"average middle class woman [supported by] some male relative, a husband or father or brother,...[is] not worth her keep economically considered. [This economic dependence caused her to become] oversexed...adapting herself to the abnormal sex desire of the male...and becoming a creature that should have been first a human being and then a woman into one that is a woman first and always."—
Stein, the youngest of a family of five children, was born on February 3, 1874, in Allegheny, Pennsylvania (which merged with Pittsburgh in 1907), to upper-middle-class Jewish parents, Daniel and Amelia Stein. Her father was a wealthy businessman with real estate holdings. German and English were spoken in their home.
When Stein was three years old, she and her family moved to Vienna, and then Paris. Accompanied by governesses and tutors, the Steins endeavored to imbue their children with the cultured sensibilities of European history and life. After a year-long sojourn abroad, they returned to America in 1878, settling in Oakland, California, where her father became Director of San Francisco's street car lines, the Market Street Railway, in an era when public transportation was a privately owned enterprise. Stein attended First Hebrew Congregation of Oakland's Sabbath school. During their residence in Oakland, they lived for four years on a ten-acre lot, and Stein built many memories of California there. She would often go on excursions with her brother, Leo, with whom she developed a close relationship. Stein found formal schooling in Oakland unstimulating, but she read often: Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Scott, Burns, Smollett, Fielding, and more.
When Stein was 14 years old, her mother died. Three years later, her father died as well. Stein's eldest brother, Michael Stein, then took over the family Business holdings and in 1892 arranged for Gertrude and another sister, Bertha, to live with their mother's family in Baltimore. Here she lived with her uncle David Bachrach, who in 1877 had married Gertrude's maternal aunt, Fanny Keyser.
Stein attended Radcliffe College, then an annex of Harvard University, from 1893 to 1897 and was a student of Psychologist william James. With James's supervision, Stein and another student, Leon Mendez Solomons, performed experiments on normal motor automatism, a phenomenon hypothesized to occur in people when their attention is divided between two simultaneous intelligent activities such as writing and speaking.
William James, who had become a committed mentor to Stein at Radcliffe, recognizing her intellectual potential, and declaring her his "most brilliant woman student", encouraged Stein to enroll in medical school. Although Stein professed no interest in either the theory or practice of Medicine, she enrolled at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in 1897. In her fourth year, Stein failed an important course, lost interest, and left. Ultimately, medical school had bored her, and she had spent many of her evenings not applying herself to her studies, but taking long walks and attending the opera.
While a student at Johns Hopkins and purportedly still naïve about sexual matters, Stein experienced an awakening of her latent sexuality. Sometime in 1899 or 1900, she became infatuated with Mary Bookstaver who was involved in a relationship with a medical student, Mabel Haynes. Witnessing the relationship between the two women served for Stein as her "erotic awakening". The unhappy love triangle demoralized Stein, arguably contributing to her decision to abandon her medical studies. In 1902 Stein's brother Leo Stein left for London, and Stein followed. The following year the two relocated to Paris, where Leo hoped to pursue an art career.
Leo Stein cultivated important art world connections, enabling the Stein holdings to grow over time. The art Historian and collector Bernard Berenson hosted Gertrude and Leo in his English country house in 1902, facilitating their introduction to Paul Cézanne and the dealer Ambroise Vollard. Vollard was heavily involved in the Cézanne art market, and he was the first important contact in the Paris art world for both Leo and Gertrude.
Gertrude completed Q.E.D. (Quod Erat Demonstrandum) on October 24, 1903. One of the earliest coming out stories, it is about a romantic affair involving Stein and her friends Mabel Haynes, Grace Lounsbury and Mary Bookstaver, and occurred between 1897 and 1901 while she was studying at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.
Mellow observes that, in 1904, 30-year-old Gertrude "had evidently determined that the 'small hard reality' of her life would be writing".
She began Three Lives during the spring of 1905 and finished it the following year.
Stein began to accept and define her pseudo-masculinity through the ideas of Otto Weininger's Sex and Character (1906). Weininger, though Jewish by birth, considered Jewish men effeminate and women as incapable of selfhood and genius, except for female homosexuals who may approximate masculinity. As Stein equated genius with masculinity, her position as a female and an intellectual becomes difficult to synthesize and modern feminist interpretations of her work have been called into question.
Toklas arrived in 1907 with Harriet Levy, with Toklas maintaining living arrangements with Levy until she moved to 27 Rue de Fleurus in 1910. In an essay written at the time, Stein humorously discussed the complex efforts, involving much letter writing and Victorian niceties, to extricate Levy from Toklas's living arrangements. In "Harriet", Stein considers Levy's nonexistent plans for the summer, following her nonexistent plans for the winter:
In 1908, they summered in Fiesole, Italy, Toklas staying with Harriet Lane Levy, the companion of her trip from the United States, and her housemate until Alice moved in with Stein and Leo in 1910. That summer, Stein stayed with Michael and Sarah Stein, their son Allan, and Leo in a nearby villa. Gertrude and Alice's summer of 1908 is memorialized in images of the two of them in Venice, at the piazza in front of Saint Mark's.
Her subjects included several ultimately famous personages, and her subjects provided a description of what she observed in her Saturday salons at 27 Rue de Fleurus: "Ada" (Alice B. Toklas), "Two Women" (The Cone sisters, Claribel Cone and Etta Cone), Miss Furr and Miss Skeene (Ethel Mars and Maud Hunt Squire), "Men" (Hutchins Hapgood, Peter David Edstrom, Maurice Sterne), "Matisse" (1909, Henri Matisse), "Picasso" (1909, Pablo Picasso), "Portrait of Mabel Dodge at the Villa Curonia" (1911, Mabel Dodge Luhan), and "Guillaume Apollinaire" (1913).
While living in Paris, Stein began submitting her writing for publication. Her earliest writings were mainly retellings of her college experiences. Her first critically acclaimed publication was Three Lives. In 1911, Mildred Aldrich introduced Stein to Mabel Dodge Lu Han and they began a short-lived but fruitful friendship during which the wealthy Mabel Dodge promoted Gertrude's legend in the United States.
Gertrude's Matisse and Picasso descriptive essays appeared in Alfred Stieglitz's August, 1912 edition of Camera Work, a special edition devoted to Picasso and Matisse, and represented her very first publication. Of this publication, Gertrude said, "[h]e was the first one that ever printed anything that I had done. And you can imagine what that meant to me or to any one."
Stein and Carl Van Vechten, the noted critic and Photographer, became acquainted in Paris in 1913. The two became lifelong friends, devising pet names for each other: Van Vechten was "Papa Woojums", and Stein, "Baby Woojums". Van Vechten served as an enthusiastic champion of Stein's literary work in the United States, in effect becoming her American agent.
During the early summer of 1914, Gertrude bought three paintings by Juan Gris: Roses, Glass and Bottle, and Book and Glasses. Soon after she purchased them from Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler's gallery, the Great War began, Kahnweiler's stock was confiscated and he was not allowed to return to Paris. Gris, who before the war had entered a binding contract with Kahnweiler for his output, was left without income. Gertrude attempted to enter an ancillary arrangement in which she would forward Gris living expenses in exchange for Future pictures. Stein and Toklas had plans to visit England to sign a contract for the publication of Three Lives, to spend a few weeks there, and then journey to Spain. They left Paris on July 6, 1914 and returned on October 17. When Britain declared war on Germany, Stein and Toklas were visiting Alfred North Whitehead in England. After a supposed three-week trip to England that stretched to three months due to the War, they returned to France, where they spent the first winter of the war.
With money acquired from the sale of Stein's last Matisse Woman with a Hat to her brother Michael, she and Toklas vacationed in Spain from May 1915 through the spring of 1916. During their interlude in Majorca, Spain, Gertrude continued her correspondence with Mildred Aldrich who kept her apprised of the War's progression, and eventually inspired Gertrude and Alice to return to France to join the war effort.
Toklas and Stein returned to Paris in June 1916, and acquired a Ford automobile with the help of associates in the United States; Gertrude learned to drive it with the help of her friend william Edwards Cook. Gertrude and Alice then volunteered to drive supplies to French hospitals, in the Ford they named Auntie, "after Gertrude's aunt Pauline, 'who always behaved admirably in emergencies and behaved fairly well most times if she was flattered.'"
Sherwood Anderson in his public introduction to Stein's 1922 publication of Geography and Plays wrote:
Writing for Vanity Fair magazine in 1923, eminent literary critic Edmund Wilson presciently came to an evaluation similar to the one made by Katharine Ann Porter some twenty years later, after Stein's death. Wilson deemed that Stein's technique was one of flawed methodology, using words analogous to the way Cubists manipulated abstract forms in their artworks. As Wilson wrote, unlike the plastic arts, literature deals with
A compendium of source material confirms that Stein may have been able to save her life and sustain her lifestyle through the protection of powerful Vichy government official Bernard Faÿ. Stein had met Faÿ in 1926, and he became her "dearest friend during her life", according to Alice B. Toklas. Faÿ had been the primary translator of Stein's work into French and subsequently masterminded her 1933–34 American book tour, which gave Stein Celebrity status and proved to be a highly successful promotion of her memoir, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Faÿ's influence was instrumental in avoiding Nazi confiscation of Stein's historically significant and monetarily valuable collection of artwork, which throughout the war years was housed in Stein's Paris rue Christine apartment, under locked safeguard.
During the 1930s, Stein and Toklas became famous with the 1933 mass market publication of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. She and Alice had an extended lecture tour in the United States during this decade. They also spent several summers in the town of Bilignin, in the Ain district of eastern France situated in the picturesque region of the Rhône-Alpes. The two women doted on their beloved poodle named "Basket" whose successor, "Basket II", comforted Alice in the years after Gertrude's death.
Stein predominantly used the present progressive tense, creating a continuous present in her work, which Grahn argues is a consequence of the previous principles, especially commonality and centeredness. Grahn describes "play" as the granting of autonomy and agency to the readers or audience: "rather than the emotional manipulation that is a characteristic of linear writing, Stein uses play." In addition Stein's work is funny, and multilayered, allowing a variety of interpretations and engagements. Lastly Grahn argues that one must "insterstand... engage with the work, to mix with it in an active engagement, rather than 'figuring it out.' Figure it in." In 1932, using an accessible style to appeal to a wider audience, she wrote The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas; the book would become her first best-seller. Despite the title, it was actually Stein's autobiography. The style was quite similar to that of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, which was written by Toklas.
In 1933, Stein published a quasi-memoir of her Paris years, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, written in the voice of Alice B. Toklas, her life partner and an American-born member of the Parisian avant-garde. The book became a literary bestseller and vaulted Stein from the relative obscurity of the cult-literature scene into the limelight of mainstream attention. Two quotes from her works have become widely known: "Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose" and "there is no there there", with the latter often taken to be a reference to her childhood home of Oakland, California.
Given that after the war Stein commented that the only way to ensure world peace was to teach the Germans disobedience, this 1934 Stein interview has come to be interpreted as an ironic jest made by a practiced iconoclast hoping to gain attention and provoke controversy. In an effort to correct popular mainstream misrepresentations of Stein's wartime activity, a dossier of articles by critics and historians has been gathered for the online journal Jacket2.
In Washington, D.C. Stein was invited to have tea with the President's wife, Eleanor Roosevelt. In Beverly Hills, California, she visited actor and filmmaker Charlie Chaplin who reportedly discussed the Future of cinema with her. Stein left America in May 1935, a newly minted American Celebrity with a commitment from Random House, who had agreed to become the American publisher for all of her Future works. The Chicago Daily Tribune wrote after Stein's return to Paris: "No Writer in years has been so widely discussed, so much caricatured, so passionately championed."
Composer Constant Lambert (1936) compares Stravinsky's choice of "the drabbest and least significant phrases" in L'Histoire du Soldat to Gertrude Stein's in "Helen Furr and Georgine Skeene" (1922), specifically: "[E]veryday they were gay there, they were regularly gay there everyday." He writes that the "effect would be equally appreciated by someone with no knowledge of English whatsoever", apparently missing the pun frequently employed by Stein.
Along with Stein's widely known "A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose" quotation, "there is no there there" is also one of her most famous. It appears in Gertrude Stein, Everybody's Autobiography (Random House 1937, p 289) and is often applied to the city of her childhood, Oakland, California. Defenders and critics of Oakland have debated what she really meant when she said this in 1933, after coming to San Francisco on a book tour. She took a ferry to Oakland to visit the farm she grew up on, and the house she lived in near what is now 13th Avenue and E. 25th Street in Oakland. The house had been razed, and the farmland had been developed with new housing in the three decades since her father had sold the property and moved closer to the commercial hub of the neighborhood on Washington Street (now 12th Avenue). She wrote:
She publicly endorsed General Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War and admired Vichy leader Marshal Philippe Pétain. Some have argued for a more nuanced view of Stein's collaborationist activity, arguing that it was rooted in her wartime predicament and status as a Jew in Nazi-occupied France. Similarly, Stein commented in 1938 on Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky: "There is too much fathering going on just now and there is no doubt about it fathers are depressing."
How much of Stein's wartime activities were motivated by the real exigencies of self-preservation in a dangerous environment can only be speculated upon. However, her loyalty to Pétain may have gone beyond expedience. She had been urged to leave France by American embassy officials, friends and family when that possibility still existed, but declined to do so. Accustomed to a life of entitlement since birth, Stein may have been convinced her wealth and notoriety would exempt her from what had befallen other European Jews. In an essay written for the Atlantic Monthly in November, 1940, Stein had written about her decision not to leave France: "it would be awfully uncomfortable and I am fussy about my food." Stein continued to praise Pétain after the war ended, this at a time when Pétain had been sentenced to death by a French court for treason.
In 1941, at Faÿ's suggestion, Stein consented to translate into English some 180 pages of speeches made by Marshal Philippe Pétain. In her introduction, Stein crafts an analogy between George Washington and Pétain. She writes of the high esteem in which Pétain is held by his countrymen; France respected and admired the man who had struck an armistice with Hitler. Conceived and targeted for an American readership, Stein's translations were ultimately never published in the United States. Random House publisher Bennett Cerf had read the introduction Stein had written for the translations and been horrified by what she had produced.
Although Jewish, Stein collaborated with Vichy France, a regime that deported more than 75,000 Jews to Nazi concentration camps, of whom only 3 percent survived the Holocaust. In 1944, Stein wrote that Petain's policies were "really wonderful so simple so natural so extraordinary". This was Stein's contention in the year when the town of Culoz, where she and Toklas resided, saw the removal of its Jewish children to Auschwitz. It is difficult to say, however, how aware Stein was of these events. As she wrote in Wars I Have Seen, "However near a war is it is always not very near. Even when it is here." Stein had stopped translating Petain's speeches three years previously, in 1941.
With the outbreak of World War II, Stein and Toklas relocated to a country home that they had rented for many years previously in Bilignin, Ain, in the Rhône-Alpes region. Gertrude and Alice, who were both Jewish, escaped persecution probably because of their friendship to Bernard Faÿ who was a collaborator with the Vichy regime and had connections to the Gestapo, or possibly because Gertrude was an American and a famous author. Gertrude's book "Wars I Have Seen" written before the German surrender and before the liberation of German concentration camps, likened the German army to Keystone cops. When Faÿ was sentenced to hard labor for life after the war, Gertrude and Alice campaigned for his release. Several years later, Toklas would contribute money to Faÿ's escape from prison. After the war, Stein was visited by many young American Soldiers. The August 6, 1945 issue of Life magazine featured a photo of Stein and American Soldiers posing in front of Hitler's bunker in Berchtesgaden. They are all giving the Nazi salute and Stein is wearing the traditional Alpine cap, accompanied by the text: "Off We All Went To See Germany."
Stein died on July 27, 1946 at the age of 72 after surgery for stomach cancer at the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine. She was interred in Paris in Père Lachaise Cemetery. Later Alice B. Toklas was buried alongside her. According to the famous version of her last moments, before having been taken into surgery, Stein asked her partner Toklas: "What is the answer?" After Toklas replied to Stein that there was no answer, Stein countered by sinking back into her bed, murmuring: "Then, there is no question!"
While identified with the modernist movements in art and literature, Stein's political affiliations were a mix of reactionary and progressive ideas. She was outspoken in her hostility to some liberal reforms of progressive politics. To Stein, the industrial revolution had acted as a negative societal force, disrupting stability, degrading values, and subsequently affecting cultural decline. Stein idealized the 18th century as the golden age of civilization, epitomized in America as the era of its founding fathers and what was in France, the glory of its pre-revolutionary Ancien Régime. At the same time, she was pro-immigrant, pro-democratic, and anti-patriarchal. Her last major work was the libretto of the feminist opera The Mother of Us All (1947) about the socially progressive suffragette movement and another work from this time, Brewsie and Willie (1946), expressed strong support for American G.I.s.
Stein is the author of one of the earliest coming out stories, "Q.E.D." (published in 1950 as Things as They Are), written in 1903 and suppressed by the author. The story, written during travels after leaving college, is based on a three-person romantic affair in which she became involved while studying at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. The affair was complicated, as Stein was less experienced with the social dynamics of romantic friendship as well as her own sexuality and any moral dilemmas regarding it. Stein maintained at the time that she detested "passion in its many disguised forms". The relationships of Stein's acquaintances Mabel Haynes and Grace Lounsbury ended as Haynes started one with Mary Bookstaver (also known as May Bookstaver). Stein became enamored of Bookstaver but was unsuccessful in advancing their relationship. Bookstaver, Haynes, and Lounsbury all later married men.
Stein has been the subject of many artistic works. Stein and Toklas merit their own line each in the song "Bosom Buddies" from the 1966 Broadway musical MAME, based on the stage play Auntie Mame, by composer-lyricist Jerry Herman. In MAME, Vera Charles, Mame Dennis' actress-confidante pal, sings: "...I'll always be Alice Toklas, if you'll be Gertrude Stein." (Bea Arthur, who played the original Vera Charles on Broadway, recreated the same role for the 1974 film version of the musical.) In the 1998 Latin American literary classic Yo-Yo Boing!, Novelist Giannina Braschi pays homage to Stein as an imaginary mentor.
Stein's descriptive essays apparently began with her essay of Alice B. Toklas, "a little prose vignette, a kind of happy inspiration that had detached itself from the torrential prose of The Making of Americans". Stein's early efforts at word portraits are catalogued in Mellow (1974, pp. 129–37) and under individual's names in Kellner, 1988. Matisse and Picasso were subjects of early essays, later collected and published in Geography and Plays and Portraits and Prayers.
In the 1980s, a cabinet in the Yale University Beinecke Library, which had been locked for an indeterminate number of years, was opened and found to contain some 300 love letters written by Stein and Toklas. They were made public for the first time, revealing intimate details of their relationship. Stein's endearment for Toklas was "Baby Precious", in turn Stein was for Toklas, "Mr. Cuddle-Wuddle".
Other critics took a more negative view of Stein's work. F. W. Dupee (1990, p. IX) defines "Steinese" as "gnomic, repetitive, illogical, sparsely punctuated... a scandal and a delight, lending itself equally to derisory parody and fierce denunciation".
In 2005, playwright/actor Jade Esteban Estrada portrayed Stein in the solo musical ICONS: The Lesbian and Gay History of the World, Vol. 1 at Princeton University. In 2006, theatre director/actor Luiz Päetow created his solo, Plays, portraying Stein's 1934 homonymous lecture, and toured Brazil for several years. Loving Repeating is a musical by Stephen Flaherty based on the writings of Gertrude Stein. Stein and Alice B. Toklas are both characters in the eight person show. Stein is a central character in Nick Bertozzi's 2007 graphic novel The Salon.
Stein was also portrayed in the 2011 Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris by Kathy Bates. Her name is added to a list of great artists and notables in the popular Broadway musical Rent in the song "La Vie Boheme". She is also mentioned in the Fred Astaire - Ginger Rogers 1935 film Top Hat and in the song "Roseability" by the Scottish rock group Idlewild.
Composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Royce Vavrek's opera 27 about Stein and Toklas premiered at Opera Theatre of St. Louis in June, 2014 with Stephanie Blythe as Stein.
Edward Einhorn wrote the play The Marriage of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein, a farce about their fantasy marriage that also told the story of their life. It premiered in May 2017 at HERE Arts Center in New York.