could find, is long gone. But at least I was in Oakland.

In France, I’ve seen all of her residences. When she left Medical School and went to Paris, she moved into a stylish apartment with her brother Leo. It is still there at 27 rue De Fleurus. There is a plaque near the front door that attests to the fact that she did indeed live there. Rue de Fleurus is at right angles to the western side of the Luxembourg Gardens. It’s an unobtrusive little street that runs on for a few blocks. There are a few older hotels, a cute restaurant and a selection of non-descript grocery stores. I went to see the apartment and the attached gallery where she and Leo hung one of the best collections of modern art of that period. There were Cézannes, Matisses and Picassos, plus some by the Spaniard Juan Gris, Francis Rose and Bravig Imbs. Gertrude had an eye for art and 27 rue de Fleurus became the Mecca of art lovers around WWI. On Saturday nights, people came to look at the paintings and talk. 

Everybody who was anybody was there including Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Picasso, Sherwood Anderson and countless others. They met there every Saturday evening. They drank distilled liquors and ate little sandwiches that Gertrude’s friend Alice Toklas made. But that’s not why they went there. They went to discuss, to argue and to learn. I would never go to Paris without taking a side trip to Gertrude’s in the 6th Arrondissement.

For holidays, she and her brother would go to Fiesole. Leo was a friend of the critic-collector, Bernard Berenson. His sprawling villa was in the beautiful hills just above Florence. The town of Fiesole looks down on Florence and offers one of the most exciting views in central Italy. I have my yearly pilgrimage to the town but ‘I Tati’, Berenson’s villa is out of bounds. Still I get the idea of what surroundings Gertrude and Leo discussed art with the man who showed them the way. I also think Fiesole is worth seeing for the value of the old Roman Theatre and museum and the wonderful statue of Garibaldi and Victor Emmanuel shaking hands in the main square. It is a powerful symbol of the 19th century unification of Italy. Even Leonardo de Vinci has a ghostly presence in the hills below the town. It was there that he first experimented with flight. Of course, it was his students who threw themselves off the cliffs in one of his gliders. The master just watched and made notes.

It is well known that Alice B Toklas moved in with Gertrude and acted as her cook, typist, confidante, friend, gardener and lover. They were together for the rest of their lives. Just before WWI, they traveled to England. Actually, they almost got stranded there when war broke out.

Some years later, when it got hot in Paris, Gertrude and Alice would load up the car and head for the tiny village of Bilignin. Gertrude did the driving in her small car she called ‘auntie’, named after a most reliable aunt. You won’t find Bilinin on a map, but you might find Belley, East of Lyons where it sits quietly a few miles away. The area is a gourmand’s paradise. Famous cooks lived in the area and restaurants abound. There, she rented a beautiful Louis XV chateau, which she spotted while driving through the countryside. Here she received visitors and she wrote her books, including the famous Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, gave advice to the villagers while Alice tended the garden. Her friends would arrive from Paris and life was very gay. She was a bit of a gourmand herself and found the best restaurants in Belley, Chambery, Aix-Les-Bains and Artemare. Today they are hardly memorable but for nostalgic purposes I return from time to time.

One year I met the son of the owner of that house. He invited us into the boxwood garden overlooking the valley and we chatted about their one time tenant. Marcel Putz was a charming host and told us stories of the beautiful property and his family. He was a young boy when she lived there but his interest is still there.

It was during the thirties that Gertrude traveled back to America. Her opera, Four Saints in Three Acts was performed in New York while she was there. She went to Chicago and to California on a lecture tour. Then, it was time to return to her beloved France.

Today there is a plaque on the entranceway at Bilinin, donated by the University of Southern California. It is a popular visiting place for Stein scholars and informed readers. The building still remains in the hands of that same family. Madame Leligois (the eldest married daughter) cares for the building with love. They once let me wander around the inside of the house and make a short film in the room where Gertrude wrote.  The high ceilings and ornate wall decorations are throwbacks to another age. Sadly, Gertrude left there during WWII when the family needed the house for themselves.

It would have been easy for Gertrude to leave Belley and escape to Switzerland. She had friends in high places partly because she had won a prestigious medal for the work she had done with the American Friends French Wounded in an earlier war. She chose to remain. Her friend Mae (who was a Baronne) was the head of a famous gentrified family from nearby Beon, near Culoz. She found a place for Gertrude and Alice in a lovely chateau on a park overlooking Culoz. Gertrude moved in only about 20 miles away from her old chateau. She often visited Mae, almost next door, and there she would confront their small daughter Rose. Rose wanted no part of Gertrude and would often run away and hide. Gertrude thought it amusing. She used those incidents to craft a very ingenious book called The World is Round. The book, written on Mae d’Aiguy’s property, tells of little Rose who goes up on the mountain (Le Grand Colombier) to hide. There she finds the tallest tree at the summit and carves her name into the bark. Then she continues all around. Rose…is…a...rose…is…a...rose. That line added to the fame that Gertrude was gaining. It is still a line everyone knows without really knowing the author.

Gertrude had gone from America to Paris to Bilignin to Culoz in the area called Ain. The town is small and about 30 K from Aix-Les-Bains and Annecy. They are both on sparkling lakes, fed by the waters coming down from the Alps. Annecy is one of the most idyllic towns in France. Nearby Aix is more cosmopolitan with its spas and gambling casino.  Gertrude often visited these places and ate the fish from the two lakes.

When the war ended, Gertrude returned to Paris but by then she was living on the rue Christine #5, closer to the Seine. Royalty had once owned the apartment. Gertrude lived very well even though in the last years she had to sell some of her paintings to subsist.

It all came to an end in 1946 when Gertrude died of cancer at The American Hospital. She was still looking for the answer.

I did learn about an area I would never have found, Travel is best when you get off the beaten track. I had a reason for going there in the first place. I have since returned to lecture in Culoz and made friends in the village. They are all good people but I single out one in particular because of his relationship with Gertrude.

When I came to lecture at a conference in Culoz, I discovered that Francois Mitterand had unveiled and dedicated a statue of Gertrude in front of Le Clos Poncet, her Culoz wartime home. It couldn’t have been easy for Gertrude and Alice. They had to billet German officers in their home at different times.

At that conference, I was introduced to a young man who said his name was Jean d’Aiguy. I mentioned that Gertrude wrote about Rose D’Aiguy in one of her books. Jean replied,

“She was my mother.” Mae was Jean’s grandmother.

Jean and I became friends over the next week. I was invited to the Chateau Beon where Mae and Rose had lived.  It was a bonus for me in many ways and Jean and the town drew me back often. I used to take tour groups to Culoz. We would have lunch on he Chateau lawn while I would read from a first edition of The World is round.

Over the years I watched that chateau fall into disrepair. Last summer it was sold and Jean and his Japanese wife, Noriko, moved into an apartment in Lyons. Before they moved, Jean asked me if I wanted to see where his mother was buried. We walked to the tiny cemetery in the old village. There in a corner was the little girl Gertrude had written about. I reached down and placed a small stone on the gravestone.

“Why did you do that?” asked Jean.

 I explained. “That’s a tradition in my faith. It shows other visitors that someone else cared enough to visit. It was like a calling card.”

Why would I walk along rue de Fleurus if it weren’t for Gertrude? Why would I go to tiny Bilignin, to Belley, Culoz or the Chateau Beon? Why would I go to Shakespeare and Company where Gertrude borrowed books? How much richer my life became when I met all those people in a far-away village, When did I begin my need to travel, to discover to turn over new stones? What might my life have become had I stayed home or traveled to a beach resort or on a cruise. There is place for all those things but each year or two we have to rearrange my busy schedule and visit the haunts that a lady from Oakland and Pennsylvania made famous.

Because of her I was able to lecture in Stuttgart at Amerika House. My play about Gertrude was performed in German at the Wilhelma theatre in Stuttgart. I traveled to a tiny village in the Northern Tyrol (once part of Austria) and talked about the twenties, Paris and Gertrude.

I often end my journey at the Pere Lachaise Cemetery. There in the middle of Paris I visit the graves of Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, Modigliani, Isadora Duncan, Proust, Sarah Bernhardt, Chopin, Jim Morrison, Balzac and…Gertrude Stein. There is no need for words on the headstone except her name, dates and places of birth.

I place a rose on the grass above her because with those words, she made a rose smell sweeter than anyone before her. Indeed, a rose is a rose is a rose…

Note: For most of her life, Gertrude lived very well, either from a family allowance or proceeds of her lectures and books. In the early years with her brother, the money came from their older brother Michael who directed some of the San Francisco railway lines. Eventually his holdings were sold and he profited greatly. The other brother, Simon, was limited and overweight. For many years he had the job of conductor on one of the cable cars.

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You can Contact Professor Arnie Greenberg at


Over the past few years, Professor Greenberg has traveled with groups to France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Budapest, Vienna, Salzburg, Prague and both Sorrento and the Bay of Naples plus most of Sicily. His tours traveled to the far reaches of the globe including Italy and most of China (Beijing -Hong Kong) and to Russia where his group cruised the waters from St.Petersburg to Moscow. 

"He took a group to Greece and another to northern Russia. In Nov 07 he took a tour group to much of India and ended his tour groups by revisiting France. He now travels with his wife and friends. They winter in Argentina or San Miguel Mexico.  His newly found spare time is taken up with his painting and writing. "I must write every day." His current work is a cautionary manual for would-be tour leaders..  "So You Want To Be A Tour Leader." 

Arnie now travels with friends. He continues writing Travel articles about unusual places but often concentrates on novel writing. Two books based on French Art will be published this year.  Keep reading his web for travel ideas.  His next novel HELLSTORM'S Folly, will be available this fall. He now lives in British Columbia.

Go to: or contact him directly at

(More about the writer.)


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