Monday, February 8, 2016

Enigmatic, controversial Gertrude Stein dead at 72 of stomach cancer

Apparently the first person to introduce “gay” as a synonym for “homosexual,” Gertrude Stein used the word 136 times in a 1922 prose poem called “Miss Furr and Miss Skeene,” about a pair of Lesbian lovers. Stein also wrote novels, poems, libretti, essays, and what-have-you in a whimsical, enigmatic style that left most of her readers scratching their heads in puzzlement. “A rose is a rose is a       rose” became one of her best-known and least understood quotations.

Born February 3, 1874, in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, Gertrude lived as an infant in Vienna and Paris with her wealthy parents, who then moved to Oakland, California, where Gertrude grew up, and of which she famously wrote in her autobiography, “When you get there, there’s no there there.”  After her parents’ death, she was raised by her mother’s family in Baltimore. She attended Radcliffe College, where she was a student of philosopher-psychologist Willliam James. When she sat to write her final exam in his course, she felt tired, having been to the opera the previous evening. She wrote on her paper, "I am so sorry but I do not feel a bit like an examination paper in philosophy today."  James replied by postcard, “I understand perfectly how you feel. I often feel like that myself." He gave her the highest mark in the course.  Stein also briefly attended Johns Hopkins Medical School, where she had her first Lesbian affair.

In 1903 Gertrude and her brother Leo moved to Paris and shared an apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus on the Left Bank near Luxembourg Gardens. She began to write, and the two of them accumulated works by young artists, amassing a valuable collection by Picasso, Cézanne, Renoir, Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec, Daumier, and others. The siblings bitterly separated in 1914, Leo taking sixteen Renoirs and one Picasso, and leaving the rest of the art to Gertrude. The two met only once again, years later in a chance encounter on a Paris street.

Stein and her life partner, Alice B. Toklas, who had been together since 1907, maintained their household until Stein’s death in 1946. Decidedly unconventional—in literary style, political affiliation, and domestic arrangements—Stein presided over a long-running salon on Saturday nights that regularly attracted Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, Thornton Wilder, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Sinclair Lewis, Ford Madox Ford, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Virgil Thomson, Paul Robeson, and other leading cultural lions. While Gertrude conversed on lofty subjects with the visiting literati, mostly men, Alice entertained their wives and girlfriends in a separate room. Stein once told Hemingway, “You are all a lost generation,” and she is credited with originating that description of the American expatriate writers of the day.  

Gertrude and Alice’s relationship was immortalized in Stein’s memoir, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which was published in 1933 and became a best-seller. Although Jewish by birth, Stein was sometimes accused of anti-Semitism during Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s, and in the Second World War she collaborated with France’s pro-Nazi Vichy government. She was an admirer of Marshal Philippe Pétain, who headed the Vichy regime, and continued to praise him after the war, when he had been declared a traitor.

Stomach troubles had plagued Stein for many years, and in the summer of 1946 she was diagnosed with stomach cancer.  Doctors believed the cancer too far advanced to operate, but Stein insisted on having surgery anyway, and it was scheduled for July 27 at the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a Paris suburb.

Alice and Stein’s nephew and niece were at her bedside as she was prepared for the operation. Feeling the effects of the pre-op drugs, she sleepily asked, “What is the answer?” No one responded. “In that case,” said Stein, “what is the question?” Those were last words; she lapsed into a coma following surgery and died at 6:30 p.m. at the age of seventy-two. She is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery.
Photo by Carl Van Vechten.