Gertrude Stein (February 3, 1874 – July 27, 1946) was an American writer, poet, feminist, playwright, and catalyst in the development of modern art and literature, who spent most of her life in France.
Born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania (now the North Side of Pittsburgh), her family moved to Vienna and then Paris when she was three. After returning almost two years later, she was educated in California, graduating from Radcliffe College in 1897 followed by two years at Johns Hopkins Medical School.
In 1902 she moved to France during the height of artistic creativity gathering in Montparnasse. From 1903 to 1912 she lived in Paris with her brother Leo, who became an accomplished art critic. Stein, a lesbian, met her life-long companion Alice B. Toklas in 1907; Alice moved in with Leo and Gertrude in 1909. During her whole life, Stein was supported by a stipend from her brother Michael’s business.
She and her brother compiled one of the first collections of Cubist art. She owned early works of Pablo Picasso (who became a friend and painted her portrait), Henri Matisse, Andre Derain plus other young painters.
When England declared war on Germany in World War I, Stein and Toklas were visiting with Alfred North Whitehead in England. They returned to France and volunteered to drive supplies to French hospitals; they were later honored by the French government for this work.
By the 1920s her salon at 27 Rue de Fleurus, with walls covered by avant-garde paintings, attracted many of the great artists and writers including Ernest Hemingway, Thornton Wilder, Sherwood Anderson and Georges Braque. She coined the term “Lost Generation” for some of these ex-patriate American writers. Extremely charming, eloquent, cheerful and overweight, indeed cheerfully overweight, she had a large circle of friends and tirelessly promoted herself. Her judgments in literature and art were highly influential.
Ernest Hemingway describes how Alice was Gertrude’s ‘wife’ in that Stein rarely addressed his wife, and he treated Alice the same, leaving the two “wives” to chat. Alice was four foot eleven inches tall, and Gertrude was five foot one inch (Grahn 1989).
Politically, Gertrude Stein has been described as a conservative fascist; she regarded the jobless as lazy, opposed Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal and supported Franco in the Spanish Civil War. She would later start a project of translating speeches by Vichy regime leader Pétain into English. Contrastingly, Judy Grahn (1989) describes her as, “a 19th Century Republican, in her manners and manner of speech she was Victorian, socially was more liberal than not, with developed individualism couples with democratic values based in pragmatism; thus at the opening of the German occupation of France she favored collaborative Vichy government, but by the end she did not, having witnessed firsthand the hardship it brought to the peasants.”
With the outbreak of World War II, Stein and Toklas moved to a rented country home in Bilignin, Ain, in the Rhône-Alpes region. Referred to only as “Americans” by their neighbors, the Jewish Gertrude and Alice escaped persecution probably because of their friendship to Bernard Faÿ, a gay collaborator with the Vichy regime with connections to the Gestapo. When Bernard Faÿ was sentenced to hard labor for life after the war, Gertrude and Alice campaigned for his release. Several years later, Alice would contribute money to Faÿ’s escape from prison.
After the war, Gertrude’s status in Paris grew when she was visited by many young American soldiers. She died of stomach cancer in Neuilly-sur-Seine, Paris on July 29, 1946 and was interred there in Le Père Lachaise Cemetery. When she was being wheeled into the operating room for surgery on her stomach, she asked Toklas, “What is the answer?” When Toklas did not answer, Stein said, “In that case, what is the question?”
Stein named writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten as her literary executor, and he helped to usher into print works of hers which remained unpublished at the time of her death.