November 1935 portrait of Gertrude Stein by Carl Van Vechten.

Gertrude Stein (February 3, 1874 – July 27, 1946) was an American writer who became an important figure in the modernist movement. She spent most of her life in France.

In 1903, Gertrude Stein moved to Paris during the height of artistic creativity gathering in Montparnasse. She lived there with her brother Leo until 1914. Both were interested in art, and acquired one of the earliest collections of modern art by painters such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, André Derain, Georges Braque, and Juan Gris. This led to friendships with some of these artists, such as Picasso and Matisse, and attracted other artists and writers from the avant garde, such as the poet, dramatist, critic, journalist Guillaume Apollinaire.

Stein's writing often reflects the impressionist style of these artists, using language to create sensory impressions rather than providing clear narrative structures. Stein believed that this was a more effective way to convey ideas through language. For example, Stein remarked about her famous sentence, "Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose" that in that sentence "...the rose was red for the first time in the English language." One of Stein's most significant influences was painter Paul Cézanne, whose work some critics have said inspired Stein's "equality" of language, both in a political and linguistic sense.

She also cultivated friendships with writers such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, Ezra Pound, and Thornton Wilder.

Stein began to explore her sexuality in writings such as the novel Q.E.D. (Quod Erat Demonstratum), which explored lesbian relationships she had had. "Miss Furr and Miss Skeene" (or "Helen Furr and Georgine Skeene") may have been the first time the word "gay" appeared in print to describe same sex relationships.[1] It contained the word gay over one hundred times. Critics denounced not only her lesbianism, but the unconventional language. For example, composer Constant Lambert said of the line "[E]veryday they were gay there, they were regularly gay there everyday", that the "effect would be equally appreciated by someone with no knowledge of English whatsoever."

The experimentation Stein employed influenced her literary friends, such as Hemingway and Anderson. In the 1922 introduction of her Geography and Plays, Anderson wrote of Stein:

For me the work of Gertrude Stein consists in a rebuilding, an entirely new recasting of life, in the city of words. Here is one artist who has been able to accept ridicule, who has even forgone the privilege of writing the great American novel, uplifting our English speaking stage, and wearing the bays of the great poets to go live among the little housekeeping words, the swaggering bullying street-corner words, the honest working, money saving words and all the other forgotten and neglected citizens of the sacred and half forgotten city.

Tender Buttons: objects, food, rooms is a lengthy 1914 poem that celebrates lesbian sexuality and employs various linguistic experiments such as the wordplay in puns on "box" and "cow." Words are also used differently than their accepted dictionary definitions. Stein felt that these words had lost their efficacy and ability to communicate, so she instead drew upon their etymologies and syllabic impressions to give them new meanings.

The themes and non-traditional style led feminist thinkers to declare that Stein had dismantled and rebuilt patriarchal language, serving as a model of how to separate themselves from oppressive traditions.

Stein met her lifelong partner, Alice B. Toklas, on September 8, 1907. Toklas often served as a literary inspiration--such as in Stein's work The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (published 1933). It is written about Stein's life through the perspective of Toklas, conveying her way of thinking and her private opinions about Stein. The work remains frustratingly difficult to categorize--is it biography, autobiography, or fiction? This was another example of how Stein challenged aesthetic tradition.

In 1914, Stein's friendship with her brother fell apart and he left their apartment. Tolkas then moved in. Toklas helped Stein with many of her writings by typing out what Stein had written in longhand. During World War I, the two of them volunteered to drive supplies to French hospitals. The French government later honored their activities. Stein and Toklas, both of Jewish descent, escaped persecution during World War II, due to both being known as Americans rather than Jews and the protection of Nazi collaborator Bernard Faÿ. Prior to World War II, she made a sarcastic statement in New York Times Magazine (May 6, 1934) that Adolf Hitler should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. "I say that Hitler ought to have the peace prize, because he is removing all the elements of contest and of struggle from Germany. By driving out the Jews and the democratic and Left element, he is driving out everything that conduces to activity. That means peace ... By suppressing Jews ... he was ending struggle in Germany." Stein was later to comment on Hilter, Mussolini, and Roosevelt: "There is too much fathering going on just now and there is no doubt about it fathers are depressing" (Blackner 1995).

After the war, Gertrude's status in Paris grew when she was visited by many young American soldiers. She died at the age of 72 from stomach cancer in Neuilly-sur-Seine on July 27, 1946, and was interred in Paris in the Père Lachaise cemetery.

In one account by Toklas, when Stein was being wheeled into the operating room for surgery on her stomach, she asked Toklas, "What is the answer?" When Toklas did not answer, Stein said, "In that case, what is the question?"[2]

Stein named writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten as her literary executor, and he helped to usher into print works of hers which remained unpublished at the time of her death. A monument to Stein stands on the Upper Terrace of Bryant Park, New York.


  1. Blackmer, Corrine E. "Gertrude Stein" in Summers, Claude J. (1995). The Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage. ISBN 0805050094.
  2. Someone Says Yes to It: Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and "The Making of the Americans"; Janet Malcolm; The New Yorker, June 13 & 20, 2005; p.148-165 see p.164 for another description that Toklas gave of Stein's last words: "What is the question and before I could speak she went on--If there is no question then there is no answer".

Further reading

  • Grahn, Judy (1989). Really Reading Gertrude Stein: A Selected Anthology with essays by Judy Grahn. Freedom, California: The Crossing Press. ISBN 0-89594-380-8.

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