Get Even More Visitors To Your Blog, Upgrade To A Business Listing >>

Born Today in 1874: Iconic Lesbian Writer Gertrude Stein

Tags: stein toklas

Gertrude Stein was born today, February 3, in 1874.  She was an American novelist, poet, playwright, and art collector. Born in the Allegheny West neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and raised in Oakland, California, Stein moved to Paris in 1903, and made France her home for the remainder of her life. She hosted a Paris salon, where the leading figures of modernism in literature and art, such as Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Ezra Pound, and Henri Matisse, would meet.

In 1933, Stein published a quasi-memoir of her Paris years, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, written in the voice of her life partner, Alice B. Toklas, 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.

Her books include Q.E.D. (Quod Erat Demonstrandum) (1903), about a lesbian romantic affair involving several of Stein's female friends, Fernhurst, a fictional story about a romantic affair, Three Lives (1905–06), and The Making of Americans (1902–1911). In Tender Buttons (1914), Stein commented on lesbian sexuality.

Stein, the youngest of a family of five children, was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania (which merged with Pittsburgh in 1907).

When Stein was 3 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.

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.

In Baltimore, Stein met Claribel and Etta Cone, who held Saturday evening salons that she would later emulate in Paris. The Cones shared an appreciation for art and conversation about it and modeled a domestic division of labor that Stein would replicate in her relationship with Alice B. Toklas.

Stein attended Radcliffe College, then an annex of Harvard University, from 1893 to 1897. At Radcliffe, she began a lifelong friendship with Mabel Foote Weeks, whose correspondence traces much of the progression of Stein's life. In 1897, Stein spent the summer in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, studying embryology at the Marine Biological Laboratory. She received her Bachelor of Arts magna cum laude from Radcliffe in 1898.

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.

Stein's tenure at Johns Hopkins was marked by challenge and stress. Men dominated the medical field, and the inclusion of women in the profession was not unreservedly or unanimously welcomed. Writing of this period in her life (in Things As They Are, 1903) Stein often revealed herself as a depressed young woman dealing with a paternalistic culture, struggling to find her own identity, which she realized could not conform to the conventional female role. Her uncorseted physical appearance and eccentric mode of dress aroused comment and she was described as "Big and floppy and sandaled and not caring a damn." According to Linda Wagner-Martin, Stein's "controversial stance on women's medicine caused problems with the male faculty" and contributed to her decision to leave without finishing her degree.

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.

From 1903 until 1914, when they dissolved their common household, Gertrude and her brother Leo shared living quarters near the Luxembourg Garden on the Left Bank of Paris in a two-story apartment (with adjacent studio) located on the interior courtyard at 27 rue de Fleurus, 6th arrondissement. Here they accumulated the works of art that formed a collection that became renowned for its prescience and historical importance.

The gallery space was furnished with imposing Renaissance-era furniture manufactured in Florence, Italy. The paintings lined the walls in tiers trailing many feet to the ceiling. Initially illuminated by gaslight, the artwork was later lit by electric light shortly prior to World War I.

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.

The joint collection of Gertrude and Leo Stein began in late 1904 when Michael Stein announced that their trust account had accumulated a balance of 8,000 francs. They spent this at Vollard's Gallery, buying Gauguin's Sunflowers and Three Tahitians, Cézanne's Bathers, and two Renoirs.

The art collection increased and the walls at Rue de Fleurus were rearranged continually to make way for new acquisitions. In "the first half of 1905" the Steins acquired Cézanne's Portrait of Mme Cézanne and Delacroix's Perseus and Andromeda. Shortly after the opening of the Salon d'Automne of 1905 on October 18, 1905, the Steins acquired Matisse's Woman with a Hat and Picasso's Young Girl with Basket of Flowers.

Gertrude attributed the beginnings of the Saturday evening salons to Matisse, as people began visiting to see his paintings and those of Cézanne: "Matisse brought people, 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."

Hemingway frequented Stein's salon, but the two had an uneven relationship. They began as close friends, with Hemingway admiring Stein as a mentor, but they later grew apart, especially after Stein called Hemingway "yellow" in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Upon the birth of his son, Hemingway asked Stein to be the godmother of his child. While Stein has been credited with inventing the term "Lost Generation" for those whose defining moment in time and coming of age had been World War I and its aftermath, there are at least three versions of the story that led to the phrase, two by Hemingway and one by Stein.


Her use of repetition is ascribed to her search for descriptions of the "bottom nature" of her characters, such as in The Making of Americans where the narrator is described through the repetition of narrative phrases such as "As I was saying" and "There will be now a history of her." Stein used many Anglo-Saxon words and avoided words with "too much association". Social judgement is absent in her writing, so the reader is given the power to decide how to think and feel about the writing. Anxiety, fear and anger are also absent, and her work is harmonic and integrative.

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 Luhan and they began a short-lived but fruitful friendship during which the wealthy Mabel Dodge promoted Gertrude's legend in the United States.

Mabel was enthusiastic about Stein's sprawling publication The Makings of Americans and, at a time when Stein had much difficulty selling her writing to publishers, privately published 300 copies of Portrait of Mabel Dodge at Villa Curonia. Dodge was also involved in the publicity and planning of the 69th Regiment Armory Show in 1913, "the first avant-garde art exhibition in America."

Stein met her life partner, Alice B. Toklas, on September 8, 1907, on Toklas's first day in Paris, at Sarah and Michael Stein's apartment. On meeting Stein, Toklas wrote:

She was a golden brown presence, burned by the Tuscan sun and with a golden glint in her warm brown hair. She was dressed in a warm brown corduroy suit. She wore a large round coral brooch and when she talked, very little, or laughed, a good deal, I thought her voice came from this brooch. It was unlike anyone else's voice—deep, full, velvety, like a great contralto's, like two voices.
Soon thereafter, Stein introduced Toklas to Pablo Picasso at his studio, where he was at work on Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.

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.

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:

She said she did not have any plans for the summer. No one was interested in this thing in whether she had any plans for the summer. That is not the complete history of this thing, some were interested in this thing in her not having any plans for the summer... Some who were not interested in her not having made plans for the summer were interested in her not having made plans for the following winter. She had not made plans for the summer and she had not made plans for the following winter... There was then coming to be the end of the summer and she was then not answering anything when any one asked her what were her plans for the winter.
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 3-week trip to England that stretched to 3 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.'"

Gertrude Stein, Basket, and Alice B. Toklas from Life magazine
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.

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."

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."

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.

Positive affirmations of Stein's sexuality began with her relationship with Alice B. Toklas. Ernest Hemingway describes how Alice was Gertrude's "wife" in that Stein rarely addressed his (Hemingway's) wife, and he treated Alice the same, leaving the two "wives" to chat.

The more affirming essay "Miss Furr and Miss Skeene" is one of the first homosexual revelation stories to be published. The work, like Q.E.D., is informed by Stein's growing involvement with a homosexual community, though it is based on lesbian partners Maud Hunt Squire and Ethel Mars. The work contains the word "gay" over 100 times, perhaps the first published use of the word "gay" in reference to same-sex relationships and those who have them, and, thus, uninformed readers missed the lesbian content. A similar essay of homosexual men begins more obviously with the line "Sometimes men are kissing" but is less well known.

In Tender Buttons Stein comments on lesbian sexuality and the work abounds with "highly condensed layers of public and private meanings" created by wordplay including puns on the words "box", "cow", and in titles such as "tender buttons."


Stein died on July 27, 1946, at the age of 72 after surgery for stomach cancer at the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine. 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!"


This post first appeared on The Gay Almanac, please read the originial post: here

Share the post

Born Today in 1874: Iconic Lesbian Writer Gertrude Stein

×

Subscribe to The Gay Almanac

Get updates delivered right to your inbox!

Thank you for your subscription

×