Paul Bowles is one of the last living witnesses of Gertrude Stein (3 Feb. 1874–27 July 1946). With regard to the fiftieth anniversary of her death, I visited the 85-year-old author and composer to find out more about the famous “mother of the avant-garde.” The following text is the result of two interviews, which took place on 1 March 1995 and 1 January 1996 in Tangier, Morocco, where Paul Bowles has been living and working since 1947.—F.V.
How did you come upon Gertrude Stein’s work?
When I was in high school I had an English teacher and I remember one day she said to one of the students, “You are not James Joyce and you are not Gertrude Stein! You must write proper English and pay attention to punctuation.” So I began thinking, “Who is Gertrude Stein? and what does Miss Harding mean by telling us we are not Gertrude Stein?” I had never heard of her. Then I used to go up and down Sixth Avenue looking in second-hand bookshops. They used to be there in the mid-twenties, a long time ago, seventy years ago. I found a magazine there, called transition, and I bought a copy and took [End Page 627] it home. It was published in Paris, and it had something of Gertrude Stein’s in it. I think it was called As a Wife Has a Cow, A Love Story. Speechless I read it. It made no sense, so I thought, that’s wonderful. There you can publish things that don’t make any sense at all and not even in proper English. And I thought that was fun, and that’s how I first read Gertrude Stein.
What did her writings mean to you before you made the acquaintance of Gertrude Stein?
Well, it was like a signature of a crazy woman that I thought was wonderful. Because I was out for crazy people. I thought a good writer must be crazy. Not really crazy, but I mean different, original, not like other people. And I never forgot her, I remembered her name always. When I was in college in 1928, Bruce Morrissette, a friend who was at the University of Richmond and was the editor of their literary magazine, The Messenger, had the idea of turning over a whole issue to me and I would collect material principally from avant-garde people. So among those to whom I wrote was Gertrude Stein. And she was very kind. She sent a contribution to the magazine. I heard from Gertrude Stein and entered into a kind of desultory correspondence with her. And the next year, I went to Paris. But I didn’t meet her or anybody. I was much too shy and modest, and so, of course, I didn’t meet her although I did two years later when I went back to Paris.
You were twenty years old when you went back to Paris in 1931.
Yes, that’s when I met her.
How did you make her acquaintance?
I wasn’t so terrified then as I had been two years earlier. I went and rang her bell at the Rue de Fleurus, 27. The maid came and opened the door, and I heard voices at the top of a flight of steps in the house. And then someone called and asked, “Who is it?” And the maid said, “It’s a man who wants to see you.” I don’t remember, I think I gave my name. Anyway, she came down. And there she was. She said she was very surprised to see me, because she thought I was at least seventy from the letters. It never occurred to her that I was that young. She didn’t mind. I think she thought it was funny, amusing. And then Miss Toklas [End Page 628] came down, and we began to talk. And she said, “You must come to dinner tomorrow night. Because I’m going to have Bernard Faÿ here.” He was a friend of hers. And he was the head of a...