Gertrude Stein was the darling of Random House after it published her Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in 1933. The famous expatriate writer and her lover Toklas returned to the United States in 1934 to be lionized on a national book tour. Stein made quite a stir when she hit Chicago that year.
According to critic Fanny Butcher, when Stein autographed copies of her books at Marshall Field's, “the crowds were so great the elevators couldn't stop at the book department floor. She was literally the talk of the country.” Her first lecture at the University of Chicago had as many people outside the hall as attending the lecture, kept out by local fire ordinances.
She lectured at the Arts Club, rode around in a police car, and stayed at the Drake Hotel during the premiere of her opera at the Auditorium Theatre. Four Saints in Three Acts, with libretto by Stein and music by homosexual composer Virgil Thomson, opened in November 1934 with an all-“Negro” cast and cellophane scenery. The production shocked and scandalized, was laughed at and praised, and was not heard again in our city until revived by the Chicago Opera Theatre in 1993. ( COT had performed its first Stein-Thomson collaboration, The Mother of Us All, in 1974. )
Stein returned during the following spring to give a special course at the University of Chicago at the invitation of Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler. She enjoyed “her first experience at teaching” and, while a guest in Thornton Wilder's South Drexel Boulevard apartment, wrote the four lectures in the Narration series that articulate her distinctions between poetry and prose.
Copyright 2008 by Marie J. Kuda
From Out and Proud in Chicago: An Overview of the City's Gay Community, edited by Tracy Baim, Surrey Books, 2008.