Actress brings Gertrude Stein’s artistic circle to life

Laura Sheppard as Harriet Lane Levy

In 1907, a 40-year old woman from San Francisco, Harriet Lane Levy, took off for Paris with her next-door neighbor, Alice B. Toklas. It was a year after the devastating earthquake and fire and the women went to visit another neighbor, Sarah Samuels, now married to Michael Stein.

When Levy and Toklas arrived in Paris, they found themselves drawn into the intimate artistic circle that had been created by the Stein siblings, themselves long-time Bay Area residents. Sarah and Michael Stein had become huge supporters of Henri Matisse, while Gertrude and her brother Leo had started to champion Pablo Picasso. The Steins’ Saturday salons filled with painters, poets, sculptors, and ex-patriots became legendary, as did their art collections. Within a year, Toklas and Gertrude Stein had fallen in love, a relationship that was to last for decades.

Lane returned in 1910 to the Bay Area, where she had previously worked as a drama critic for The Call newspaper and The Wave, a literary magazine. When Lane, who never married, was 80, she published 920 O’Farrell Street, a memoir of growing up in an upper middle class Jewish household. It was the only book Lane published, but for years a manuscript about her time in Paris cavorting with the Steins, Picasso, Matisse and others languished in the Bancroft Library. Scholars consulted Lane’s writings, but they were not widely available to the general public.

In May, Heyday Books of Berkeley published that manuscript, titling it Paris Portraits: Stories of Picasso, Matisse, Gertrude Stein and Their Circle. In addition to Lane’s description of singing the Cal song to Picasso during a famous dinner party in Montmartre (which you can read about here), the book is filled with delectable vignettes of artistic life in Paris, the catty nature of Gertrude Stein, the intimidating glare of Sarah Stein, and much more.

The publication of the book coincided with two major exhibits on the Steins, one at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and one at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. The DeYoung Museum has also just opened a major retrospective of Picasso’s work as well.

Laura Sheppard, an actress and director of events at The Mechanics’ Institute Library in San Francisco, has created a one-woman show about Lane based on Paris Portraits. It’s wonderfully entertaining, a bit educational, and worth seeing.

“We know (Stein) as this big personality, this persona, this presence,” Sheppard told the Mercury News.

But Stein was also possessive of Toklas and went out of her way to humiliate Lane, perhaps in an attempt to cause a rift in the relationship of the long-time friends.

“There’s an emotional storm underneath,” said Sheppard, who dresses in period clothing and adopts Levy’s persona for her show.

Sheppard will be performing Paris Portraits on West Coast Live with Sedge Thomson on KALW 91.7 on Saturday August 20th at 10 am. Sheppard will also be at Mrs. Dalloway’s on College Avenue on Sunday August 21 at 4 pm.

Print Friendly