What happens to Alice if I die? A Look at Gertrude Stein’s Last Will and Testament

Gertrude Stein died in 1946, just three days after writing her Will. No one imagined that 21 years later, her life partner, Alice Toklas, would die impoverished, half-blind, and half-deaf. During the later years of her life, Alice relied upon the goodwill and solicitations of friends to keep a roof over her head.

In the 1960s and 70s, Janet Flanner, a friend of Stein and Toklas, wrote a series of letters to the New Yorker decrying the treatment that Toklas had received from the executors of Stein’s estate. Then in 2006, Janet Malcolm wrote another piece for the New Yorker, in which she described Last Wills and Testaments this way:

Wills are uncanny and electric documents. They lie dormant for years and then spring to life when their author dies, as if death were rain. Their effect on those they enrich is never negligible, and sometimes unexpectedly charged. They thrust living and dead into a final fierce clasp of love or hatred. But they are not written in stone—for all their granite legal language—and they can be bent to subvert the wishes of the writer.

Strangers in Paradise: How Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas got to Heaven, by Janet Malcolm, The New Yorker, Nov. 13, 2006, at 57.

And this quote lead me down an internet rabbit hole …

Gertrude Stein was an American novelist, poet, playwright, and art collector. She was contemporary of Picasso, Fitzgerald, Matisse, Ezra Pound, and Ernest Hemmingway. She is credited with coining the phrase, “The Lost Generation.”

While Stein didn’t have great wealth during her life, her estate contained numerous works by now-famous artists, including over 78 Picassos and 11 Gris paintings, that rapidly accumulated value after her death.

Stein signed her Last Will and Testament on July 23, 1946, after she had been diagnosed with stomach cancer. She went in for surgery on July 27, 1946. She would ultimately not wake up from the anesthesia. Stein died three days after signing her Last Will and Testament, on July 27, 1946, in France.

Wills “spring to life when the author dies, as if death were rain.”

In her Will, Stein left her collection of paintings and her money to her life partner, Alice Toklas, for “her use in life.” After Toklas passed, Stein’s accumulated wealth and paintings were devised to her nephew, Allan Stein.

This sounds like Toklas should have been set up well.

The Will allowed for the paintings to be displayed, or sold as needed, to provide Toklas with income. She was also permitted to use income derived from Stein’s published and unpublished works.

Alas, all was not well.

In her Will, Stein named Toklas and Allan Stein as the executors of her final wishes. She also had, based on “sound tax counsel,” placed her estate in Baltimore, Maryland.

“For all their granite legal language … [wills] … can be bent to subvert the wishes of the writer.”

The probate court, for reasons now unknown, removed Toklas and Allan Stein as Stein’s executors, and instead appointed Edgar Allan Poe as the administrator. (Yes, the nephew of THE Edgar Allan Poe.)

Whether through lack of knowledge, miserliness, general disagreement, or some other reason, Poe was an obstructionist executor.

Toklas had to beg, threaten, and cajole Poe for her meager allowance from Stein’s estate, which was meant to provide for her support and maintenance. ($400.00 A month, which is worth roughly $4,300.00 per month in 2020 dollars)

During her final years, Toklas sank into poverty and was almost entirely dependent upon Doda Conrad and Janet Flanner, an opera singer, and writer, living in Paris, to solicit money from friends to keep her (barely) afloat.

Their effect on those they enrich is never negligible, and sometimes unexpectedly charged.

Poe wholly failed in his fiduciary obligation as Stein’s executor. He failed to use Stein’s accumulated wealth to provide for Toklas during the remaining 21 years of her life.

In 1954, Toklas was forced to sell nearly 40 of Picasso’s drawings to support herself. This was, in part, due to Poe’s miserliness and obstructionist work as an executor,

This enraged Roubina Stein, Allan Stein’s (Gertrude Stein’s nephew and heir apparent). In the words of Janet Flannery, Roubina had been keeping “a beady eye upon the pictures in the interest of her minor children.” (2)

And in the words of Roubina’s step-son, and Allan’s only son, Daniel, Roubina was a “devious, hypocritical, and thoroughly unprincipled being willing to stop at nothing to achieve her ends.”

[Wills] thrust living and dead into a final fierce clasp of love or hatred.

In April 1961, all of the artwork that was left in Toklas’s care during her life was seized in a raid conducted on Stein’s and Toklas’s shared apartment at 5, rue Christine in Paris.

There are two stories about this raid … and I’ll leave it to you to decide which one is true based on all the above information.

Story 1 – The Metropolitan Museum of Art claims that, in April 1960, Toklas’s landlord started eviction proceedings against her because she was on a “long retreat in an Italian monastery.” As a result of this, “it” was discovered that several paintings were found missing and that “Allan Stein’s children obtained a court order sequestering the remainder of the collection [because] it was neglected and unprotected.” The paintings were placed in the vault of the Chase Manhattan Bank of Paris in 1961. (source)

Story 2 – Toklas’ friends claims that in April of 1961, Toklas visiting an Italian spa receiving mud treatment for her arthritis. She returned home to find only the outlines of the paintings on her walls. Roubina, claiming that the paintings and artwork were not safe during Toklas’s absence, had received legal authority to remove the paintings. The paintings then went to a vault in the Chase Manhattan Bank in Paris.

We will never honestly know what spurred the seizure of the drawings and paintings from Toklas’s apartment in 1961; however, it wasn’t until 1964 that she was evicted.

What we do know is that when Toklas passed away on March 7, 1967, Stein’s heirs sold the 38 Picassos and 9 Gris paintings to a group of American collectors, including Andre Meyer, William S. Paley, David Rockefeller, Nelson A. Rockefeller, and John Hay Whitney. Four of these buyers were MOMA Trustees, and the fifth was a Patron of the Museum Collection. (source)

[Wills] “can be bent to subvert the will of the writer.”

Under Stein’s Will, the paintings and collections were intended to be held for the benefit of Toklas’s support throughout her lifetime, including the possible sale of the paintings.

But forces aligned against Toklas, seized her source of income, and forced her to die impoverished, reliant upon the goodwill of her friends and other artists.

That is not what Stein intends to have happened to her woman that she spent 40 years of her life with, and the woman that she intended to provide care to for the rest of her natural life.

What happened to Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas is not unique.

Money makes people do funny things. Whether that’s because a person is miserly, greedy, obstructionist, or a spendthrift, our relationship with money can make us do horrible things to people.

What Could Stein have done differently?

Honestly, since she made her will only three days before she died? Not much.

Stein waited until it was too late to provide a better plan for the care of her life partner.

If she’d had more time, Stein could have created a Trust that owned the artwork that she had accumulated throughout the years. By all reckonings, Stein and Toklas held nearly 100 pieces of artwork from such celebrated artists as Picasso, Matisse, and Gris, among others.

Like most people, Stein was living her life. She was going about her daily routine of sleeping, eating, writing, and loving.  

It wasn’t until Stein was faced with the real possibility of death, an operation in an attempt to resolve what turned out to be inoperable stomach cancer, that she thought about, “What happens to Alice if I die?”

What could Alan Stein or Alice Toklas have done differently?

In Stein’s will, she had named her nephew, Allan Stein, and her life partner, Alice Toklas, as her executors. But for an unknown reason, the Baltimore probate court replaced Allan and Toklas with Edgar Allan Poe.

Whether Allan Stein and Toklas renounced voluntarily or were forcibly removed, the court-appointed Poe, which lead to Toklas’ inevitable spiral into poverty.

Gertrude Stein did not want her life partner to spend the last years of her life living in poverty (when she was nearly blind and deaf). Stein did not want her life-partners caregivers to be soliciting funds from friends to provide for her care. Stein did not want Toklas’s in-home maid to go without pay.

We know that Gertrude Stein did not want that to happen because, in her Will, Stein gave the executor the authority to sell artwork to provide for Toklas’s support and maintenance.

The executor refused to do this.

Could Toklas have pursued legal means to have Poe replaced? Yes, but towards the end, she was without the funds to do so.

How Can You Avoid Impoverishing Your Loved Ones Upon Your Death

When a person comes us, they tell us they want to make sure that “everything will be okay” when they die.

They know that their family will go through a rough patch. They know that they’ll suffer emotionally. Death is hard. Your family and friends are left with everything that you accumulated in life.

We can’t take it with us.

And sometimes that ‘everything’ is valuable.

For Alice and Gertrude, their lifetime accumulation of works by Picasso, Matisse, Gris, and other artists became incredibly valuable. While not everyone has lunch and dinner with future famous artists whose works will be worth millions, there is one thing that everyone can “accumulate” … life insurance.

Like a collection of art, if you were to sell it off, an active life insurance policy pays out the death benefit upon submitting a valid claim. The death benefit is typically paid a lump sum payment to a named person or divided among several named people.

Whether you have a life insurance policy for $10,000 or $10,000,000, that’s a sum of money that needs to be used and accessed over the next several years for the support and maintenance of your family and loved ones. While money is no substitute for the love of a parent, it goes a long way to providing for financial stability in an emotionally turbulent time.

That’s where Trusts come in.  Instead of naming a person or people as the beneficiary of your life insurance policy, you can name a Trust as the beneficiary of a life insurance policy.

A trust can be used to collect and aggregate assets, as well as provide for a means of investment to increase the funds available in the trust and can delay the distribution of accumulated funds over years, which increases financial stability over the long term.

Equally important as creating a trust to increase long-term financial stability, is choosing the right person to act as the trustee. A trustee is a person that you have to trust implicitly (it has “trust” in the title) to work in the best interests of your beneficiaries and who can protect and preserve the trust assets for as long as they are needed to meet the goals of your trust.

Whether you decide to create a Trust or use a Last Will and Testament is a decision that has to be based on your goals for protecting and preserving the financial stability of your family after you pass away. And who you choose to help you meet that goal, is not a title to just toss at someone because they’re your child, your sibling, or your church leader. The decisions that go into making your Will or Trust have the potential to have a significant impact on what happens to your kids, which means it is one that has to be made after careful consideration and counsel.