Stein, Gertrude (1874–1946)
Stein, Gertrude (1874–1946)
Stein, Gertrude (1874–1946)
American novelist, poet, short-story writer, librettist, memoirist, and art collector whose house on the Left Bank of Paris became a salon for the "Lost Generation." Born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, on February 3, 1874; died in Neuilly, France, on July 27, 1946; youngest child of Daniel Stein and Amelia (Keyser) Stein; entered Harvard Annex (Radcliffe), 1894; Harvard, B.A., 1898; attended Johns Hopkins Medical School, 1897–1901; lived with Alice B. Toklas for 39 years; never married; no children.
With brother Leo, settled in Paris, France (autumn 1903); met Pablo Picasso, Paris (1905); met Alice B. Toklas, Paris (September 8, 1907); published The Making of Americans (1925); went on lecture tour, Cambridge and Oxford universities (1926); established "Plain Edition" publishing company (1930); published The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933); premier of opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, New York (1934); went on lecture tour of U.S. (October 1934–May 1935); published Everybody's Autobiography (1937); published Paris France (1940); spent war years in Bilignin, France (1939–44); published Wars I Have Seen (1945); entered American Hospital, Neuilly, France (July 19, 1946); death of Alice B. Toklas (March 7, 1967).
"It takes a lot of time to be a genius," Gertrude Stein declared, "you have to sit around so much doing nothing really doing nothing." And that is what she was and what she did. Catastrophic wars, economic depression, political upheavals, and rifts and quarrels with family and friends were not allowed to intrude on Stein's pursuit of "glory" as a self-proclaimed literary genius. She refused to remember things that might disturb her tranquillity and ignored events she could not bear to acknowledge.
Gertrude Stein was the youngest of five children, born in 1874 in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, into a middle-class Jewish family that doted on her. Being the youngest, she claimed, "saves you a lot of bother, everybody takes care of you." And everybody did, all her life. Her father and uncle were in the clothing business, providing a comfortable life for the Steins, albeit a rather itinerant lifestyle. By age five, Gertrude had lived in Vienna, Paris, and Baltimore, and in 1880, Daniel Stein moved his family to Oakland, California, where he was involved in the cable-car business. As a child, Gertrude and her brother Leo forged a bond that excluded the other members of the family. They had little respect for their parents; when Gertrude was 14, her mother Amelia Stein died but was not missed since "we had all already had the habit of doing without her," as Gertrude later wrote. Her father garnered no respect from Gertrude either. He simply became "more of a bother than he had been," according to his precocious daughter. The attitude of Leo and Gertrude towards their siblings was equally dismissive: Michael was much older than they, Simon was "fat and slow-witted," and Bertha was judged to be "simply annoying." Life became more pleasant, according to Gertrude, after her father died; Michael, age 26, became head of the family and moved everyone to San Francisco. For Gertrude, life revolved around books and food, and her brilliant ally and friend, Leo. Life was pleasant, and Michael successfully managed to provide for the future financial independence of his siblings because as Gertrude said, "none of us could earn … enough to live on and something had to be done."
Stein's adolescent years were difficult. Her large, bulky body (over 200 pounds) and confused sexual identity made her self-conscious. She and Leo "never said a word to each other about their inner life," and Stein was forced to confront her physical and emotional problems alone. In 1892, Leo entered Harvard University, and the following year Gertrude, who never finished high school, enrolled in Harvard Annex (which became Radciffe College in 1894) and took up philosophy. She studied with William James whose teachings influenced her views on how the human mind works and on the concept of time. The latter led to Stein's literary device, the "continuous present," the most marked and original feature of her writing style. Active in drama and philosophy clubs, and developing an interest in psychology, Stein found her environment intellectually stimulating. She published two articles in Harvard's Psychological Review and decided to pursue a career in medicine; admitted to Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in 1897, she received her B.A. degree from Harvard the next year. Leo was also a student at Johns Hopkins, and they shared a house in Baltimore.
Unable to sustain an interest in her medical studies, Gertrude failed her exams and left to join Leo in Europe. No doubt she was bored, as she claimed, but Stein also needed to escape from a love-triangle in which she felt trapped and vulnerable. She had fallen in love with May Bookstaver who continued her own affair with another woman. Gertrude was unable to handle the emotional turmoil and fled America to live with Leo, her source of security and guidance. After traveling in Italy and England, Leo decided to settle in Paris and become an artist. His decision would change Gertrude's life forever; in 1903, she took up residence with Leo at 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris. An expatriate and a writer, Gertrude Stein became solidly entrenched in the artistic and literary life of her adopted country. "Paris was where the twentieth century was," she stated, and it was here, as Shari Benstock wrote, that "she was to discover her sexual identity, her creative talents, and to establish … the most important artistic salon on the Left Bank." Having purged the hurtful vestiges of her love affair by writing a novel, Q.E.D. (Things As They Are, 1950), Stein set out "to avoid excitements and cultivate serenity" in new surroundings, in a new century.
Even among the cultural avant-garde of Paris, Gertrude and Leo Stein were regarded as eccentrics; the "odd-couple" smoked cigars, wore unmodish brown corduroy clothes, and filled their walls with modern art by obscure young artists such as Pablo Picasso, Matisse, Cézanne, Renoir, and Gauguin. By 1905, Picasso and Matisse had become friends with the Steins and brought their friends to visit; the Stein "salon" was inaugurated, attracting many of the artistic and literary luminaries of the 20th century. "Everybody brought somebody and they came at any time and it began to be a nuisance and it was in this way that Saturday evenings began," Gertrude recalled. Stein and Picasso were close friends, wrote one biographer, "similar in many ways. Both were direct … greedy, childish in their enthusiasms…. And both at that time, were beginning to be convinced they were geniuses." Picasso wanted to paint Stein's portrait; after about 90 sittings, he was dissatisfied with the face and painted it out. No one thought the mask-like visage looked like her. "It will," Picasso said. And it did. "It is the only reproduction of me which is always I, for me," Gertrude claimed. Leo was among the fiercest critics of Picasso's style and his sister's writing style; it was all "Godalmighty rubbish," he concluded. Having rejected Gertrude's literary efforts, he found himself rejected by her.
Stein devoted herself to her craft, writing late at night until dawn. She had completed a novel, Fernhurst, based on a lesbian sex scandal at Bryn Mawr in the 1890s, and began a long novel, The Making of Americans, in which her theory of human nature is elucidated: humans have certain characteristics which make them individuals but share "similar patterns of behavior and thought"; they are all "the same but different," she believed. Repetition is the distinguishing hallmark of her writing; repetition of action revealed people's "bottom nature," as she saw it, and repetition in speech "was the way in which it was expressed." This led to her idea of constancy, the "'continuous present,' a prolonging of the present moment or thought by the device of circling and retracing," a means of suspending "the passage of time inside a narrative form," without beginning, middle, or end. The works of Stein and Picasso incorporated the notion that "each part [of a composition] is as important as the whole." And in "Melanctha," a short story about a black woman and her lover, one finds all the elements of Stein's theories on language and the "continuous present." She laid no claim to having invented any style or device; as she wrote a friend, "If the communication is perfect the words have life, and that is all there is to good writing, putting down on the paper words which dance and weep and make love and fight and kiss and perform miracles."
Toklas, Alice B. (1877–1967)
Longtime companion of Gertrude Stein. Born Alice Babette Toklas in San Francisco, California, on April 30, 1877; died on March 7, 1967; first child and only daughter of Ferdinand Toklas (a wholesaler in dry goods) and Emma (Levinsky) Toklas; attended Miss Lake's School for Girls; studied music at Washington University; lived with Gertrude Stein for 39 years.
"I was the child who was raised by women, and influenced by women," said Alice B. Toklas, who grew up on San Francisco under the watchful eye of her mother, aunts, great-aunts, and grandmother, while her father marched off to make money, often commuting between Seattle and San Francisco. At 8, Toklas joined her parents on a grand tour of Europe; at 13, her beloved grandmother died, and she moved with her family to Seattle. When her mother Emma Levinsky Toklas was diagnosed with cancer, the family returned to San Francisco where Emma died on March 10, 1897. Alice, then about six weeks shy of her 20th birthday, became "the responsible grand-daughter," the cook and housekeeper in a house of men, who sat on her opinions while they talked politics. She hated it.
Toklas had a strong desire to see Paris, and, having experienced the San Francisco earthquake firsthand in 1906, an equally strong desire to leave the town of her birth. Then Sarah Samuels (Stein) , a friend of a close friend of Alice's, married Michael Stein. In 1907 in Paris, while visiting Sarah, Alice met Gertrude Stein , the woman who held her "complete attention" from that first meeting on, "as she did for all the many years I knew her," said Toklas, "until her death, and all these empty ones since then."
Alice Toklas was under five feet tall and had a cyst between her eyebrows. To conceal it, she combed her hair forward and pulled hats down to her eyes. She put forth the image of a self-effacing handmaiden to Stein, but their true relationship was quite different. Alice had a strong nature and a great deal of sway over Stein, despite her unassuming presence.
As Stein developed her theories and honed her unique literary style, she slowly emerged from Leo's shadow. He had dominated their Saturday evenings and supervised their collection of art. But he was a man without direction, lacking perseverance in all his pursuits, and never became adept at creating or accomplishing anything. As he and Gertrude grew apart, Leo floundered, a sad, drifting figure compared to his vibrant, self-driven, androgynous sister who resembled a Roman emperor. With Gertrude able to live a comfortable, secure life, her dependence on her brother ended abruptly in 1907. Michael and his wife Sarah Samuels Stein had settled in Paris several years earlier, and Sarah invited Gertrude to meet two women from California who were visiting them.
On September 8, Gertrude met Alice B. Toklas who would be her lifelong companion, her lover and wife. Soon Alice became indispensable to Gertrude's physical and mental wellbeing. While on holiday in Italy in the summer of 1908, Stein proposed to Toklas; they would remain a devoted couple until Gertrude's death in 1946. In 1909, Alice moved in with Gertrude and Leo, an awkward arrangement which led to a final rift between the Steins. Finally in 1913, Leo left, and ceased to exist for Gertrude. Toklas provided a quiet domestic environment (serving as secretary-typist, cook, and household manager) in which Stein's genius could concentrate on creating her "modernist" masterpieces.
The two women were convinced that it was essential to find a publisher for Gertrude's work, Three Lives. The editor of Grafton Press called it "a very peculiar book" and assumed Stein would be amenable to corrections of her punctuation and syntax—she was not. Question marks and exclamation points are "positively revolting," she noted, and commas "are servile," but she allowed that periods are acceptable, having "a life of their own." When the book was published in 1909, it drew praise and strengthened Stein's confidence in herself. This "eccentric of the Paris avant-garde" wrote every night, never revising, a slow, methodical process that was mirrored in the "slow heavy rhythm" of her daily life. To Stein, "what is known as work is something that I cannot do it makes me nervous, I can read and write and I can wander around and I can drive an automobile and I can talk and that is almost all, doing anything else makes me nervous." However, she was a prolific writer, and by 1912, she had completed her 1,000-page epic, The Making of Americans, as well as Tender Buttons and a collection called Portraits. The latter contained a portrait ("Ada") written with Toklas, "a joint declaration of their love." The contented, happy life they shared was evident to their many friends who visited them. Their social gatherings, however, were strictly segregated: Stein conversed only with her male visitors, while Toklas entertained their wives in the kitchen. Gertrude could be "chauvinistic," preferring the company of men, but Alice always occupied a special place in her life. "She is very necessary to me…. My Sweetie. She is all to me," Stein admitted. No one doubted it.
I am an American and I have lived half my life in Paris, not the half that made me but the half in which I made what I made.
Their quiescent, bourgeois life in Paris was enlivened by frequent, protracted holidays around Europe. But even then, Stein kept to her routine of writing every day. Tender Buttons, published in 1914, was described by a reviewer as "unreadable, impenetrable, hopelessly obscure." Hoping to have it also published in London, Gertrude and Alice went there, only to be detained when war broke out in August 1914. Back in Paris in October, Toklas was frightened by the bombings and blackouts, and they sought refuge in Majorca, having sold a Matisse painting to meet their expenses. Bored and cut off from friends, they decided to return to Paris and aid the French war effort. Gertrude had her cousin in New York send her a 1917 Ford, which she christened "Auntie"; after it was converted into a supply van, Stein and Toklas delivered hospital supplies to various depots in France. After the Armistice in November 1918, they were sent to Alsace to open a center for civilian relief. For their efforts, they were awarded Reconnaisance Français medals by the French government.
Stein and Toklas quickly resumed their familiar domestic routine in Paris, but the Stein salon changed dramatically. Before the war, artists had dominated the gatherings, but in the interwar years young writers, mostly Americans, flocked to the rue de Fleurus where many of the "lost generation" (Gertrude's term) found refuge and encouragement. Ernest Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, and F. Scott Fitzgerald were among Stein's most ardent admirers. She read Hemingway's writings, advised him "to begin over again and concentrate," to avoid cleverness, and to remember that "remarks are not literature." Stein was fond of Hemingway, but Toklas was not. Known to be "fiercely possessive and jealous" of Gertrude's relations with both men and women, Alice was often able to convince her to break off friendships she considered a threat to their marriage. Afraid Hemingway might seduce Stein, Toklas created discord between them. These young writers were not seen as literary rivals by Gertrude, but James Joyce and T.S. Eliot were; her reaction to their successes was to ignore them, despite their presence in Paris. Flattered by attention from her American visitors, Stein still worried about her work that remained unpublished. But in the 1920s, the appearance of her The Making of Americans (1925) and other works, brought increased recognition of Stein's unique contribution to literature, although without financial rewards.
When invited to lecture in England in 1926, Stein agreed, hoping the lectures would generate interest in her work. Appearing before enthusiastic audiences at Cambridge and Oxford universities, she explained how she used words and her concept of rhythm and repetition; these same ideas are found in her An Elucidation (1927) in which she wrote, "Civilization began with a rose. A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose," which became her hallmark. The lectures were published and led to a reissue of Three Lives and a revival of interest in her work. Stein was finally accepted as a leading figure among "modernist" writers, but she never won the popular acclaim of Joyce or the poet Ezra Pound whom she said was "a village explainer, excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not." Gertrude was an "explainer" too as she tried to answer her own question, "[W]hat do we mean by what we say and why do we say things the way we do?" She realized she would never attract many readers, and this depressed her. Rather than wait for commercial publishers to recognize the work of a "genius," Alice and Gertrude sold a Picasso painting to finance "Plain Edition," their own publishing house. At age 57, Stein was sought after more as a personality than as a writer, until she reluctantly agreed to write her memoirs. While at their summer home in Bilignin, in eastern France, Gertrude wrote The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in six weeks. Using Alice's voice, she chronicled her own life in Paris over a quarter of a century. Published in New York in 1933, it sold out nine days before publication, and was reprinted four times in two years. Stein was a celebrity, and received substantial royalties.
Not everyone was pleased with her recollection of people or events. Hemingway called it "a damned pitiful book"—Gertrude had said he was "fragile and yellow." Matisse and others were also upset, no one more than Leo Stein. "She's basically stupid," he asserted, "and I am basically intelligent." Stein's reaction to her new celebrity status was curious; she began to question her own identity: "The moment you or anybody else knows what you are you are not it, you are what you or anybody else knows you are." She stopped writing.
Publicity from the autobiography generated great interest in another of Stein's projects, her collaboration with the young American composer Virgil Thomson, for whom she had written the libretto for Four Saints in Three Acts, an opera performed in New York in 1934 with an allblack cast. Her friends and her agent tried to persuade her to undertake a lecture tour in the United States. She finally consented and began writing lectures setting forth her theories and ideas on art and literature. In October 1934, Gertrude and Alice sailed for New York; Gertrude had been away for 30 years. Interviewed and photographed, Stein was delighted to be "a real lion, a real celebrity." Asked why she
didn't write the way she talked, she responded, "Why don't you read the way I write?" For eight months, she traveled with Toklas across America, lecturing at some 30 universities. In California, when she visited Oakland, she felt uneasy: "What was the use of my having come from Oakland it was not natural to have come from there … there is no there, there." In May 1935, Gertrude and Alice sailed for France, for home.
But it was impossible to settle quietly into the old routine. Disturbing political events portended war which Stein had hoped "would go out of fashion, like duelling." If people would only stop saluting, war would disappear. Gertrude's old life was forever changed when Michael and Sarah left Paris for America, and former friends remained alienated because of the Autobiography. Even in remote Bilignin, the presence of French reservists and machine guns made Gertrude and Alice nervous. However, Stein remained productive; in The Geographical History of America or the Relation of Human Nature to the Human Mind, she focused on the nature of America, on fame, and the absence of any relation between human nature and the human mind. Secure in her literary niche, she wrote, "It is natural that again a woman should be the one to do the literary thinking of this epoch." A second series of lectures at Cambridge and Oxford in 1936, and the appearance of Everybody's Autobiography in 1937, led Stein to conclude that she was "the most important writer writing today," and "one of the masters of English prose." While in London, she and Alice attended the opening of a ballet based on Stein's They Must. Be Wedded To Their Wife. Gertrude could not ignore the civil war in Spain and the rise of fascist dictators in Europe, though she tried. Her view of the present state of the world was that "it was getting too crowded and it was getting too modern; people are losing their natural habits of living." And the tractable masses tended to follow dictators, the "fathers" who oppressed them—Gertrude had no love for fathers.
In 1937, Stein and Toklas were forced to move from their apartment on the rue de Fleurus, Gertrude's home for 35 years. They soon settled into a new apartment, along with their 131 paintings. Alice had for some time been typing and sending copies of Gertrude's manuscripts to Yale University Library for safekeeping. And Stein continued to write, refusing to permit preparations for war to distract her. But when France was attacked by Germany in 1940, she and Alice fled to Bilignin. She looked on their situation as an adventure, and she enjoyed the change. They contacted the American consul in Lyons who told them to leave France, but the people of Bilignin urged them to stay: "Everyone knows you here…. Why risk yourself among strangers?" Shortages of food and fuel were minor inconveniences, and they reluctantly sold a Cézanne painting to buy provisions. Moreover, they had a friend with close connections to the German-backed French government under Marshal Pétain. A local official was instructed to protect them. After the entry of the United States into the war in 1941, their situation became more dangerous. As Jews and enemy aliens, they were subject to arrest and deportation to a concentration camp. They lost the lease on their house and moved to the nearby village of Culoz where they were again protected by the mayor and the villagers. Curiously, Stein referred to this period as the happiest of her life; for the first time since arriving in France, she lived with and liked the French people who became "as real as she was herself to herself."
Stein paid tribute to her adopted home and to the French in her book Paris France (1940); in Wars I Have Seen (1945), she described her wartime experiences. In September 1944, the first American liberators arrived in Culoz, and Alice made a "victory" cake for them. Gertrude was asked to broadcast live to America: "thanks to the land of my birth and the land of my adoption we are free, long live France, long live America," she declared. In December 1944, the women returned to Paris. The Gestapo had searched their apartment, but the French authorities again protected Stein's valuable art collection. The Germans had absconded with the silver and other valuables and caused some damage, but to Gertrude it was still "the same, so much more beautiful, but it was the same." And she had had enough of looking at rural landscapes; she had missed her streets of Paris. Busy giving lectures at army camps and writing articles for American magazines, Stein renewed her attachment to Paris, walking "all day long and night too." She was noted for having "the grace and gift" for life, enjoying the simplest pleasures. "How many days are there in a week so nice?" she wrote at the end of Wars I Have Seen, "very many, happily, very many."
While on a lecture tour in Brussels for the U.S. Army in November 1945, Gertrude had an attack of intestinal pain. She was working on the libretto for Virgil Thomson's opera The Mother of Us All, loosely based on the life of the American suffragist Susan B. Anthony , her last complete work. By April 1946, Stein was told she needed surgery; instead, she and Alice bought a new car and went on holiday, but she became ill and was taken to the American Hospital in Neuilly (a suburb of Paris). Gertrude had cancer and died on the operating table. Four days later, Alice wrote to a friend, "everything is empty and blurred." Later, she was persuaded to write a memoir, What Is Remembered (1963), "an act of service" to Gertrude. A reviewer for Time magazine remarked that it was a "book of a woman who all her life has looked in a mirror and seen someone else."
Gertrude Stein once wrote: "it was not what France gave you but what it did not take away from you that was important." And that is why she lived and died there, an American in Paris.
Benstock, Shari. "Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas: Rue de Fleurus," in Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900–1940. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1986, pp. 143–193.
Hobhouse, Janet. Everybody Who Was Anybody: A Biography of Gertrude Stein. NY: Putnam, 1975.
Souhami, Diana. Gertrude and Alice. London: Pandora, 1991.
Brinnin, John Malcolm. The Third Rose: Gertrude Stein and Her World. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1987.
Mellow, James R. Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein & Company. NY: Praeger, 1974.
Stein, Gertrude. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. NY: Random House, 1933.
Wagner-Martin, Linda. Favored Strangers: Gertrude Stein and Her Family. NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Wineapple, Brenda. Sister Brother: Gertrude and Leo Stein. Putnam, 1996.
Gertrude Stein's manuscripts, correspondence, and unpublished notebooks are located at the Beinecke Library, Yale University; other notable collections include those at the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Texas, Austin.
Jeanne A. Ojala , Professor Emerita, Department of History, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah