The great modernist writer Gertrude Stein was born in 1874 in Allegheny, Pennsylvania and died in her adopted home, Paris, in 1946. Stein's style of writing was at its best a celebration of language and at its worst unintelligible. She was an avant garde phenomenon, a media sensation, a friend and patron of some of the greatest artists of her time, and an open lesbian. Truly an impressive woman.
Gertrude was the fifth child of Daniel and Amelia Stein, and the baby of this upper-middle class family. When she was three her family moved to Vienna, then Paris; they returned to the States and settled in Oakland, California in 1878.
So I was five years old when we came back to America having known Austrian German and French French, and now American English, a nice world if there is enough of it, and more or less there always is.
She was close to her brother Leo, two years older, and displayed her fascination with words and sentences at an early age; she devoured the works of William Shakespeare and tried her hand at writing while still a school girl.
I suppose other things may be more exciting to others...I like the feeling the everlasting feeling of sentences as they diagram themselves.
In 1891 the family moved to San Francisco, where Gertrude became fascinated with theatre and opera. She pursued this new passion in Baltimore, where she moved to live with a wealthy aunt. Two years later she entered Radcliffe College and studied with the eminent philosopher William James, who admired her greatly. One fine spring day she wrote at the top of her exam paper,
Dear Professor James,
I am sorry but really I do not feel a bit like an examination paper in philosophy today.
and the next day received a postcard from him which read
I understand perfectly how you feel I often feel like that myself.
and she received the highest mark in the class. Things like that happened to Gertrude Stein.
Gertrude decided to study medicine and enrolled in Johns Hopkins, but wanderlust overtook her before she graduated and she went to Europe instead of finishing her degree; she later took up her studies again before abandoning the whole idea of becoming a doctor. After traveling through Germany and Italy she lived with Leo for a while in London; she returned for a time to the US and wrote her first semi-autobiographical novel, Q.E.D., about a love triangle among three upper middle class women. Gertrude wrote it as therapy to help get over a failed love affair, then stuck it in a drawer, thinking it unpublishable; it only appeared posthumously. Her first published work was a piece in Alfred Stieglitz's highly regarded "Camera Works" periodical.
In 1904 Gertrude moved to Paris and in with Leo at 27 rue de Fleurus, where she would reside for almost 40 years.
Paris was the place that suited those of us that were to create the twentieth century art and literature.
Leo, who would become a respected art critic
, had started collecting modern art, and Gertrude joined in with alacrity
. Their modest home was stacked with paintings by Picasso
, and numerous others. Many of these painters became their friends, and their Saturday night
dinner parties became famous "salon" events amongst European artists as well as visiting expatriate
s like Sherwood Anderson
and Ernest Hemingway
. Hemingway told her
It was a vital day for me when I stumbled upon you.
During her early years in Paris Picasso painted a famous portrait of Gertrude Stein. She sat for him in his cold and filthy apartment while he worked on the piece; eventually he became so frustrated that he painted out the head and abandoned the work while he went for a long trip to Spain. When he came back to the painting he gave her a strange angular face which people complained she did not resemble at all. He would shrug and say
He gave her the painting as a gift, and she was thrilled. Of it, she later declared:
I was and still am satisfied with my portrait, for me it is I, and it is the only reproduction of me which is always I, for me.
In Paris she wrote Three Lives (1905), a book composed of three short stories about women she had known - two German servants from her childhood and a young black woman she had worked with at medical school. The novella showcases her repetitive style and technique in a relatively accessible manner. She then wrote The Making of Americans, intended to describe and analyze "everyone who is, or has been, or will be". She didn't do things by halves, that Gertrude Stein.
Gertrude was particularly drawn to Cubism, and she attempted to write in a Cubist style, emphasizing the present moment and using repetition with slight variation and very simplistic and fragmented language. Her highly original and experimental literary style did not win her much popularity, and at its most extreme - for example, in Tender Buttons (1914) - she was virtually unintelligible. About this book, poet William Carlos Williams said
she has completely unlinked the words from their former relationships to the sentence
and though I do not think he meant this as a compliment, I suspect Gertrude took it as one.
In 1906 Gertrude met Alice B. Toklas at one of her salons; in 1910 Alice moved in with Gertrude, and is commonly referred to as Gertrude's "lifelong companion". We can take that to signify that they were lovers, friends, confidantes, co-workers, and soulmates. Life companions.
Gertrude was a very large woman; her friend Mabel Dodge once commented that she was
positively, richly attractive in her grand ampleur. She always seemed to like her own fat anyway and that usually helps other people to accept it. She had none of the funny embarrassment Anglo-Saxons have about the flesh. She gloried in hers.
Gertrude dressed in an idiosyncratic style; she was fond of voluminous corduroy pants or skirts and would throw on a turban when she was going out. Alice was thinner but an equally eccentric dresser. The two went everywhere together, and were quite a sight. They were unconcerned about that. One doesn't care about being a spectacle when one is Gertrude Stein.
Leo and Gertrude had always had a volatile relationship; they were both opinionated and strong-willed, and he was dismissive of her writing. In 1913 their relations became so strained that he moved out of their house, and they would have little contact after that.
In the meantime, war was coming. Gertrude, Alice, and their poodle Basket left Paris for the countryside in 1914. When they returned in 1916 they decided to help the French by joining the "American Fund for French Wounded". They had a Ford shipped from the States and outfitted to deliver supplies to hospitals around Paris; they called the car "Auntie" after Gertrude's aunt in America. Gertrude was a reckless driver who scared the bejesus out of all who shared the road with her. Gertrude and Alice were happy barrelling around Paris in Auntie, helping out the wounded. When Auntie failed they got another automobile which they called "Godiva" because of her glaring lack of all amenities.
The public found Gertrude's writing hard to understand, and in Composition as Explanation and What is a Masterpiece she tried to explain what she was doing and why her writing wasn't popular.
For a very long time everybody refuses and then almost everybody without a pause almost everybody accepts. ... When the acceptance comes, by that acceptance the thing created becomes a classic. And what is the characteristic quality of a classic. The characteristic quality of a classic is that it is beautiful. ... Of course it is beautiful but first all beauty in it is denied and then all the beauty of it is accepted.
Gertrude Stein believed in her work, and so did Alice. Alice encouraged Gertrude to write her memoirs in a popular style so that they could cash in on Gertrude's talent. Finally, when she was almost 60, Gertrude did. Though titled The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, it's really a biography of Gertrude herself, written in the voice of Alice, by Gertrude, typed by Alice.
I may say that only three times in my life have I met a genius and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken, and I may say in each case it was before there was any general recognition of the quality of genius in them. The three geniuses of whom I wish to speak are Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and Alfred Whitehead.
So wrote Gertrude Stein in Alice's autobiography.
Published in 1933, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was a bestseller and was serialized in "Atlantic Monthly". It made Gertrude a lot of money, which she supplemented by returning to the US for the first time in decades and going on a lecture tour. She was nervous that people wouldn't accept her because she'd been away for 30 years, but she was wrong. She was a media sensation. Alice and Gertrude criss-crossed the nation, giving lectures and meeting famous people. Gertrude also promoted her opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, scored by Virgil Thomson.
It was Alice who recognized the famous sound-byte
A rose is a rose is a rose
and used it on their stationary and tablecloths and napkins and everywhere Gertrude would allow her to.
In 1937 their beloved Basket died, and Gertrude and Alice got another poodle who they named Basket.
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 recognize the difference between sentences and paragraphs, that paragraphs are emotional and sentences are not.
In perfectly repetitive fashion, this would continue, and there were several Baskets over the years they lived together. They doted over their Baskets.
So said Alice in her autobiography by Gertrude Stein.
Meanwhile, to Gertrude's astonishment, another war seemed imminent.
After all if anybody had done a really big war it is not so easy to do it again
she wisely opined, but do it again they did. Alice and Gertrude left the capital for the countryside, where they remained until 1944. It was dangerous for them - both were Jewish - but neighbours referred to them as American spinsters, and they were not sent to concentration camps like other Jews and homosexuals. They had no income and were forced to sell paintings they had brought from Paris in order to buy food; they often had to walk miles just to buy bread.
Finally they were able to return to Paris, where they found their paintings miraculously untouched. Gertrude befriended GIs in Paris and was legendary for her kindness and generosity to them; of this time she said she felt like "everybody's grandmother". Her book Brewsie and Willy was about these GIs.
A few years later Gertrude began to complain of stomach pains; it was colon cancer, and soon after she was dead. She left her estate to Alice. Alice died 21 years after Gertrude, in 1967, and is buried next to her in Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris.
The quotations here are all from two wonderful websites, www.gurl.com/movers/deadwomen/gertrude/salon.html and
ellensplace.net/gstein1.html, supplemented by mundane details from www.english.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/stein-bio.html
For a complete bibliography of Gertrude's writing - there's lots more that I haven't mentioned - see www.sci.fi/~solaris/stein/steinbib.html