Paris was teeming with writers and philosophers in the early 20th century, including many expatriates from England and the United States who were drawn to the City of Light’s bohemian atmosphere, cheap rents and free-flowing wine. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote, Arthur Koestler, Lawrence Durrell and many others made Paris—especially the Latin Quarter and Saint Germain des Pres neighborhoods on the city’s Left Bank—their home.
(The scores of famous artists of the era tended to congregate more in the Montmartre district.)
But the era wasn’t marked only by an influx of male scribes and intellectuals: A strong coterie of female writers, editors, publishers and booksellers—many of whom were lesbian or bisexual—thrived on the Left Bank. Chief among these lesbian pioneers were Sylvia Beach, Adrienne Monnier, Janet Flanner and Djuna Barnes.
But perhaps the most famous same-sex couple of the era was Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. And visitors to the Left Bank can see where the pair lived and worked at 27 Rue de Fleurus.
Stein met Toklas, also an American writer, in 1907 on Toklas’s first day in Paris, and the pair quickly became an inseparable couple. Toklas, however, played a supportive role to the more domineering Stein, serving as her secretary, cook, editor and confidant.
Stein and Toklas purchased a house together on Rue de Fleurus near the Jardin du Luxembourg, which they shared—as well as a retreat in the Rhone-Alpes region of France where the couple resided during World War II—for more than 30 years until Stein’s death in 1946.
Stein and Toklas were captains of Paris’s salon society of the early to mid-20th century, regularly welcoming into their home such literary and art world notables as Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Thornton Wilder and Hemingway. But while Stein was very candid about her sexuality—her 30-year relationship with Toklas was well-known, even celebrated, by her contemporaries, male and female, gay and straight—most of the salon guests, as well as the writers with whom Stein associated, were men, with whom she identified professionally.
In the 1930s, the couple became world-famous with the mass market publication of Stein’s memoirs, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which led to a lecture tour in Europe and the United States. Stein also is noted for having written what is considered one of the earliest coming-out stories, Q.E.D. (Quad Erat Demonstrandum), as well as the respected novels Three Lives, Tender Buttons and The Making of Americans.
It should be noted, however, that while Stein’s place in literary annals is firmly cemented, history may not judge her quite so favorable in several other aspects of her life. In particular, Stein was an open supporter of Adolf Hitler, which surprised many due to the fact both she and Toklas were Jewish and lesbians, two groups targeted by the Naxis for extermination. Stein even said in the late 1930s that Hitler should have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “removing all the elements of contest and of struggle from Germany.”
The couple also was linked with key figures of France’s collaboratory Vichy government during World War II, including Vichy leader Marechal Petain.
Stein and Toklas are buried together in Paris’s Pere Lachaise cemetery.
The interior of the Left Bank home Stein shared with Toklas is not accessible to the public, although the facade is marked with a historical plaque. The house at 27 Rue des Fleurus is about three blocks from the Metro station Saint-Placide—and about three-and-a-half blocks west of the Luxembourg Garden.