The Hemingway Attack (Part III) La Génération Merdue: Hemingway and Gertrude Stein

By the time Hemingway landed in Paris, Gertrude Stein long had been enshrined as America’s first woman of letters, and even more importantly, the person who knew not only literature and art but every person worth knowing in the City of Lights. Armed with his letter of introduction from Sherwood Anderson, Hemingway wasted no time meeting Stein and her companion Alice B. Toklas.

Grtrude Stein by Pablo Picasso, 190506; courtesy New York Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gertrude Stein by Pablo Picasso, 190506; courtesy New York Metropolitan Museum of Art

The pair immediately hit it off. “He is a delightful fellow and I like his talk and I am teaching him to cut his wife’s hair,” Stein wrote Anderson.[i] In turn, Hemingway wrote Anderson to say that “Me and Gertrude are just like brothers and we see a lot of her.”[ii]

They visited each other’s lodgings, he drinking her potent homemade fruit liqueurs and Stein and Toklas drinking the inexpensive wine and brandy he kept on hand.  Stein became godmother to his first son, John, nicknamed “Bumby.”   She advised Hemingway to rewrite his autobiographical war novel from scratch. “Begin over again and concentrate,” she wrote him. He did and eventually A Farewell to Arms was produced.[iii]

According to Philip Young, Stein acted as Hemingway’s Paris mother and that he owed an early debt to Gertrude and their collaboration, and to her 1909 story “Melanctha” which helped Hemingway develop his style, especially the treatment of violence.[iv]

“Gertrude was always right,” Hemingway told John Peale Bishop in 1922.[v]  It was Stein, borrowing a comment from her French automobile mechanic, who popularized the epithet La Génération Perdue (The Lost Generation) to describe the post-World War I generation; a quote that Hemingway would use in the preface to The Sun Also Rises.

Hemingway in Paris-1924

Hemingway in Paris-1924

A dozen or so years later, Hemingway would bitterly conclude that he had been drastically wrong about Stein and between the two,  La Génération Perdue had become La Génération Merdue.   Angry over Hemingway’s attacks on friends of hers, Stein, in her 1933 book, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, called Hemingway “yellow.” She had waved the red cape in the face of an already enraged bull and he would do everything in his literary power to fatally gore her.  In return, he sent her an inscribed copy of Death in the Afternoon, his complex treatise on bullfighting and writing.  The inscription read: “A Bitch is a Bitch is a Bitch is a Bitch.”

When he had first heard of the intended publication of The Autobiography, he wrote from Key West, Florida to his old friend Janet Flanner in Paris. Flanner was a foreign correspondent for the New Yorker magazine and would for almost half a century publish A Letter from Paris for the magazine under the pen name Genêt. If anyone in Paris knew what Gertrude was up to, it would be Flanner and Hemingway was apparently fishing for information.

He told Flanner that he was fond of Gertrude “and loyal too until she pushed my face in a dozen times.”   He recounted to Flanner how the “Last time I saw her she (Stein) told me she had heard an incident, some fag story, which proved me conclusively to be very queer…Well I’ll probably read it in her autobiography.”[vi]

The book was serialized that summer in the Atlantic Magazine. Stein was incensed with Hemingway’s maltreatment of his old friend and mentor, Sherwood Anderson, whose work and person she both greatly admired. Speaking of herself in the third person, she wrote: “The last time Sherwood was in Paris they often talked about him. Hemingway had been formed by the two of them and they were both a little proud and a little ashamed of the work of their minds,” adding that after attacking Anderson in a bitter letter, Hemingway was afraid to meet him face to face.

Stein, the third-person narrator, continues, “As I say, he (Anderson) and Gertrude Stein were endlessly amusing on the subject. They admitted that Hemingway was yellow, he is, Gertrude Stein insisted, just like the flat-boat men on the Mississippi River as described by Mark Twain.” She added that if the confessions of the real Ernest Hemingway were written, “It would be for a different audience than the audience Hemingway now has but it would be very wonderful…But what a story that of the real Hem, and one he should tell himself but alas he never will. After all, as he himself once murmured, there is the career, the career.”

Stein also said that Hemingway learned to write by correcting the proof of her manuscript of The Making of Americans “and admired all that he learned.”

She next challenged his athletic prowess: “In those days, Hemingway was teaching some young chap how to box. The boy did not know how, by accident he knocked Hemingway out. I believe this sometimes happens…At any rate in those days Hemingway although a sportsman was easily tired…he had been worn by the war….Recently a robust friend of his said to Gertrude Stein, Ernest is very fragile, whenever he does anything sporting something breaks, his arm, his leg, or his head”[vii]

Hemingway was deeply stung by the comments and particularly angered because Stein had challenged his masculinity by saying he was “yellow” and always getting hurt trying to play sports. Stein “had lost all sense of taste when she had the menopause,” he told his editor, Maxwell Perkins.[viii]

Stein “was a good psychologist,” he told Esquire publisher Arnold Gingrich. “She knows I don’t get sore at being called any damn thing that I am, truly. But blow up like a set piece of fireworks if accused of anything I’m not…It’s damned intelligent malice.”[ix]

Gertrude did not like to read French literature and although she could speak the language, her knowledge of Parisian argot was nil. Hemingway’s ability with street slang, however, was more than sufficient and one can easily imagine it streaming through his mind. She had put him dans la merde with his public with that merdique book of hers. He couldn’t flatten the vielle merdeuse and Alice, that other merdeuse, with left hooks or clubbing rights but opportunities would arise for him to counter-punch the mal baisée in print. In the meantime, with his mood constantly à la merde, he’d play it out over and over in his mind.

Hemingway on safari, 1934.  Stein had attacked the hunter as "yellow,"  In article for Esquire written in East Africa about the safari, he savagely struck back

Hemingway on safari, 1934. Stein had attacked the hunter as “yellow,” In an article for Esquire written in East Africa about the safari, he satirically struck back

Sick with amoebic dysentery (a.d.) while on safari in East Africa in January of 1934, he wrote Gingrich, saying that “One of Gertrude’s feathered friends told her Papa was always breaking things, getting sick, etc. But wonder what would happen to G and friends if they went where papa goes and did what papa does.”[x]

His public comments would soon be forthcoming.  While still recovering in Nairobi, he wrote an introduction to the memoirs of the Dingo Bar’s famous barman, the former English lightweight boxer Jimmy “the Batman” Charters. The Dingo American Bar at 10 Rue Delambre was a favorite between the wars hangout for American expat writers and artists.[xi] Hemingway first met F. Scott Fitzgerald at the Dingo in April, 1925. For the regulars, such as Lady Duff Twysden, it was simply called “Jimmie’s Bar.”

Taking a poke at Stein in the introduction to Charter’s book, he wrote that Charters “had served more and better drinks than any legendary woman ever did in her salon.”[xii] This was the mildest of rebukes to come from a Hemingway whose manhood was questioned. But he was just getting started.

Along with the letter from Nairobi to Gingrich, in which he now agreed to write twelve “Letters” for Esquire, he enclosed “A Tanganyika Letter” which led off with a discussion of his case of amoebic dysentery (a.d.). “Symptoms of a.d. run from weakly insidious through spectacular to phenomenal” and that the bowel movement record for a.d. victims stood at 232 movements in 24-hours and was held by a certain Mr. McDonald.

Hemingway went on to describe his own movements while he was hunting. “I became convinced that though an unbeliever I had been chosen as the one to bear our Lord Buddha when he should be born again on earth. While flattered at this, and wondering how much Buddha at that age would resemble Gertrude Stein,” he found “the imminence of the event” made it difficult “to take high incoming birds.” He concluded the passage by stating that the doctor described the coming of the Buddha symptom as “prolapsus” (sic).[xiii]

When he returned to Key West later that year, he began writing Green Hills of Africa, a nonfictional narrative of the safari. His mood still deeply à la merde, he wrote Gingrich in November to tell him that he had just completed handwriting Green Hills and would have something for Esquire shortly.

Gertrude Stein on US book tour, 1935

Gertrude Stein on US book tour, 1935

“I don’t like to write on Gertrude even though it is a sure fire piece…it’s like socking a dummy or a ghost…it goes against my digestion to take shots at anyone who’s ever been a friend no matter how lousey (sic) they get to be…I don’t like to slam the old bitch around when she’s here (on U.S. tour).”[xiv]

This was a neat masterpiece of misdirection, for slamming Stein was just what he had been doing in Green Hills. In 1935, he sent off the manuscript to his Scribner’s editor, Maxwell Perkins. In the book, he had launched an attack on Stein that was so vituperative it frightened the publisher. Not because it was libelous but because Scribner’s feared that it would antagonize reviewers and thus Perkins wrote Hemingway asking him to revise the Stein passage in the galleys. Hemingway pondered the problem in a reply letter:

“What would you like me to put in place of bitch? Fat bitch? Lousy bitch? Old Bitch? Lesbian Bitch? What is the modifying adjective that would improve it? I don’t know what word to replace bitch with. Certainly not whore. If anyone was ever a bitch that woman was a bitch.” Hemingway then promises to try and change it and quickly veers off into a tirade about critics and how they will all “have to come around and eat shit again.”

But he can’t let the Stein thing go. Finished with his tirade against the critics, he tells Perkins, “All right. Let us take up the word bitch again. Would you prefer fat female? That is possible. I’ll change it to fat female or just female. That’s better. That will make her angrier than bitch.” [xv]

Along with the letter to Perkins, he enclosed the corrected galleys and the following dialogue between Hemingway and his wife Pauline appeared in the printed version:

“Yes, and he doesn’t have to read books written by some female he’s tried to help get published saying how he’s yellow.”

“She’s just jealous and malicious. You never should have helped her. Some people never forgive that.”

“It’s a damned shame, though, with all that talent gone to malice and nonsense and praise. It’s a goddamned shame, really. It’s a shame you never knew her before she went to pot. You know a funny thing; she never could write dialogue. It was terrible. She learned how to do it from my stuff and used it in that book.”[xvi]

Hemingway had, in fact, helped Stein, convincing Ford Madox Ford to serially publish a 50-page portion of her novel The Making of Americans in the transatlantic review when no one else would publish it, and had talked extensively with Stein about the use of dialogue. Melanctha, the 1909 Stein novella that Hemingway liked for its understated violence, is particularly notorious for its stilted and racially stereotyped dialogue and it was clear from her later work that her use of dialogue had improved post-Hemingway.

“I swear she was damned nice before she got ambitious,” Hemingway concluded in the Green Hills passage.[xvii]

The “yellow” comment by his Parisian mother would sting the writer for the rest of his days and in A Moveable Feast, written a dozen years after Stein’s death, he inserted a particularly insidious episode between Stein and her companion Alice B. Toklas, whom he always had regarded as “murderous jealous” and responsible for the breaking of his friendship with Stein. The passage was a malicious gesture in which Hemingway evilly recounts a very private conversation he purportedly overheard between the two women and which invites readers to make all kinds of sordid conclusions.[xviii]

Alice B. Toklas, Stein's companion.  Hemingway blamed her jealousy for the break in his friendship with Stein and forbade the publication of any correspondence between Stein and himself until after Toklas' death.

Alice B. Toklas, Stein’s companion. Hemingway blamed her jealousy for the break in his friendship with Stein and forbade the publication of any correspondence between Stein and himself until after Toklas’ death.

Interestingly, the inventory of Hemingway’s reading between 1910 and 1940 shows that Hemingway not only read all of Stein before the publication of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas but also the works Stein published afterwards: Portraits and Prayers (1934); Lucy Church, Amiably (1934); Everybody’s Autobiography (1937); Picasso (1938).[xix]

As with the “old bitch” as he sometimes called his own mother back in Oak Park, Illinois, his relationship with Stein, his Parisian earth mother, was one of love and hate and he could never quite cut the umbilical cord.

Two years after Stein’s death, Hemingway told Gertrude’s old friend and biographer W. G. Rogers that he had always loved her very much and had told her so when they met in Paris in 1944, and that she had told him that she loved him too.

“I always wanted to fuck her and she knew it and it was a good healthy feeling and made more sense than some of the talk.”[xx]

A crude commentary on what had been a close and fruitful albeit brief literary relationship. Perhaps, though, it was the correct one. At least several of Stein’s coterie, including composer Virgil Thomson, thought so.  And Grace Hall Hemingway, the prim and proper church matron back in Oak Park, the other “old bitch,” the one Hemingway said he had to “discipline” after his father had blown his brains out?  What would she have said if she had read that?

Part IV of the Hemingway Attack will appear next week and will feature John Dos Passos, another great American writer and old Hemingway friend who also would feel the blows of the Hemingway battle hammer.


[i] Letter from GS to SA, undated, but cited in Michael S. Reynolds, Hemingway: The Paris Years, P. 36, W.W. Norton, NY, 1989, 1999.

[ii] Letter from EH to SA, 9 March, 1922, Selected Letters, P. 62, ed. Carlos Baker, Granada, London, 1981.

[iii] The Paris Years, P. 4.

[iv] Philip Young, Ernest Hemingway: A Reconsideration, Pp. 181-82.

[v] Ibid, P. `174.

[vi] Letter from EH to JF, 8 April, 1933, Selected Letters, P. 387.

[vii] Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Pp 216-218, Vintage Books, 1990.

[viii] Letter from EH to MP, 26 July, 1933, Selected Letters, P. 395.

[ix] Letter from EH to AG, 26 September, 1933, from a private collection and cited by Michael Reynolds in Hemingway: the 1930’s, P. 147, W.W. Norton, NY, 1997.

[x] Letter from EH to AG, 18 January, 1934, Selected Letters, P. 403.

[xi] The Dingo is long gone, replaced by an Italian restaurant that serves ordinary but passable food. Charters also tended bar at The Falstaff, which still exists and which is on the Rue Montparnasse.

[xii] Jimmy Charters with Morrill Cody, This Must Be the Place; Memoirs of Montparnasse, Preface by EH, 1934, Collier Books, 1989.

[xiii] Entitled by Esquire as A.D. in Africa: A Tanganyika Letter, it was printed in the April, 1934 issue; reprinted in By-line: Ernest Hemingway, ed. William White, Scribner, NY, 2003.

[xiv] Letter from EH to AG, 16 November 1934, Selected Letters, Pp. 410-411.

[xv] Letter from EH to MP, 7 September, 1935, Selected Letters, Pp. 423-424.

[xvi] Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa, Pp. 65-66, Scribner, 1935, M. Hemingway, 1963.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] A Moveable Feast, Pp. 92-93.

[xix] Reynolds, Hemingway’s Reading, 1910-1940, An Inventory, Items 1994-2004, Princeton University, 1981.

[xx] Letter from EH to W.G. Rogers, 29 July 1948, Selected Letters, Pp. 649-650.


  1. Christine says:

    Thank you. Google provided the link to your website after I searched: “Why did Gertrude Stein call Hemingway yellow?” I definitely found a thorough and informative answer.

  2. Thank you for this most interesting article!

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