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