17 August 2013

Gertrude Stein, Alice B Toklas and Harriet Lane Levy

Harriet Lane Levy (1867–1950) was born in San Francisco in 1867 and lived at 920 O'Farrell Street until her mid 30s. Like Gertrude Stein, Alice B Toklas and Stein’s cousins Claribel Cone and Etta Cone, Levy came from a middle-class Jewish family, not wealthy but very educated and very ambitious for their children. A relevant book that readers might like to find is 920 O'Farrell Street (Modern Jewish Experience Series) by Harriet Levy. It was part of her autobiography that chronicled her childhood in San Francisco.

"920 O'Farrell Street"
Levy's memoirs of her Jewish childhood in San Francisco in the late 1800s
Not published until 1937.

Harriet was a bright young woman and graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1886, an era when not too many women did. After graduation, her parents expected her to marry a very educated Jewish man and there were plenty of suitors around. But depending on which sources you read, Harriet was a] unhappy about her looks and was afraid to go out with men, b] too intellectually ambitious to settle into domesticity or c] gay. [I personally think her looks were absolutely normal.]

During the 1890s, Harriet became an important drama critic for popular San Francisco publications, like the San Francisco Call. She also wrote for The Wave with notable writers like Jack London, another University California ex-student.

Going to Paris was the next step for any cultured American. She had already visited Paris several times before, the first being with her friends Michael and Sarah Stein, Gertrude Stein’s brother and sister in law. But this time she sailed to Paris with Alice B Toklas, a friend and neighbour from childhood, for a few years. They arrived in Paris in 1907 and lived together until Toklas met Gertrude Stein.

Harriet Levy (left) and Alice B Toklas
Italy 1909
Photo credit:  The Bancroft Library

History has shown that Stein began to woo Toklas as hard as she could, and that the two women fell in love in 1910. Not only did Alice B Toklas type up Stein’s notes and handle the publication details... Toklas also started Plain Editions to help distribute Stein’s literary works! Toklas moved into 27 Rue de Fleurus and became Stein’s lover and assistant, until the end of their lives.

Harriet Levy was now alone. So she busied herself in this strange new and vibrant world, initiating herself into the Parisian lifestyle, including participating in salons run by the Stein family. She was aware of the Picasso Vs Matisse rivalry, she loved buying art and she particularly liked participating in Montmartre’s wild nights. Keen readers will love Paris Portraits: Stories of Picasso, Matisse, Gertrude Stein and Their Circle, drafted by Harriet Lane Levy in Paris but rewritten and published years later in the USA.

Levy returned to California in 1910, at age 43, and lived the rest of her life as a woman of independent means. Despite her early success as a journalist, Levy did not leave a great deal of written work to be remembered by - just the books I have already mentioned, some unpublished manuscripts now in the Bancroft Library, and a small book of poems.

But she found her niche in collecting and art philanthropy. We know which artists Harriet patronised in Paris and which paintings she bought in the USA, because she became a very important benefactor at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. To give just a few examples, see André Derain’s Paysage du midi, 1906; Henri Matisse’s Corsican Landscape, 1899 and La Table au café, c1899; and Pablo Picasso’s Scène de rue, 1900. She also bequeathed the Museum the terracotta by Peter David Edstrom called Portrait of Miss Levy, c1908.

Matisse, Girl with Green Eyes
1908, SFMOMA

With Michael Stein’s encouragement, Harriet Lane Levy bought Henri Matisse's painting Girl with Green Eyes (1908) from the artist's studio soon after it was painted. Levy returned with it to San Francisco a couple of years later and it is now proudly installed at the entrance to the San Francisco MOMA's second-floor gallery. Perhaps more surprisingly Matisse's practice as a sculptor began alongside his career as a painter. Despite claiming that he regarded sculpture as secondary to his painting, he worked on sculpture for most of his life. Levy loved Matisse's bronze statue called The Serf, 1900-1903 which she shipped back to the USA. It too found its way, via Levy's will, to SFMOMA.


leon sims said...

I enjoyed reading this post especially as I spent a summer in SF in 79. On visits to Paris, we tend to visit Shakespeare and Co and I was wondering since there was a connection between Sylvia Beach, GS and ABT, would Harriet have been part of that circle as well?

Joe said...


I knew you should have come earlier. Before you got to San Francisco they had a program called Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. You would have enjoyed it.

Hels said...


I went back to my blog post on Shakespeare and Company Bookshop, Paris during the years 1919-41, but couldn't find any mention of Harriet Levy.

But it made sense that she would want to mix with the literary glitterati during her years in Paris. And both Gertrude's home and Shakespeare and Co were appropriately Left Bank.

Sylvia Beach's shop may have been a bit too late for Harriet Levy, but the literary revolution that was happening in Paris would have been very very appealing to this ex-pat.


Hels said...


Look at what the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco said:

Drawing upon a wealth of rarely seen artistic and archival materials, Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories illuminates Stein's life and pivotal role in art in the C20th. Focusing on Stein's life from the end of WWI-WW2, the exhibition explores her evolving public personae, lifestyle, relationships, tour of the USA and life in France during WW2. This is done through a portrayal of Stein's contributions in her writings, patronage and lifestyle.