I’m having some friends over tonight to plan a seance. Except it’s not really a seance; it’s just called it that to be silly and because it started with a ghost. The ghost of Alice B Toklas is rumored to haunt the Sorrento hotel in Seattle so the folks from APRIL (Authors, Publishers and Readers of Independent Literature) thought let’s invite her. I’m supposed to emcee and I have lots of ideas like reading some of Toklas’ work, not just from the famous cookbook but also from her sometimes moving, often funny, always entertaining actual autobiography, What is Remembered. Of course we ought to read something from Stein’s fake “auto” biography, The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas too, and other work by Stein. I’ve invited some friends: my poet friend Jan Wallace, who also reads tarot cards and has a crystal ball; and Joshua Beckman who loves Stein and her language; and my next door neighbors (a burlesque artists, a sometime writer) to dress their chihuahua in poodle drag to represent Basket, Alice and Gertrude’s poodle. Other folks will be there too and brownies (though not with pot) and masks and ghost photography and dry ice and it will all take place at the very fancy wood paneled, fancy-furniture-d, fancy waiter- and waitress-ed, fire-side hotel bar.
Toklas lived in Seattle a couple years in the 1890‘s, where her father ran a branch of the family business, and studied piano at what is now the University of Washington. Toklas had once dreamt of being a concert pianist, but realized, about that time, she didn’t have the chops for that. But she still dreamt of a life in the arts and hung around with other artsy students and creative types. She started wearing blowsy, ‘gypsy’-influenced clothes. She was moving away from the well-behaved, demure way she was raised. I don’t know if she knew that she was waiting. About a decade later she met Stein.
The Toklas family lived in the “First Hill” neighborhood of Seattle which is where the Sorrento is. The woman who’s supposed to be Alice haunts the fourth floor, and sometimes a particular room, and wears a long white flowing dress. I’ve never seen her.
I doubt, actually, I’ll see her Wednesday night at our “seance”. But I believe we’ll have her spirit, which I like to think of as lively, sometimes generous but also sometimes impatient, like not interested in you if you don’t take yourself (and Gertrude!) seriously and actually produce some work.
I love having literary events take place out of the expected venues of the academy or bookstores. I love it when literature is seen as not only stuff with important things to say to us, but also the records of people who were inventive, silly, serious, committed, ridiculous, flawed and creative. I love the fact that written stuff, though usually written alone, by a single human alone and often somewhat miserable or lost or troubled, can come alive, and does, comes more alive, in the presence of and because of other humans. Toklas typed Stein’s manuscripts (don’t we all wish we had a wife or personal assistant to take care of all of the practical stuff) and somewhat infamously very harshly edited some of Gertrude’s work. Because Stein had had a love affair earlier in her life with a girl named “May,” Toklas made Stein remove the word “may” throughout the work and replace it with “can.”
Stein and Toklas are more happily known as the presiders-over a great salon of painters, artists, gadabouts and hangers-on. Stein wrote stuff about Picasso’s work; Picasso painted her. Stein taught Hemingway to write; he advocated for her work with others’ (before he turned on her, the ungrateful wretch!). These people were friends and sometimes frenemies who tussled with each other intellectually, creatively, one-upping and inspiring and urging each other on. They made things because of their knowing each other that they would not have made alone.
Too often we think that art is “inspired,” as if it’s handed down to us from some high up ethereal place, as if it arrives inevitable. It doesn’t. It’s created by us living, breathing, flawed, self-conscious humans. Our struggles with trying to please each other, with our intellectual, aesthetic and personal loyalties and betrayal, our passing through phases of interest and boredom are all part of the real stuff that goes into the making of art.
Having friends in the arts not only keeps us from being quite as lonely as we would be otherwise (we’ll always be somewhat lonely…), it also helps us bend or reach or turn to ways of thinking or exploring we would not turn to ourselves. We need each other not only practically, emotionally, socially, but also to encourage and to challenge one another. Also, sometimes, to just have fun.
Someone, when I was in junior high, first told me about the existence of Gertrude Stein. At the time, she just told me about the salon and the gathering of friends who made art and words. Later I read and came to love the work of Stein. But that first meeting, and learning that artists can have artist friends who love and help and talk and have good times with them, is what first made me feel there was a way to have a life, somewhere, that I could want.
APRIL Seance at Sorrento Hotel
Wednesday, March 25 8 PM; door open at 7:30.