On the 140th anniversary of her birth, we remember writer, poet and collector Gertrude Stein and her beloved menagerie of canines, spearheaded by her poodle, Basket
Born on this day in 1874, Gertrude Stein is renowned for many things: her avant-garde writing and poetry, her covetable modernist art collection, her Parisian salon where she would critique and mentor young artists, her long-term relationship with Alice B. Toklas, the list goes on. What is not so commonly known about the American Francophile however is her devotion to her dogs – especially her poodle Basket and his successor, Basket II.
Poodles come in three sizes – Toy, Miniature and Standard – and a vast range of beautiful, solid colours, including white, black, brown, parti, silver, gray, apricot and red. Originally bred in Germany as a type of water dog, the breed was standardised in France where, owing to its popularity, it became the national breed. Poodles coats are curly, dense and moisture-resistant, which helps their swimming; and although they do not shed, regular grooming is essential. Poodles are typically light-hearted, elegant, friendly and high-spirited, with a cheery disposition and thus are very popular companions. Other famous poodle owners have included Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, Jack Lemmon and Winston Churchill.
"I am I because my little dog knows me, even if the little dog is a big one"
Stein and Toklas's poodle was a Standard white, bought at a dog show in Paris. He was named Basket by Toklas who felt he was so fashionable that he should carry a basket of flowers in his mouth (a feat he never accomplished). A firm favourite of Stein's, she insisted that Basket be bathed in sulfur water each day. Indeed, composer Paul Bowles recalled that when staying with Stein he would be made to run around the garden each morning with Basket, post-bath, until the dog was dry while Stein watched from the upstairs window shouting, "Faster Freddy, faster!"
When the much-loved Basket died in 1937, the pair got another Standard white poodle who they also named Basket, and who would prove a help to Stein's writing. As Toklas noted, "Basket, a large, unwieldy white poodle, still will get up on Gertrude's lap and stay there. She says that listening to the rhythm of his water drinking made her recognise the difference between sentences and paragraphs, that paragraphs are emotional and sentences are not." Basket II was a pedigree and his papers came in handy during World War II when Nazis forbade the feeding of all pets except pedigrees.
Aside from their two Baskets, Stein and Toklas also had a hound called Polpe, who loved to smell flowers, and two chihuahuas named Byron (owing to his sexual interest in his mother and sisters) and Pépé. Although the chihuahuas were greatly treasured by Stein and Toklas, they appeared in fewer photographs and garnered less fame than the poodles who appeared in many big shoots by the likes of Cecil Beaton, Man Ray and LIFE Magazine. And it was certainly a Basket that Stein was referring to in her famous and touching line, "I am I because my little dog knows me even if the little dog is a big one."
Text by Daisy Woodward