Arts

The night Pablo Picasso heard the UC Berkeley fight song

Alice B. Toklas and Harriet Lane Levy in Fiesole, Italy in 1909. Photo: Bancroft Library

In 1908, a Jewish woman from San Francisco named Harriet Lane Levy was invited to a supper in Montmartre to honor the painter Henri Rousseau. This was no ordinary supper: its hosts were the painter Pablo Picasso and his lover, Fernande Olivier.

Levy was well acquainted with the artists, painters, poets, and writers who lived in Paris in the first decades of the 20th century and came to be known as The Lost Generation. In 1907, she and her neighbor, Alice B. Toklas, left San Francisco to visit Paris. On their first day there they went to see a good friend, Sarah Samuels, who had married Michael Stein. In the room was Michael’s sister, Gertrude Stein. The love match between Stein and Toklas is one of the most famous couplings in history.

When Levy, Toklas, and Stein walked into the Montmartre atelier of Picasso one night in 1908, they ran into Georges Braque, the painter; Leo Stein, Gertrude’s brother and a well-known art collector; Guillaume Apollinaire, the poet; and Andres Salmon, another poet. They were all part of Picasso’s gang and their frequent gatherings in Parisian cafes and homes were instrumental in launching what many call the modern era.

Fernande was in a tizzy because the caterer had not brought any food for dinner, prompting Picasso and his friends to rush out to the store to buy bread, cheese, butter, sliced meats and a few bottles of wine.  When they finally got settled around a table, with Rousseau seated in a place of honor, Picasso asked Levy, a Berkeley graduate and a San Francisco newspaper journalist, to sing a song, according to a forthcoming book by Levy, Paris Portraits.

“You,” said Picasso. “Sing us a song, a song from America.”

Levy was at a loss. She didn’t know many songs and didn’t much like her voice.

“What could I do,” Levy wrote about the evening, the only eyewitness account of the dinner that has become known as the Rousseau Banquet. “I couldn’t sing.”

“Out of nowhere rang the old familiar command, ‘Give them the Oski!’ At once I knew that the college yell of my student days would be completely right, completely appropriate. Without hesitation, I rose to my feet. I cried boldly:

Oski wow wow
Whisky wee wee
Ole Muck I
Ole Ber-keley i
California
Wow!”

And with that, the most famous painter in history heard the Berkeley college cheer.

Gertrude Stein as painted by Pablo Picasso in 1906

Levy’s story, along with other vignettes of the Lost Generation, have now been gathered into a new book, Paris Portraits: Stories of Picasso, Matisse, Gertrude Stein and Their Circle, which will be published in May by Berkeley’s Heyday Press.

For decades, Levy’s manuscript about the time she spent in Paris has resided in the Bancroft Library. Gertrude Stein scholars and others interested in the period have regularly reviewed it, but it has never been made known to the general public.

Heyday’s publisher, Malcolm Margolin, who published Levy’s delightful memoir of her childhood in San Francisco, 920 O’Farrell Street, decided to bring out the new book. Its publication will coincide with two major exhibits about Gertrude Stein and her family of art collectors opening in San Francisco in May. One will be at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the other will be at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum.

While the Steins were some of the foremost collectors of modern art in the early 20th century, Levy also collected paintings during that era. She bought mostly from Henri Matisse (and learn in Paris Portraits why she was too intimidated to buy Picasso’s pictures, something she always regretted) and donated them to SFMOMA, including La Fille aux Yeux Vert (The Girl with Green Eyes, 1908). It will be in the museum exhibit.

As Deborah Kirshman puts it in her introduction to Paris Portraits: “Most illuminating is that four Jewish women from the San Francisco Bay Area — Gertrude Stein, Sarah Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and Harriet Levy — played a significant role in the Parisian avant-garde as artists, collectors, supporters, and hostesses of salons.”

(I got an advance peek at the delightful Paris Portraits, but the book will be available soon.)

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  • Elizabeth

    Just yesterday I was thinking how refreshing it would be for Berkeleyside to publish, now and then, an article on the history of our fair city and the bay area. What a surprise! Here it is. More later I hope, and I have that title on my long list of books to read.

  • http://francesdinkelspiel.com/ Frances Dinkelspiel

    Elizabeth, I am glad you like the history posts. I, too, am a history lover. (I even wrote a history book/biography). But judging from the (lack) of comments, we are in the minority. But I couldn’t resist sharing this wonderful tidbit about Picasso and Levy.

  • Susie Wallenstein

    Love the history post! Love the local connection to the scene in Paris. Looking forward to the upcoming Stein collection exhibits and also the new book, which I might not have heard about except for this article. Please continue history stories in the newspaper. It may be a minority readership, but still very appreciated…..

  • Elizabeth

    Frances, I read and enjoyed Towers of Gold. As to your article today, there were 16 likes and most likely, many readers of the article who did not “weigh in” (as a like or a comment or a tweet), and I hope very much that Berkeleyside doesn’t discount content based only on hits and tweets and likes and comments, although I know that in the internet age those play a role. And hopefully, keeping the stats in perspective will win the day.

  • http://www.magnes.org Alla Efimova

    I am sure that if we only had a description of the menu that would have been served at the supper, if the caterer came through, the article’s popularity would soar. As an (art) historian, I thoroughly enjoyed it as is.

  • http://gertrudeandalice.com/blog Hans Gallas

    It’s great that this Levy manuscript which has been languishing at the Bancroft for years is finally published. But, where did that portrait of Stein come from—it certainly isn’t the 1906 Picasso portrait!

  • Tom Clark

    Thank you Frances Dinkelspiel for this utterly captivating post. I was going to say it’s one of those great “Only in Berkeley” stories, even if it is an “Only in Paris” story. Oh, how I wish I could have been a fly on the wall–or, better yet, at the table–when Pablo Picasso, in his atelier, with a who’s who of the Paris art scene gathered round, demanded that a young U.S. grad student “sing an American song.” And, eh voila, she sings the UC Berkeley fight song! I would love to know what Picasso’s response was to a song quite unintelligible to even a native English speaker. But of course the artist’s response is not the point.

    I will most definitely get Harriet Levy’s book, “Paris Portraits,” when it comes out in May. For me, such a book will be a particular kind of catnip. Right after my parents married (1927) they moved to Paris and lived on the Rive Gauche until 1933. And while this may have been 20 years after the Picasso/Harriet Levy story, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas were still the ruling doyennes of that very small and remarkable community that radiated out from Shakespeare and Company, where my parents browsed and bought their books. I grew up hearing stories about Joyce, Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Beckett, Henry Miller, Ford Madox Ford—the list goes on and on. Of course by then Picasso was considerably more prominent that he had been in 1908, when he heard the UC fight song.

    When I was a G.I. stationed in Germany in 1958, I made my first trip to Paris, along with two fellow soldiers, one of whom fancied himself a Very Literary Fellow. We three paid a visit to one of my parents’ old Parisian friends from the 20′s. My would-be writer friend grumped and groused that “Paris is no longer the Paris of Hemingway.” To which the old Parisian smiled and said, “Ah, but if you had the eyes of Hemingway…” Or Picasso. Or Gertrude Stein. Or Harriet Levy. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

    Tom Clark (tomlclark@comcast.net)

  • Jane Tierney

    Thanks for the lovely story, and for being reminded that the Bay Area and Berkeley are filled with the stories of ordinary people who lived extraordinary lives. Their support of the arts are what have made this community and the world art scene so vibrant. Thanks to them all.

  • Richard Nagler

    Fantastic article and history, Frances. I would have loved to have been at the Rousseau Banquet, but I’m happy to share the experience over 100 years later via Berkeleyside.

  • Nick Shingler

    I found your fascinating article through Google Images whilst browsing Picasso in Montmartre. Thanks for the detailed gem of information about the banquet. It’s interesting that so many of your compatriots were part of that Parisian literary/artistic scene. Regards from England.