Biography of Gertrude Stein

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Writer and art patron, born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, USA. The daughter of a wealthy merchant, she lived in Europe with her family (1874-9), and upon their return the family settled in Oakland, CA. She attended Radcliffe College (1898 BA), where she studied psychology under William James (and would remain greatly influenced by his ideas) and at Johns Hopkins Medical School (1897-1901). She followed her brother, Leo Stein, first to London and then Paris (1903), where they began collecting Postimpressionist paintings, thereby helping several leading artists such as Matisse and Picasso.

She and Leo established a famous literary and artistic salon at 27 rue de Fleurus. Leo moved to Florence, Italy (1912), taking many of the paintings, but from 1909 Gertrude had as her assistant Alice B Toklas, who would remain as her lifelong companion. Gertrude 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 1 she bought her own Ford van, and she and 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.

She made a successful lecture tour of the USA in 1934, but returned to France, where she spent World War 2, and with the liberation of Paris (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.

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