When Gertrude Stein met Edith Sitwell

First encounters Illustration by Edward Sorel Text by Nancy Caldwell Sorel Next week: Frederick the Great and Voltaire
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This is, in fact, a first, middle and (arguably) final encounter. The story begins in 1924, when Edith Sitwell came to Paris and called at 27 rue de Fleurus, where Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas lived and Cezannes and Picassos hung on the walls. Stein's expectations were guarded: Sitwell had discussed her work in English journals, not always with enthusiasm. But Stein's impression was favourable. Edith Sitwell was very tall, Gertrude noted, beautiful, with a most distinguished nose, and she walked as if advancing and withdrawing at the same time. Alice recalled a double-breasted coat with large buttons. Edith likened Gertrude to an Easter Island idol. They talked about poetry: Sitwell's unorthodox, mocking poems shocked the public as much as did Stein's prose. Edith admired Gertrude's prose - how she "threw a word into the air", freeing it of past associations.

More visits were exchanged, and on her return home Sitwell lobbied for Stein to lecture at Cambridge and Oxford. This was arranged, and Edith, with her brothers Osbert and Sacheverell, went in escort, aristocratic cranes in attendance on a plump partridge. To Edith's embarrassment, Gertrude closed the Oxford lecture with her portrait "Sitwell Edith Sitwell" which began, "Introduces have and heard. Miss Edith Sitwell have and heard", and continued in kind.

Perhaps more rivalry existed than either cared to confront. Some years later in Paris, Sitwell was asked by Sylvia Beach, the proprietor of the bookshop Shakespeare and Company, to speak at one of her "evenings" on the subject of Gertrude Stein. At nine o'clock the literary monde - Gertrude and Alice included - gathered in anticipation. Edith looked coolly down her aquiline nose, placed the tips of her long white fingers togethers, and recited a little Shakespeare. She moved on to other Elizabethans. Then she read from her own poetry. The evening ended without a mention of Gertrude Stein. Miss Edith Sitwell had been heard

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