Never-before-released Toklas oral history highlights exhibit of Bancroft Library’s LGBT collections

“A Place at the Table: A Gathering of LGBT Text, Image and Voice,” an exhibit opening April 4 at the University of California, Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, will showcase literature, film, photography and other work of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender artists.

The exhibit is arranged to simulate the famed gatherings of artists frequently held by writers and partners Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas at Stein’s home at 27 Rue de Fleurus in Paris, said co-curator Martin Meeker of The Bancroft’s Regional Oral History Office. Stein’s small house overflowed with paintings, and many artists, writers and critics attended parties or “salons” there.

Meeker says he hopes the exhibit will inspire visitors to imagine conversations between the salon participants, while they learn about the deep historical and artistic reach of Toklas and Stein, as well as lesser-known but vital networks among LGBT artists from San Francisco to Paris and beyond.

“A Place at the Table” features work by artists — including novelists, poets, photographers, classical composers, blues singers, cartoonists and drag queens — who all “have taken their unique and often difficult life experiences and transmuted them into beautiful and fierce art,” said exhibit co-curator and School of Law Library archivist William Benemann.

One highlight of the exhibit is a five-hour oral history interview with Toklas, conducted by a Berkeley graduate student living in London. A transcript of the interview will be placed alongside a delicate, 1930s teapot owned by Toklas and filled with still-fragrant rose petals from Stein’s garden in the French countryside.

Toklas on being Stein and being Californian, in just released oral history:

She was very Californian, you know. She was so Californian that when she went East she found it very strange. And the people she met found her strange. She was almost a foreigner.

The exhibit also includes a handwritten letter from Stein introducing author Samuel Steward to Pablo Picasso, drawings by Bay Area visual artist Chuck Arnett (who was influenced and tattooed by Steward in the 1960s), an 1890 Walt Whitman letter in which he discusses his poetry, the first edition of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956) and selections from Marlon Riggs’s semi-documentary about sex and race, Tongues Untied.

The Bancroft exhibit will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday, through July. An opening reception is set for 6 to 8 p.m., Wednesday, April 4.

It follows two major museum exhibitions in San Francisco this year on Stein and her art collection, as well as the recent reissue of two works by Stein, Ida (1941) and Stanzas in Meditation (published posthumously in 1956).

The Bancroft is home to the world’s finest collection of primary sources on the history of California and the American West, as well as to the Mark Twain Papers and Project, Regional Oral History Office, Center for the Tebtunis Papyri, wide-ranging contemporary literary collections, Free Speech Movement Archive, rare books and manuscripts and more. The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life recently became a part of the Bancroft.

More information about The Bancroft is available online.

The University Archive at the Bancroft is home to the Sexuality and Gender Collection and a Gay Bears website that offers history of the LGBT community at UC Berkeley.