The Autobiography of Maira Kalman ~ NYT

“It’s ‘our’ book,” says the illustrator, who entered the universe of Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein in the reissued “Autobiography.”

Maira Kalman, the painter, illustrator and author. Her newest book is a colorful reissue of “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas,” by Gertrude Stein, originally published in 1933.
Credit…Yael Malka for The New York Times
In late January of this year, Alice B. Toklas appeared in New York City for two days.

She walked in Central Park. She visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to check up on Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein, her partner in life. She ate a hot dog — like a pro, stacked with relish — at a truck parked at the foot of the museum’s steps. To passers-by, in her bear-size brown overcoat, white ruff blouse, and a hat festooned with flowers, she was just another New Yorker. No explanations offered. No questions asked. Tourists to the city, eager for New York oddity, got their money’s worth those two days.

Toklas, who died in 1967, was being impersonated — some would say incarnated — by Maira Kalman, the painter, illustrator and author, whose newest book is a colorful reissue of “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas,” by Gertrude Stein, originally published in 1933. Ms. Kalman’s uncanny turn as Alice was the basis of a short movie that she was making with Alex Kalman, her son and a filmmaker, as part of her intention to inhabit her subject, in order to depict her life. Nico Muhly, the composer, plays the Satie piano piece that closes the film, with Ms. Kalman as Alice heel-clicking down Fifth Avenue.

“Only in New York,” Ms. Kalman said recently, over French-pressed coffee in her West Village apartment. “The amount of people who didn’t notice. OK, there’s this woman with a lot of makeup and this gigantic nose” — the makeup artist gave her two, over her own. “OK, there’s another person in New York. Nobody’s normal. And that’s why we live here, right?”

If Toklas and Stein were formidable figures in the cultural landscape of Paris in the golden era of the 1920s, Ms. Kalman, with more than two dozen books to her credit, many for children, and collaborations with the city’s great institutions — including the Met, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in a variety of vehicles from opera to dance — has been an estimable figure in her own right on the New York scene, from the 1980s on. With her husband, Tibor Kalman, and his design firm M&Co (the “M” is Maira), Ms. Kalman began her professional life working with that decade’s new corporate headliners, like Benetton, and postmodern glitterati like David Byrne and the Talking Heads. Mr. Kalman died in 1999.

Now Ms. Kalman is taking on the stars of modernism, and the exploding nova of “beauty and intelligence and experimentation,” as she described it, that was Toklas and Stein’s universe, with more than 60 original gouache-on-paper paintings.

The “Autobiography” was the idiosyncratic Stein’s first best seller, a circular conceit written by Gertrude in Alice’s voice, of their lives together. It depicts the apartment on the rue de Fleurus that they shared, where Cézannes and Renoirs papered the walls, and where a salon of artists, writers, composers and society revolved through it — Picasso, Hemingway, Matisse, Pound, Satie, Isadora and Raymond Duncan.

“I think that cohort of artists and writers and the ferment of thattime is something she’s connected as a parallel to that of New York,” Edward Koren, the New Yorker cartoonist, and a friend of Ms. Kalman, said. “She looks at Paris as if it were New York, through a New Yorker’s eye. It excites her.” Mr. Koren effected the introductions that allowed Ms. Kalman to visit the famous apartment, as part of her research.

Written in a matter-of-fact manner about the demimonde of Paris the “Autobiography” has the same ear as Andy Warhol’s titillated deadpan in his diaries of the 1980s.

“There were three categories of furs,” wrote Stein as Toklas, quoting Picasso’s companion, Fernande. “Sables, second category ermine and chinchilla, third category martin fox and squirrel.” There was Duchamp. “Everybody loved him.” And there was the woman “who made noises like an animal.” That would be the painter Marie Laurencin.

The book has held its fascination, taking its place in literature: it is ranked number 20 by Modern Library’s editors in the top 100 nonfiction titles of the 20th century.

The cover of the reissued autobiography, with illustrations and texts from the original, by Maira Kalman. “The only pleasure I allowed myself were lovely artificial flowers on my hat,” Gertrude Stein wrote in Alice’s voice.

Ms. Kalman took on the “Autobiography” at the suggestion of her literary agent, Charlotte Sheedy. But Stein has long been on Ms. Kalman’s mind. She makes an appearance in “Smartypants (Pete in School),” a children’s book from 2003. After a classroom recitation, Mr. Divecky, the English teacher, tells his students, “You may think Gertrude Stein is crazy (insane, nuts, delirious, cuckoo), but I love her dearly.”

Ms. Kalman, 70, said she thought that growing up in a household where English was not the first language — she was born in Tel Aviv — laid open, like a book, the idea that language could be anything.

“The eccentricity of language was something that my ear really took to,” she said of Stein’s writing. “And how to break language apart and not follow the rules and not be too afraid of the rules. This kind of poetic license of prose was something that was really important to me, especially for the writing of the children’s books.”

And then there is Alice, defined by her nearly 40-year relationship to Stein, not even the author of her own autobiography.

“Don’t be fooled by Alice being in the background,” Ms. Kalman said. “I don’t think either of them could have been who they were without the other. It’s probably clear for many relationships — you flourish in a way that you wouldn’t have without the other person.”

In one of Ms. Kalman’s paintings, Toklas sits on a garden wall in the country, hills and a river wandering softly behind her. The prism of voices involved shows sharply.

“I like a view but I like to sit with my back to it,” writes Stein, as Alice, in an excerpt below the illustration of that scene.

“I often say, ‘You know what, I’m not so wild about a view either,’” Ms. Kalman said. In the selections she chose, she lent equal weight to momentous moments and otherwise unobserved ones. There are sitting portraits of a pantheon of greats, like Apollinaire, and quickly snapped incidentals like Stein’s sister’s hat blowing off.

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