Gertrude Stein

Born on February 3, 1874, in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, Gertude Stein was an imaginative, influential writer in the twentieth century. The daughter of a wealthy merchant, she spent her early years in Europe with her family. The Steins later settled in Oakland, California. She graduated from Radcliffe College in 1898 with a bachelor’s degree. While at the college, Stein studied psychology under William James (and would remain greatly influenced by his ideas). She went on to study medicine at Johns Hopkins Medical School.

In 1903, Gertrude Stein moved to Paris to be with her brother, Leo, where they began collecting Postimpressionist paintings, thereby helping several leading artists such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. She and Leo established a famous literary and artistic salon at 27 rue de Fleurus. Leo moved to Florence, Italy, in 1912, taking many of the paintings with him. Gertrude remained in Paris with her assistant Alice B. Toklas, who she met in 1909. Toklas and Stein would become lifelong companions.

Gertrude Stein had been writing for several years and began to publish her innovative works, Three Lives (1909), The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress (written 1906-11; published 1925), and Tender Buttons: Objects, Food, Rooms (1914). Intended to employ the techniques of abstraction and Cubism in prose, much of her work was virtually unintelligible to even educated readers.

During World War I she bought her own Ford van, and Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas served as ambulance drivers for the French. After the war, she maintained her salon (although after 1928 she spent much of the year in the village of Bilignin, and in 1937 she moved to a more stylish location in Paris) and served as both hostess and inspiration to such American expatriates as Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. (She is credited with coining the term, “the lost generation.”) She lectured in England in 1926 and published her only commercial success, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), written by Stein from Toklas’s point of view.

Gertrude Stein made a successful lecture tour of the United States in 1934, but returned to France, where she spent World War II. After the liberation of Paris in 1944, she was visited by many Americans. In addition to her other novels and memoirs, she wrote librettos to two operas by Virgil Thomson, Four Saints in Three Acts (1934) and The Mother of Us All (1947). Although critical opinion is divided on her various writings, the imprint of her strong, witty personality survives, as does her influence on contemporary literature. Gertrude Stein died on July 27, 1946, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France.