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Gertrude Stein (1874-1946)
by Janice Albert

Picasso's 1906 portrait of Gertrude Stein hangs in the Museum of Modern
Art, New York City.

When Virginia Woolf wrote that to develop her mind and talent, a person required a room of one’s own, she was not speaking of the American middle-class ideal of giving every child her own room. She was speaking of privacy and leisure, two elusive qualities that can accompany life graced with money. Leisure and privacy, plus talent and inclination are a powerful quartet, and they were the making of the writer Gertrude Stein.

Stein, the youngest of five children, was living in Oakland, California, when her mother died in 1888, Three years later, her father’s death left the children orphans, but her father’s fortune, managed by her oldest brother, guaranteed her leisure for the next forty years.

When Stein left Oakland to live with relatives in Baltimore, she was a young woman who was already cultivating the mind of a writer. She had developed a prodigious reading habit, fed by her mother’s books and trips to the Oakland Public Library.

Her father, after exposing his children to life in Europe, returned the family to the West Coast and decreed that they were to stop speaking French and German, and instead concentrate on their English, which he wanted to be flawless. Gertrude Stein recalls a composition of hers being chosen by her teacher at Franklin School to be posted on the wall, and this may have been the germ of her sense of herself as a writer.

She followed her brother Leo to Massachusetts and enrolled at Radcliff, met the philosopher William James, started toward a degree in medicine, and then abruptly withdrew. After a period of restlessness and travel, at the age of 29, she settled with brother Leo in Paris, where she lived the rest of her life.

Her father’s legacy had assured her leisure, but what about her privacy? Early in her college career, Stein realized she had fallen in love with another young woman. She wrote of this unhappy relationship in a traditional novel Q.E.D., which she did not publish. Other works of hers, including the voluminous story of her family The Making of Americans were published at Stein’s own expense. Indeed, she had no commercial success until she wrote her own life story through the persona of her companion Alice B. Toklas. While she might have published Q.E.D., she chose not to, thus preserving a kind of privacy for herself that was reinforced by her life as an ex-patriate. While her life as a “Bohemian” was widely discussed, she did not call attention to herself as a lesbian or as a Jew, which has been used to explain her survival in occupied France during WWII.

Stein became known for an experimental style which broke abruptly with the traditions of nineteenth century literature in English. This was the age of experimentation, and writers everywhere came to value The New almost for its own sake. e.e.cummings dropped conventional capitalization and punctuation, asking his readers to treat his lines as something to be heard rather than seen. Ernest Hemingway threw out the florid language of the Victorian novel and substituted a vocabulary which was terse, exact, and muscular. D. H. Lawrence turned to psychoanalytic theory to motivate his characters, creating men and women who saved themselves by finding their sexuality rather than rejecting it. These qualities and others, summarized today under the term Modernism, give Stein’s writing its historical importance.
In the thirties, her inherited income began to fail, and she was persuaded to write The Autobiography of Alice B.

oklas. Toklas, by the way, is a native Californian whose home in San Francisco was destroyed in the fire following the earthquake of 1906. She and Stein met in 1907 and considered themselves married by the next year. The autobiography tells the story of Stein’s coming to Paris, meeting the young Picasso with whom she became lifelong friends, as well as living through WWI and its aftermath. The book became a best-seller and Stein was invited to the United States to lecture and read. (The commercial success of the book caused Stein to feel that her writing had become somehow tainted.) She arrived, in 1934, and made her way across the United States, speaking to students and literary followers in all the major cities. She came, inevitably, to California where she was met by Gertrude Atherton. An outspoken feminist, Atherton, age 77, was the reigning queen of San Francisco’s literary life. As a younger woman, her portrait in an off-the-shoulder gown has been included in a mural celebrating San Francisco in the Clift Hotel. Now she was hosting Gertrude Stein, age 60, whose tweeds and short haircut evoked a frank masculinity. On April 12 Stein lectured at Mills College and on the next day visited her old neighborhood in Oakland. Reminiscing about her visit, she wrote the line which deeply wounded every Oaklander to this day, “There is no there, there.”

Of course, what she meant, as most Oaklanders hasten to explain, is that the Oakland of her youth no longer existed. Over twelve years, Stein had lived at three locations: the Tubbs Hotel, East 12th Street between 4th and 5th Avenues; a house on ten acres of land at 25th Street and 13th Avenue; and a residence on 10th Avenue. But the Tubbs Hotel had burned down, the house on the ten acres had been razed and the ten acres subdivided. Only the house numbered 1324 and renumbered 1640 remained. That house is occupied today after a fearful remodeling that removed every Victorian feature and left it clad in deathless yellow siding. There being no garage, the front yard is paved over to allow for the parking of three or four cars. Across the street, elegantly restored Victorians hint at what the neighborhood once was. Franklin School, one block away, has been rebuilt in the low, rambling model of the 1950s. Only at Mountain View cemetery, in the Jewish section to the left, can a visitor find the original headstone of her parents, Amelia and Daniel Stein, buried in 1888 and 1891, respectively.

The death of Stein's parents in Oakland caused Gertrude to leave the
West Coast.

While literary sites connected with Stein are withering in Oakland, her memory is green. On a trip to the Oakland Public Library to research this article, I asked the librarian in the History Room for information. Before he could get a word out, one of the library’s volunteers came forward and began to talk about Stein. He knew about her Oakland past, had visited her apartment in Paris, her gravesite at Pere Lachaise, and could speak about the impoverished widowhood of her companion, Alice B. Toklas. Earlier this spring, I had attended a performance of the Oakland Opera Theater, presenting “Three Sisters Who Are Not Sisters,” by Ned Rorem, lyrics by Gertrude Stein. This multiracial cast of young people brought beauty and wit to the operetta as well as a song cycle which appeared through out the afternoon. The lyrics were— “I am Rose, my eyes are blue. I am Rose, and who are you? I am Rose and when I sing, I am Rose like anything!” In performance, the words which can seem like nonsense on the printed page were transparent and playful, capable of many whimsical interpretations.

Finally, a developer in Oakland who has been going through the downtown restoring and renovating older buildings keeps Stein’s memory alive through his triumphant banners. As each building is completed, he flies a green flag that states emphatically “There!”

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