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Tymon Smith

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Footnotes: Gertrude Stein

Today marks the birthday of feminist, modernist writer, art collector and lesbian Gertrude Stein. Born in 1874 in West Allegheny, Pennsylvania, Stein grew up in Oakland, California, a town she once famously described with the phrase: “There is no there, there.”

The youngest of five children of wealthy German Jewish parents, Stein was raised with a strong sense of European culture and history. Her parents died within a few years of each other; her mother, Amelia, in 1888 and her father, Daniel, in 1891.

She attended Radcliffe College, where she studied psychology under William James, before taking up medicine at Johns Hopkins, a course she never finished, rebelling against the male-dominated world of medicine. In 1903, Stein moved to Paris with Alice B. Toklas, who remained her partner and secretary for the rest of her life. She never lived in her native country again. The apartment that Stein, Toklas and Stein’s brother Leo shared on the Left Bank became famous as a gathering place for artists, writers and intellectuals including Henri Matisse, Ezra Pound and Pablo Picasso.

Stein was a passionate advocate of the new movement in literature that was pioneered by many of her literary friends including William Carlos Williams, F Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway. Stein’s own works stringently rejected the narrative conventions of 19th-century literature and her books were not initially well received. The writer Clifton Fadiman once described her as “a woman masterly in making nothing happen very slowly”.

However, the publication in 1933 of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas saw her achieve bestseller status in America, where she was treated as a celebrity on her book tour in 1934.

Despite warnings that she leave France during the Nazi occupation, Stein and Toklas remained and displayed uncomfortably un-Jewish, sometimes pro-Hitler political views. A relationship with the powerful Vichy government official Bernard Fay may have helped them and their art collection to survive the war. Stein wrote a piece that called for Hitler to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, a suggestion whose sincerity has been the cause of much debate.

Stein died in 1946 at the age of 72 and was buried in Paris at the Père Lachaise cemetery, where she lies in the company of Toklas, Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust and Honoré de Balzac.