Alice B. Toklas lived in Seattle once.
She moved here in 1890, with her family, from San Francisco. Alice's father, Ferdinand, half of Toklas, Singerman and Company, had opened the "San Francisco Store," purveyors of fine men's clothing, in Seattle in 1877 then commuted between Seattle and San Francisco for years. The company thrived: six office and retail buildings built near Pioneer Square (now all demolished, alas), a sales force of a hundred, and a reputation for being the most well-managed local business of its day. After the Great Seattle Fire of 1889, Ferdinand moved his family (wife, son, daughter) north to Seattle to keep a closer eye on the business. Alice was 13 when they arrived.
The Toklas family settled on First Hill, then the neighborhood of wealthy and socially prominent citizens: judges, industrialists, timber barons. Seattle was smaller than San Francisco, around 42,000 people, a mostly lumber and shipping town, a place loose enough that as late as the early 1900s a family could keep a pet bear on the roof of their First Hill mansion (the Stimson-Green Mansion), but big enough to have a Jewish congregation build a synagogue (at Seneca and Eighth). From her home near what is now the Sorrento Hotel, Alice could see Puget Sound and the Olympics. All the buildings that block those views now didn't exist then. The natural world looked bigger here, and more open, like there was more space to do what you wanted to do, or become who you wanted to be.
Alice B. Toklas did not write the 1933 book The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. That was written by Gertrude Stein as both a kind of ventriloquist's trick in Toklas's voice and an effort to write something that might actually sell, and sell it did. It made Stein and Toklas famous.
But Toklas did write her own autobiography years later, called What Is Remembered. It records little about the years she lived with her family in Seattle, but she does note: "My mother was an avid gardener." On their First Hill property, Alice's mother, Emma Toklas, grew lots of flowers. She loved the names of them, like Homer roses, dwarf yellow pansies, sweet peas, periwinkles. When Alice was in the garden with her, they talked and told charming stories and played silly games with words.
Alice attended the nearby Mt. Rainier Seminary, run by the three eccentric Cochrane sisters, then entered the University of Washington to study music. Alice wanted to become a concert pianist. "The winter at the university," Alice wrote, "was a lively one." Her friends were "gay," she also wrote (meaning what "gay" meant back then, but probably, also, some of them, the way it's meant today), and went to dances and parties and outings on the lake. Sometimes she dressed in ways her friends called "eccentric," like a "Spaniard" or a "gypsy." When Alice returned to San Francisco four years later, her friends there decided Seattle had made her worldly.
Alice's mother had a lively winter too. She was beloved and charming, and she socialized with women's clubs and the wives of her spouse's friends. She managed the family home as well as her husband did his business. But a couple years into their Seattle lives, Emma was diagnosed with cancer. After an unsuccessful operation here, the family moved back to San Francisco to consult with other doctors. In 1897, Emma died.
When my mother died I forgot things for a year—to eat, to take my glasses off, where I had put my keys. I couldn't read a book for months or really concentrate. But my bosses and friends were patient with me and gave me the time I needed. Whereas Alice was the only remaining female in a very male extended family home (father, brother, widower grandfather, single uncles...), she immediately assumed her mother's duties: cleaning, cooking, entertaining. When Alice's worldly Seattle friends came to see her, they found their formerly gay and lively friend as responsible and dour as a wife.
Alice continued to play piano, though, and having received her bachelor's from the University of Washington, was accepted to study with Otto Bendix, a former student of Liszt's. A concert was arranged for her back in Seattle, and she was happy to return and play, with a friend, what she considered a "quite ambitious program." But then Otto Bendix died, and Alice's career as a concert pianist ended. With both her mother and her mentor dead, it was like part of her died too.
Alice continued to care for the houseful of men until l907, when she and a very close female (ahem) "friend" took a vacation together to Paris. Soon after they got there, she met Gertrude Stein. Then soon after that, and accompanied by a tumultuous rearrangement of romantic-erotic interests, Toklas moved in with Stein. She read and admired Stein's writing and told her so. Her confidence in Stein's work inspired the budding author to carry on her daring experiments with words. Toklas copied then typed Gertrude's manuscripts. Toklas managed the home and cooked. Toklas was, according to chef and food writer James Beard, "one of the really great cooks of all time" (though most well-known these days for her pot-brownie recipe). In Paris, at their 27 Rue de Fleurus salon, while Gertrude spoke with male writers and artists, Alice entertained, as her mother once did, the wives. Alice also founded Plain Edition Books to publish the works of Stein before anyone else did.
Each found in the other the woman who helped her to live the life she wanted.
In Paris and in their country homes, they talked and told charming stories and laughed and played silly word games and made up ridiculous names for each other and friends. They got a dog, a poodle, because a character in a Henry James book Stein liked had a poodle. Alice named the poodle Basket because she thought it looked elegant enough to carry a basket of flowers in its mouth. (It never did.) When Basket died they got another dog and named it Basket II. She grew, and Alice gave her flowers. She found that a rose is a rose is a rose as love is love is love. She was happier than she'd been since she was young, in the time before anyone died.
Both Toklas and Stein were slightly bizarre and brainy Jewish girls. Both Toklas and Stein came from well-off West Coast families. Both Toklas and Stein lost their mothers to cancer when young. Both Toklas and Stein did not want to marry men.
Around 1910, while mired in the composition of The Making of Americans, Stein wrote the first of what was to become a signature form for her, the word portrait. Here's some of it:
"She and her mother had always told very pretty stories to each other..."
It is hard not to picture Alice and her mother in the garden.
"Everyone who ever knew her mother liked her mother. Many were sorry later that not everyone liked the daughter. Many did like the daughter but not as everyone had liked the mother. The daughter was charming inside in her, it did not show outside in her to every one, certainly did to some...
"Her mother died and really mostly altogether the mother and daughter had told each other stories very happily together."
Much of Stein's work contains coded references to Alice. In an early draft of Stein's novel Ada, the main character is not named "Ada," but "Alice." In the published Ada, the mother dies and then the daughter, the only female relative left, takes care of the father, brother, and household of male relations. Stein's version of Alice's girlhood continues:
"She was afraid then, she was one needing charming stories and happy telling of them and not having that thing she was always trembling...."
Stein wrote a lot and told Toklas happy, charming stories, but also stories in happy-sounding voices that covered suffering and fear. Stein wrote the way she thought and sometimes talked, but also how someone cannot talk or doesn't if they are afraid. One listened and one told and one wrote and one read and each and both kept one another's stories.
Ada continues: "She came to be happier than anybody else who was living then. It is easy to believe this thing. She was telling someone who was loving every story that was charming. Someone who was living was almost always listening. Someone who was loving was almost always listening. That one who was loving was almost always listening..."
With Gertrude, Alice was happier than she'd been since before her mother died. The couple lived together 40 years, and then, in 1946, Stein, like Stein's mother and Toklas's mother, died of cancer. In Staying on Alone, a volume of Toklas's post-Stein correspondence, the first entry reads in its entirety:
"Gertrude died this afternoon. I am writing. Dearest love..."
Alice lived 20 more years after Gertrude died. She protected, if not created, the legacy of Stein, overseeing the publication of, defending, explaining, and editing both the work and the story of Stein's life and the life they lived together.
In 1957, having been told by a priest that one might meet one's beloved in heaven, and having been drawn to the faith for years, Toklas was received into the Roman Catholic Church. Somehow, Alice had come up with some idea that Stein, by virtue of her having been a "genius," had been given a free pass to heaven, whereas she, Toklas, needed to access heaven via this religious practice. Toklas died 10 years later in a tiny apartment in Paris, alone, impoverished (though Stein had provided for Alice in her will, Stein's relatives subverted the writer's intents), arthritic, bedridden, partially deaf and partially blind, and mustachioed. She was buried next to Gertrude in the Père Lachaise Cemetery.
I like to imagine Toklas and Stein in heaven. I like to imagine them in their apartment in heaven with their paintings and food and dogs, together and happy.
I hear, however, that sometimes Alice is neither in heaven nor buried in Père Lachaise, but has come back to Seattle to haunt the Sorrento. The Sorrento Hotel opened in 1909, more than 10 years after the Toklas family returned to California. Located at the corner of Terry and Madison, the hotel may be near or even on the site of the now-demolished Toklas home. One version of the haunting story says that a woman dressed in white wanders the fourth-floor hall of the hotel. There is also a version where she's in black. Sometimes lights flicker or someone hears something move or make a noise but nobody sees who did it! Or someone hears someone yelling inside a room that no one's supposed to be in! And so on.
When I told a friend I was working on this story and asked if she'd ever heard that Alice haunts the Sorrento, she said, "Oh yeah." She said she knew someone who saw a ghost of a woman there, she was walking down the hall in a long white dress and had a little mustache... OMG! I said. Really?! I was thrilled. Then I saw my friend's grin and I felt like an idiot.
I don't believe in ghosts, but maybe I want to. I want there to be something left after someone dies. I want something more than sadness or loss or trying to look on the bright side or just remembering. I do believe in grief. I believe in how it can stick to you and wrap you all up like Saran wrap.
I'm not saying Alice B. Toklas does or does not haunt the Sorrento. It's a beautiful place, and they have even invented a terrific drink for her, the Ms. Toklas (lucid absinthe, elderflower, chamomile, honey, lemon juice, rocks). So, if Alice's spirit is a wandering one, why not come back to Seattle? In the 1890s her mom was alive and charming, and Alice herself was alive and gay and beginning to be an artist. She lived here when she was happy, before anybody she loved had died. Who doesn't want to go back to then? Who isn't haunted by a sweeter past?
There's more than one kind of haunting. There's haunting that's not about wandering figures in white or mysterious noises, but haunting as in the things you can't forget. The things you remember and wonder what if. What if I had done that differently? What if I'd said what I meant? Oh what, oh what if I could go back? There's haunting like how when you wear something someone gave you, you remember. Or you hear a song or want to tell someone something but they're gone. There's haunting like staring for how long at you don't know what. There's haunting like thinking why can't I be happy again? Why are you dead?
This past spring, at the invitation of the APRIL literary festival organizers, I conducted a "séance" at the Sorrento to summon the spirit of Toklas. I have neither the ability nor the desire to conduct an actual séance, but I have friends who love Toklas and Stein and friends who are usually up for a good time. So we gathered (a couple of poets, two APRIL people, a ghost photographer, and a big guy in Gertrude Stein drag, his wife, and their Chihuahua in poodle drag), to read Stein's and Toklas's work and talk about their lives, especially the years Alice lived in Seattle.
Whether Toklas's ghost appeared in our crystal ball or guided our hands on our homemade Ouija board or appeared in any of the ghost photographs we took, I neither know nor care. But I do believe we were visited that night at the Sorrento, by spirits of kindness and humor and love, and those are good enough for me.
Alice is living in heaven with Gertrude Stein. Maybe she haunts the Sorrento because she wants to go back to when her mother, the first woman in her life, was happy and healthy. Maybe she's living with them both up there and all of them are healthy and alive. Maybe she's gardening, or maybe she's cooking, and maybe someone is telling a charming story and there is a dog—no, two—two dogs, no, maybe three, and one of the dogs or some of them are carrying baskets of flowers in their mouths to the house. They're carrying sweet peas and pansies and periwinkles and roses and roses and roses, and maybe they are, like all of us hope someday we'll be, together, and they are happy.
Psssst! The Stranger’s silent reading party happens in the lobby of the Sorrento every first Wednesday at 6 p.m. There’s live music and it’s free.