Portrait of a Lady

Between the world wars, a beautiful, artistic woman named Bobsy Goodspeed stood at the heart of Chicago’s social and cultural scenes. Now, prompted by a salacious if glancing remark in a recent book, this forgotten woman re-emerges and opens the door on a vanished era peopled by painters and pianists, plutocrats and politicians—and an irresistible force named Gertrude Stein

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In 1934, Bobsy Goodspeed, seated beneath a portrait of her by Bernard Boutet de Monvel, relaxes at her lush Lincoln Park apartment; the architect David Adler designed the space.

 


Gertrude Stein, right, and Alice B. Toklas leave for Chicago on November 7, 1934.

Gertrude Stein, the rotund godmother of modernism, returned to the United States from her home in France for the first time in three decades. At 60, after years of writing fiercely obscure and little-read texts, Stein had recently scored a popular hit with The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas—a title that masked the fact that the book was written by, and had as its principal subject, Gertrude Stein. Though reluctant at first, Stein had agreed to follow up the book with a cross-country lecture tour of the United States. Accompanied by Alice Toklas, her lover, girl Friday, and alter ego, Stein arrived in New York on the SS Champlain on October 24, 1934, only to discover that, to her surprise and occasional confusion, she had become a high-wattage celebrity.

Two weeks later, as it turned out, a production of her opera Four Saints in Three Acts, written with the composer Virgil Thomson, was being staged in Chicago at the Auditorium Theatre. Earlier that year, the opera had been a surprise hit on Broadway; its quizzical refrain—"pigeons on the grass alas"—had even become a popular catch phrase. But Stein, still in France, had missed that excitement, and now, because of the demands on her time in New York and the limitations of train travel, it appeared she would miss the fun in Chicago, too.

Nonsense, said her friend Bobsy Goodspeed, telephoning from Chicago. Take the plane. Which was just like Bobsy.

Known as Bobsy since she was a girl—the name had stuck, even though Bobsy was now 41—Elizabeth Fuller Goodspeed was the president of the Arts Club of Chicago and a vivacious, almost unstoppable force. So on the afternoon of November 7, 1934, the day of the opera’s Chicago opening, Stein and Toklas hurried to Newark Airport in New Jersey for their first airplane ride ever.

After an uneventful flight, the plane landed to a crowd of reporters and curiosity seekers at Chicago’s Municipal Airport (today it’s called Midway). Bobsy was waiting with her chauffeur-driven limousine and spirited Stein and Toklas to her luxurious Lincoln Park apartment. That night the Auditorium overflowed with the cream of Chicago society, drawn by the hype surrounding Four Saints, as well as by the promised presence of Stein and Thomson, who would conduct the orchestra. Stein wore a prune-colored silk gown ornamented at the neck with an oval brooch studded with diamonds, while Toklas, her bobbed and waved hair set off by enormous gold earrings, wore a ruffled navy taffeta gown. The pair watched the performance with Bobsy, and when the final curtain fell, they went backstage to congratulate the cast. “The first act seemed so strange and new,” a gratified Stein told reporters. “Until tonight I’ve always heard the music inside myself, and now for the first time I’m hearing it outside.”

Following the opera, Bobsy held a supper party at her apartment. For both the writer and her hostess, it was a supreme moment of personal and public triumph. “Of the many courses,” wrote Toklas in her famous 1954 cookbook (the one with the recipe for hashish brownies), “I only remember the first and the last, a clear turtle soup and a fantastic pièce montée of nougat and roses, cream and small coloured candles.” Toklas included Bobsy’s recipe for turtle soup in her cookbook, and today that limpid concoction is the rare reminder of a significant but forgotten Chicago socialite, a spirited woman who, on closer inspection, deserves a more substantial memorial than what Toklas called a “tasty, nourishing but light soup.”

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Photography: (Goodspeed) Conde Nast Archive/Corbis; (Stein) Carl Van Vechten/Courtesy of the Van Vechten Trust and Henry W. and Albert A. Berg collection of English and American Literature, The New York Public Library

 

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