A leading figure from Pittsburgh's theatrical past returns for the first time in a quarter-century, playing another lifelong role: keeper, and lone qualified interpreter, of likely the most intriguing remaining piece of the legacy of Gertrude Stein.
From 1968-1981, Leon Katz taught theater at Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh, and as a director, administrator and internationally produced playwright nurtured the city's experimental-theater scene. Meanwhile, he continued a journey begun in the 1940s, when as a Columbia University graduate student he discovered (at the Yale Library) notebooks Stein kept from 1902-11 -- the years when she was writing her epic, groundbreaking first novel, The Making of Americans.
Katz, now 88, began deciphering the notebooks after befriending Stein's life-partner, Alice B. Toklas, in Paris. (Stein had died in 1946.) He completed his thesis on The Making of Americans in 1963. But, in a matter of some controversy, Katz has yet to publish a long-planned book that would include his Toklas-aided, annotated version of Stein's otherwise indecipherable notebooks, to which he holds exclusive publishing rights. On Sat., Oct. 6, Katz visits his old stomping grounds at CMU to give his first-ever public talk about Stein (a Pittsburgh native), Toklas and the notebooks that help demystify one of the great modernist writers.
Katz, whose resume includes teaching posts at Yale and UCLA, was revered in Pittsburgh, where his projects included running the Floating Theatre Company. "He's probably the most wide-ranging theater intellect I've ever encountered," says Jed Allen Harris, a Carnegie Mellon professor whose first directing job in Pittsburgh was a 1976 Theatre Express production of Katz's adaptation of de Sade's Justine. "Just sitting around talking to Leon was one of the greatest educational experiences of my life."
With CMU sponsorship, Katz returns to Pittsburgh at the invitation of documentary filmmaker Ken Love. Love studied under Katz in the early '70s, befriended him, and later began work on a film about him focusing on his Stein scholarship.
What Katz calls Stein's "tiny little notebooks" are important because they are "kind of a key" to The Making of Americans, a daunting, 1,000-page work very few have read, but which was Stein's breakthrough into the experimental syntax and rhythmic repetition that make her one of the true innovators of modern English literature. Through Katz's extensive 1952-53 interviews with the 75-year-old Toklas, the notebooks offer biographical detail about Stein; reveal influences including controversial psychologist Otto Weininger; and provide insight into what Katz, speaking by phone recently from his home in North Carolina, calls the "very, very complex" four-decade-long relationship between the two women.
Katz's long-planned book -- the annotated notebooks plus an expansion of his thesis -- is controversial mostly because it's not done. In an article in the June 13, 2005, New Yorker, journalist Janet Malcolm charges Katz with keeping the journals to himself, a "defection from the world of Stein scholarship" that irresponsibly leaves the field the poorer. Katz remains upset about the article: He says he regularly shares material from his project, and claims that Malcolm misled him about her motives for scheduling an interview with him (an interview that never took place).
He says he hasn't finished the book because, simply, life's been busy: "At the moment, other things came first." ("He gets sidetracked," corroborates Harris. "That's one of the best things about him.")
But Katz is aware of the responsibility, historical and scholarly, to complete the book. At the University of North Carolina, where he's teaching, he's given notice that he will retire at the end of the school year. His priority, he says, is finishing the book.
Filmmaker Love says Katz's Oct. 6 talk will take place on a stage set with some of the original furniture from Stein and Toklas' famous apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus, and images of the paintings Stein collected, by such intimates as Picasso and Matisse. It also promises to illuminate a woman whom Katz calls "one of that first heroic generation of avant-garde artists and writers who really changed the whole nature of modern literature."
An Evening with Leon Katz 7:30 p.m. Sat., Oct. 6. Kresge Hall, Carnegie Mellon campus, Oakland. Free. www.etc.cmu.edu
- Leon Katz