Selected by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best nonfiction books of all time
'I always wanted to be historical,' Gertrude Stein once quipped. In 1932, Stein began writing the 'autobiography' of her longtime friend and companion, Alice B. Toklas. The book, an immediate bestseller, guaranteed them both a place in history. An account of their life together in Paris before, during, and after World War I, it is full of the atmosphere of the changing life of the city and of idiosyncratic glimpses of such figures as Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Cocteau, Apollinaire, Pound, Eliot, Hemingway, and other luminaries and aspirants who were their close friends. But at the center of the narrative there is always the titanic figure of Gertrude Stein, the self-proclaimed 'first-class genius' who some dismissed as the 'Mother Goose of Montparnasse,' presiding over her celebrated residence-salon-art gallery at 27, rue de Fleurus. William Troy remarked about her: 'It is not flippant to say that if she had not come to exist . . . it would be necessary to invent Miss Gertrude Stein.'
About the author
Gertrude Stein was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania--a fact she took perverse pleasure in--on February 3, 1874, into a family as vividly unconventional as one might expect of such a free spirit. Her grandparents were German-Jewish immigrants who had prospered in the United States; her parents, beguiled by art, languages, and educational theory, whisked the young Gertrude off to Europe (first to Vienna, then to Paris) as soon as it was safe for an infant to travel. As Stein later wrote: 'So I was five years old when we came back to America having known Austrian German and French French, and now American English, a nice world if there is enough of it, and more or less there always is.' The family's return to the United States was soon marked by yet another exotic migration: they crossed the country by train to settle in Oakland, California.
Although she received a spotty education as a child, Gertrude read voraciously. In the fall of 1893 she followed her brother Leo to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she enrolled in Radcliffe College. English instructors complained of her wayward syntax and made her rewrite papers, but she developed an abiding interest in psychology and became an outstanding pupil of William James, who persuaded her to go on to study medicine at Johns Hopkins. Yet she abandoned medical school in her senior year, claiming she 'could not remember the things that of course the dullest medical student could not forget.' In 1903 she joined her brother in Paris and took up residence in a ground floor flat at 27 rue de Fleurus. 'It was not what France gave you but what it did not take away from you that was important,' Stein later remarked by way of explaining her forty-three-year residence in Paris. Perhaps the most celebrated expatriate of her time, she officiated over a famous salon in the sixth arrondissement that became a mecca for virtually all writers and artists participating in the dawn of modernism in Europe. There she sat like a great Jewish Buddha surrounded by the paintings of Matisse, Picasso, and Braque, while the artists themselves settled at her feet. Likewise, she enjoyed literary friendships with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and other writers who flocked to Paris between the two world wars&mdashand whom she dubbed the 'Lost Generation.'
Stein's own single-minded commitment to forging new forms in literature, as well as her emphasis on the color, sound, and rhythm of words, earned her a unique place in the world of letters. She produced idiosyncratic and experimental poems, plays, 'word-portraits,' and novels-- including Three Lives (1909), Tender Buttons (1915), and The making of Americans (1925)--which admirers hailed as innovations in the use of language. Her famous line- 'A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose'--was endlessly quoted, misquoted, and even ridiculed, yet it kept the name and image of the plump, cropped-hair author firmly before the public. 'My little sentences have gotten under their skins,' she boasted. But of course it was the publication in 1933 of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which F. W. Dupee calls 'one of the best memoirs in American literature,' that forever consolidated her fame.
Stein and Toklas were spending the summer at their country residence near Bilignin in the Rhone valley when World War II broke out in September 1939. They made a hasty overnight trip to Paris to see what could be done about protecting their paintings and then returned to the country 'to await developments.' The two did not leave the region again until the end of 1944, and in her journal, Wars I Have Seen (1945), Stein offered a vivid, moving account of daily life in France during the years of German occupation. With the liberation, she returned to Paris and was grateful to find her valuable art collection had not been vandalized or stolen. Soon American GIs flocked to her apartment on the rue Christine, where she and Toklas had moved before the war. While on vacation in 1946 Stein became seriously ill and was advised to see a specialist immediately; within days she entered the American Hospital at Neuilly to undergo surgery. Gertrude Stein died firmly in character on July 27, 1946, having delivered from her hospital bed a final illustration of her searching wit. 'What is the answer?' she inquired of Alice, and getting no answer said, laughing, 'In that case, what is the question?'
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