"Gerty Gerty Stein Stein…"

February 8: On this day in 1934, the opera Four Saints in Three Acts by Gertrude Stein (libretto) and Virgil Thomson (music) premiered. The opera was popular, though some attended for the usual Stein reasons, hoping for some eccentric fun, or to be present for the launch of some freshly-coined Steinism. Others attended the Hartford, Connecticut opening or the later New York run because Four Saints was a modernist event. In Hartford, the production was backed by "The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music," and concurrent with the opening of a Picasso exhibition. The avant-garde artist Florine Stettheimer costumed the all-Negro cast—"a Negro is a Negro," said Stein, "and he ought to like to be called one if he is one"—in cellophane, newly invented. Special trains were organized to take the New York in-crowd to Hartford, and Buckminster Fuller took a carful (Isamu Noguchi, Clare Boothe Luce, Dorothy Hale) in his bubble-shaped Dymaxion.

 

Stein did not attend the opening, but Four Saints was such a hit that she overcame her apprehensions about America, arriving that autumn for a six-month lecture tour. It was her first trip home in thirty years, and she would not make another, but it was seen as a triumph on all sides. She and Alice were news from start to finish, and if some of the headlines poked the usual fun—"Gerty Gerty Stein Stein is Back Home Home Back"—many who met or listened found her approachable, and fascinated by America. The White House invited her for tea, and the famous threw parties in her honor, but she seemed most interested in the geography, the food, and "ordinary people who don't bore me. Highbrows, you know, always do." These preferences led to an afternoon at the Yale-Dartmouth football game, hanging out in drug stores, a tour of a spark plug factory, and a delight in the roadside poetry of the Burma-Shave ads.

 

She did enjoy a production of her Four Saints in Chicago. While there, she and Alice were thrilled with a police-conducted, rainy night tour of the slums of the city during which, Stein later recalled, they listened on the squad car radio to the successful entrapment of Baby Face Nelson by federal agents.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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