Wild Love: Alice B. Toklas & Gertrude Stein

All original images and flowers by Mary Kathryn Paynter

Today’s post is dedicated to two of the most influential cultural figures of the 20th century: Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein. Together as lovers and partners, almost immediately after meeting until Stein’s death, they built a renowned circle of artists, writers, musicians and cultural émigrés that changed the world of art forever.

Stein met Toklas in Paris in 1907, the day Toklas arrived. Stein had moved there three years prior and was already running a salon at 27 Rue de Fleurus with her brother, Leo. Upon meeting Toklas, Stein wrote of her:

“She was a golden brown presence, burned by the Tuscan sun and with a golden glint in her warm brown hair. She was dressed in a warm brown corduroy suit. She wore a large round coral brooch and when she talked, very little, or laughed, a good deal, I thought her voice came from this brooch. It was unlike anyone else’s voice — deep, full, velvety, like a great contralto’s, like two voices.”

Shortly after, they summered together in Italy, where they took the iconic photo below in the Piazza San Marco in Venice. They returned to Paris, and Toklas moved in with Stein in 1910.

Images above: Alice B. Toklas & Gertrude Stein in Piazza San Marco, Venice, circa 1908; Toklas & Stein in New York, 1945, photograph by Carl Van Vechten. All images via the Yale Beinecke Library, with generous permission by the estate of Gertrude Stein.

Toklas acted as Stein’s confidante, lover, cook, editor, critic and muse. Artists such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Picasso, Matisse, Braque and Dalí gathered at their home, and history was made within those walls. Stein’s writing attempted to explain what these artists were trying to do and gave a linear narrative to the birth of modernism and the avant-garde movement happening in Europe at the time. Her work remained relatively obscure until she published her memoirs in 1933 under the title The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. This was as much an act of love and recognition as anything else, bringing Toklas into her rightful place in the spotlight alongside Stein.

After the jump, I’ll tell you more about this prolific couple and how I made the accompanying floral arrangement that exudes their passion and mystique. — Mary Kathryn

Images above: Toklas & Stein’s flat at 27 Rue de Fleurus, where they presided over one of the most influential and famous salons in Paris. Images via the Yale Beinecke Library, with generous permission by the estate of Gertrude Stein.

In 1916, Stein and Toklas acquired a Ford and decided to join the war effort in France. They volunteered and drove supplies to French hospitals, naming their Ford “Auntie” after Stein’s Aunt Pauline, who “always behaved admirably in emergencies and behaved fairly well most times if she was flattered.” Together they doted on their poodle, Basket, continuing to write and travel, always communicating by letters. In the 1980s, a locked cabinet was opened in the Beinecke Library at Yale University, revealing 300 love letters between Toklas and Stein, in which they call each other “Baby Precious” and “Mr. Cuddle-Wuddle.”

Stein died of stomach cancer in 1946, and Toklas was at her side for her last breath. Stein’s family completely cut Toklas out of the estate, and with no legal standing to the epic works of art that she and Stein had collected over the years, she was left in poverty. Toklas eventually wrote her memoir in 1963, What Is Remembered, which, somewhat poetically and romantically, ends abruptly with Stein’s death. Stein and Toklas both blazed trails in the literary world by writing openly about their lesbian identities and experiences, as well as their non-traditional lifestyle.

To honor the relationship between Toklas and Stein, I created an arrangement that is distinct, lush and refined. I wanted to make something that was feminine in a non-traditional way, with textures and colors that evoked a painterly style. Using amaranth, umbrella fern and coleus to build a base, I added astrantia, green ranuncula and parrot tulips to pay homage to Stein and Toklas’ non-traditional take on femininity. The bright colors and unusual shapes reflect the avant-garde works of art inspired by the salons the couple hosted, while the antique vase references the exquisite taste displayed in their Paris flat.

  1. Emily says:

    What a great love story! Yet another artistic couple of which I knew very little. How sad that Toklas was denied recognition as Stein’s life-long partner. The flower arrangement perfectly suits the wonderful story you told :)

  2. elisa says:

    they were such a pair. at an exhibition i discovered a pair of american sisters who became matisse’s patrons. they knew stein in baltimore, and were giving their own salons there, which influenced her to open hers in paris. fascinating women. making a bouquet named for them is wonderful. x

  3. Mandy says:

    I absolutely love everything about this post.

  4. Rose says:

    I really, really enjoyed this post. I loved “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” and was so interested to learn more about the pair. Thanks so much, Mary Kathryn.

  5. Marissa says:

    I believe the autobiography of Alice b. Toklas was actually written by Gertrude Stein… in typical tricky Stein fashion!

  6. What a great article! Such a touching relationship between Stein & Toklas – thanks for the history reminder and also for sharing your beautiful floral creation to honor these brave women.

  7. Laura says:

    Oh, I love this post! They are so fascinating, and the arrangement you created is perfect. Thank you :)

  8. ashley says:

    MK-such a lovely article about remarkably strong women. The arrangement is gorgeous.

  9. Kiki says:

    Thank you for this absolutely amazingly beautiful and touching post! What a great idea to ‘re-live’ a liaison in a flower arrangement. Well done, this really digs at my heart! And of course, I’ve visited their ‘tombe’ in Paris – at the wonderful Père Lachaise Cemetery.
    Another bit of info re Stein: During WWI, Stein and Toklas delivered medical supplies, paid for from sales of Stein’s art collection. She was even awarded the Médaille de la Réconnaissance Française by the French government . An amazing couple!

  10. dara says:

    What a gorgeous arrangement. So fitting! Thank you. This column, pairing people with flowers, is my absolute favorite part of Design Sponge.

  11. caitlin says:

    This series is one of my favorites on the d*s site. Thoughtful, informative and pretty. You also do a great job with matching the arrangements to the couples…or at least understanding your thought process behind them.

  12. Suzanne says:

    Remarkable arrangement. The velvet edges of the flowers in such rich colors create a stunning line element. Rich!

  13. Suzanne says:

    Great arrangement. The velvet edges of the flowers in these colors create an amazing line element. Rich!

  14. Sally says:

    Thank you for sharing your art. What a fabulous idea to create a representation of a time and a relationship through the medium of flower arranging. It has inspired me today.

  15. Carin Smith says:

    it’s amazing how you managed to capture these two personalities in your arrangement.

  16. Terry Ann says:

    what a wonderful story, what an amazing couple, what courage in their time. I loved this post, everything about it – thank you DS for your continued inspiration.

  17. hannah says:

    thank you for dedicating a floral arrangement — and a post — to two such remarkable women as these! their relationship could serve as a model for us all.

  18. Holly Robinson says:

    This is just stunning! Thank you for sharing.

  19. Isabel says:

    The idea is cute but I an not sure the title Wild Love is appropriate . I think this pair had a deeply thoughtful love .. But the arrangenent ….all good design needs a structural concept . This includes floral design .

    1. Grace Bonney says:


      the “wild” portion of the title refers to the floral/natural elements, not the nature of the relationship.



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