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It’s Time to Celebrate Alice B. Toklas’ Birthday, But Who the Heck Is She?

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Toklas

Happy 140th birthday to the delightful Alice B. Toklas! You do intend to throw a celebration party this coming April 30, don’t you? It’s not too late to make party plans — but, of course, first you’ll need to learn a few things about this lesbian pot brownie-baking badass.

Her San Francisco Origins

Alice B. Toklas hails from a San Francisco that was bohemian long before the Summer of Love. She was born in 1877 when the city was still a bit of a wild frontier, still reeling from the Gold Rush and in the process of building itself into a major metropolis. (Her own family had moved to California in search of gold, though they eventually established themselves as merchants.)

Alice’s mother died when Alice was 19, and she was forced to pause her musical education to take care of her family.

Finding Love in Paris

It was only when she was 30 that she decided to leave the United States behind. The great earthquake of 1906 prompted her to look abroad, and she traveled to Paris with a friend, inspired by stories written by the author Henry James. She had been encouraged to come to France by in-laws Michael and Sarah Stein, and on her very first day in town she met the soon-to-be-famous author Gertrude Stein.

The two women immediately became fast friends and fell in love. Stein’s nicknames for Toklas: “wifey” and “baby precious.” Tolkas’ nicknames for Stein: “husband” and “lovey.” Alice took care of their household while Stein became a prolific writer.

In their Paris home, the couple hosted luminaries of the early 20th century art world, including Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Sherwood Anderson and Henri Matisse. Together, they wrote the groundbreaking book The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, a literary triumph exploring their lives as individuals and together.

An artist’s depiction of Stein (left) and Toklas

Literary Successes

They survived both World Wars together, serving as ambulance drivers, and remained inseparable until Stein’s death in 1946. After Gertrude passed away, Alice wrote some books of her own, including various cookbooks that amassed the knowledge she’d gathered hosting salons. (This included recipes for pot brownies, edited out of American versions.) She was forced to rely on her writing for an income, as there was no recognition for their relationship and Gertrude’s assets were claimed by other family members.

Around the time that she was evicted from the apartment that the couple had shared, she published the memoir What is Remembered. She died not long afterwards, buried beside her partner in a Parisian cemetery.

Alice’s legacy lives on in a variety of forms, but if you live in San Francisco the most noticeable ongoing impact is through the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club. It was founded in 1971 by another trailblazing lesbian couple, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, along with Beth Elliott and Jim Foster, and was America’s first organization for LGBT Democrats. Since then, it’s become a local powerhouse, steering progressive politics nationwide. That — plus Lesbian Visibility Day on April 26, just a few days before her birthday — is a legacy that Alice would hopefully appreciate.