Gertrude Stein Biography

Gertrude Stein Biography

Gertrude Stein was the inimitable writer at the forefront of literary modernism in the early twentieth century. Although she was an American, ideological and artistic differences with her home country compelled the author to move to France. Further solidifying Stein as an iconoclast was her nearly lifelong relationship with her companion and secretary, Alice B. Toklas. Stylistically, Stein wrote in a stream-of-consciousness manner, a method that attempts to present thoughts as they occur in an uncensored fashion. Poet Judy Grahn has identified six principles at play in one combination or another in Stein’s work: commonality, essence, the “continuous present,” value, play, and transformation. Stein’s most famous and successful work is The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, in which Stein tried to exactly represent the thoughts and feelings of her companion.

Facts and Trivia

  • Many famous authors of the twentieth century revered Stein as one of the most original and thought-provoking writers in history. Among her admirers and friends were Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Sherwood Anderson, and Thornton Wilder.
  • What is so unique about Stein’s stream-of-consciousness writing style? Here is an example from her book The Making of Americans: “Americans are very friendly and very suspicious, that is what Americans are and that is what always upsets the foreigner, who deals with them, they are so friendly how can they be so suspicious they are so suspicious how can they be so friendly but they just are.”
  • During World War I, Stein and Toklas learned how to drive and risked their own lives delivering medical supplies to French hospitals.
  • In 1934, Stein raised a ruckus when some misinterpreted her sarcastic comments in the New York Times about Hitler: “I say that Hitler ought to have the (Nobel) peace prize, because he is removing all the elements of contest and of struggle from Germany....By suppressing Jews...he was ending struggle in Germany.”
  • Stein often had a wry sense of humor. For example, she once said, “I do want to get rich, but I never want to do what there is to do to get rich.”


(History of the World: The 20th Century)
ph_0111206444-Stein.jpg Gertrude Stein. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: A literary innovator, Gertrude Stein captured the dialogue of common people and significantly influenced the writing of post-World War I authors.

Early Life

Born into an affluent family that traded in imported fabrics, Gertrude Stein was the last child of Daniel and Amelia Stein, who vowed to have five children. Gertrude recommended being the youngest child in the family, contending that it saved one considerable bother.

Daniel Stein, having quarreled with his brother and business partner Solomon, took his family to Vienna in 1875, remaining abroad until Gertrude was five. She grew up fluent in French and German as well as English.

In 1880, the Steins moved to Oakland, California, where Gertrude grew up. In 1888, Amelia Stein died, followed by Daniel in 1891. Gertrude’s brother Michael became her legal guardian. Her brother Leo, then nineteen, transferred from the University of California at Berkeley to Harvard. Gertrude followed as soon as she could, entering Radcliffe College (then known as “Harvard Annex”) in 1893 as a special student because she failed the entrance examination.

At Radcliffe, Gertrude studied philosophy and psychology with Harvard professor William James, becoming his star student. She received the bachelor’s degree magna cum laude in 1898. Returning to Baltimore, where much of her family lived, Stein began a medical degree at The Johns Hopkins University in 1897, continuing her studies until 1901, whereupon, although she had succeeded during her first three years as a medical student, she lost interest, failed courses, and left school a few months short of receiving the M.D.

Gertrude Stein’s life took its most significant turn in 1903, when she went to Paris. There she fell in with the sisters Etta and Claribell Cone, textile heiresses who were involved in the art world. Leo came to Paris where he and Gertrude, comfortable from their inheritance, took an apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus. Gertrude lived there until 1937, when the owner reclaimed the apartment for a relative.

On September 8, 1907, Gertrude Stein met Alice Babette Toklas, newly arrived in Paris from San Francisco. From that day until Stein’s death almost forty years later, the two were inseparable. Alice managed Gertrude’s life, keeping house, shopping, cooking, and guarding Gertrude’s privacy so zealously that no one could see Gertrude before passing muster with Toklas.

When interesting people arrived for the weekly salons at 27 rue de Fleurus, Toklas shepherded away the women, whom Gertrude called totally uninteresting, so that Stein could engage their men—including such luminaries as Pablo Picasso, Jo Davidson, Henri Matisse, Juan Gris, Ernest Hemingway, Ford Madox Ford, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thornton Wilder, and Sherwood Anderson—in animated conversation. Stein, who enjoyed husbands, found wives boring. When she toured America in 1934-1935, she stipulated that she would speak to no strictly female audiences.

Life’s Work

Although Leo and Gertrude Stein were not enormously rich, Paris in the early twentieth century offered inexpensive living in a sophisticated European capital. The Steins lived from trust distribution to trust distribution, but after meeting their fixed expenses, they had enough left over to haunt the shops of art dealers and buy paintings that eventually were worth millions: works by Picasso, Matisse, Gris, and others who emerged as the most significant painters of the period.

Gertrude formed close friendships with the artists whose work she collected. Reflecting on the philosophy that underlay much Impressionist and post-Impressionist art, Stein began to transform elements of that aesthetic into a literary theory that determined the course her writing took.

Misunderstood by literary audiences that expected authors to tell their tales directly, presenting largely observable surface realities, Gertrude Stein moved in her own direction. By doing so, she led the way for more than a generation of later writers.

Stein’s was a singularly original mind, given to abstraction. Her undergraduate work in psychology and her subsequent training in medicine helped Stein become attuned to nuances in human behavior—especially in the ways that people use language—that few people perceived.

Just as the artists she admired distorted reality to achieve artistic ends, so did Stein begin to work with language in untried ways. Whereas most people are concerned with words as purveyors of meaning, Stein considered words also as sounds and shapes. That she became concerned with essences is evident in her line from “Sacred Emily” in Tender Buttons (1914), “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”

Hardly a horticultural description of a rose or a visual depiction of the color rose or an insight into a person named Rose, Stein’s sentence forces conscientious readers to nudge into their consciousness all that they know about the word “rose.” Stein plants a seed that she invites readers to cultivate.


(The entire section is 2103 words.)

Gertrude Stein Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

From the time of her arrival in Paris in 1903 until her death in 1946, Stein strove to be a central figure in modern literature. She directed a movement that broke with the past and sought fresh forms of literary expression. A bold explorer of prose, she broke away from the nineteenth century’s reliance on plot, character, and conventional description to demonstrate how awareness and identity could be evoked through simple words. She deliberately chose an unliterary style and emphasized the power of words by arranging them in unusual ways.

Although her autobiographical works about France are best remembered, Stein left her mark on modern literature through her influence on writers such as Hemingway and Anderson. The cadence and artlessness of much contemporary writing echoes her early experiments in modern prose.

Gertrude Stein Biography

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

When Daniel Stein and Amelia Keyser were married in 1864, the seeds of Gertrude Stein’s future independence were sown, for the couple had some unusual ideas about child rearing and family life. Perhaps most psychologically damaging to the children was the parents’ firm decision to have five children—no more and no fewer. Consequently, Gertrude’s beloved older brother Leo and she were conceived only after the deaths of two other Stein children. In Everybody’s Autobiography Stein says that the situation made her and her brother feel “funny.” Knowing that one’s very existence depends on the deaths of others surely would have some psychological effect, and some biographers attribute Stein’s lifelong interest in identity to her knowledge of her parents’ decision about family size.

Daniel Stein was apparently as quarrelsome and independent as his daughter was to become. Having operated a successful cloth and clothing business in Baltimore with his brothers, Daniel and another brother broke up the partnership by moving out to Pittsburgh to open a new business. When Daniel had earned enough money, he moved the family across the Ohio to Allegheny, and it was there that Gertrude Stein was born in 1874. She was the last child the Steins were to have, completing the unit of five children. Michael Stein was the oldest child (born in 1865); Simon was next (1867); then came Bertha (1870) and Leo (1872). When Allegheny was hit with fire and flood, Daniel once again moved the family, this time to Austria, having decided that the older children needed the benefits of a European education.

The family went first to Gemünden and then to Vienna. Although not wealthy, they lived well and were able to afford a nurse, a tutor, a governess, and a full domestic staff. The children were exposed to music and dancing lessons, and they enjoyed all the sights and activities of the upper middle class in Europe at the time. In his concern for the education of his children, Daniel resembled Henry James, whose educational theories also featured the advantages of the European experience to a developing mind. During this period, letters from Amelia and her sister Rachel Keyser, who accompanied the Steins, reveal that the baby was speaking German and experiencing an apparently contented, pampered, and protected infancy.

The roaming continued. In 1878, the family moved to Paris, and Stein got her first view of the city she would later make her home. When the Steins returned to the United States in 1879, they lived at first with the Keyser family in Baltimore, but Daniel was set on living in California. By 1880, the family had relocated to Oakland, where they stayed for some time (until 1891), long enough for the artist to develop an attachment to the place. It was Oakland that Stein always thought of as home.

The unsettled life of the Steins continued with the death of Amelia when the artist was fourteen. Three years later (in 1891), Daniel died, leaving Michael head of the family. He moved the family to San Francisco that year, but by the following year the family was dispersed—Michael and Simon remaining in San Francisco, Gertrude and her sister Bertha going back to Baltimore to live with their mother’s sister, and Leo transferring from the University of California at Berkeley to Harvard. In the fall of 1893, Gertrude Stein herself entered Harvard Annex (later renamed Radcliffe College), thus rejoining the brother to whom she had grown so attached. Their strong bond was to survive into adulthood, being broken only by Gertrude’s lifelong commitment to Alice B. Toklas and her ascendancy in Parisian art circles.

Stein was at Harvard during a wonderful period in that institution’s history. She had the good fortune to study under William James, whose theories of psychology intrigued the young woman and initiated a lifelong interest in questions of personality, identity, and consciousness. Stein’s later attempts to present in her writing awareness of a continuing flux in the present, the immediacy of present existence, and the...

(The entire section is 1672 words.)

Gertrude Stein Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Gertrude Stein was born on February 3, 1874, in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, but she was seven years old before her family settled into permanent residence in Oakland, California, the city she was later to describe as having “no there there.” Her birth itself was contingent on the deaths of two of her five brothers and sisters: Her parents had decided to have only five children, and only after two children had died in infancy were Gertrude and her older brother, Leo, conceived. Identity was to become one of the central preoccupations of her writing career, and the tenuous nature of her own birth greatly influenced that concern.

Stein’s early years were comfortably bourgeois and uneventful. Her father, a vice president...

(The entire section is 1271 words.)

Gertrude Stein Biography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

America made her, Gertrude Stein claimed once, but Paris made her an artist. After her aborted career as a psychiatrist, trained by William James at Harvard, and her first unrequited love for a woman, she followed her brother to France in 1903, always on the search for novelty, change, and education. Her American past still haunted her: Her first book, deeply psychological and immediately successful, was Three Lives. Her most ambitious early project, The Making of Americans, expands her stream-of-consciousness style from the personal to the public: Stein intended to write a history of the human mind through a family saga based on all possible character types.

In the 1920’s and 1930’s, Stein’s...

(The entire section is 332 words.)

Gertrude Stein Biography

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature, Critical Edition)

Author Profile

In 1903, Gertrude Stein moved to France, where she befriended great artists such as Pablo Picasso and inspired writers such as Ernest Hemingway to forge a new American style. Stein wrote the experimental novels Three Lives (1909), a three-part work focusing on women, and The Making of Americans (1925), a family chronicle, and she told her own story in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933). Stein’s most explicitly feminist work is The Mother of Us All (1947), a play about women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony.


Bowers, Jane Palatini. Gertrude Stein. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. A succinct,...

(The entire section is 1139 words.)

Gertrude Stein Biography

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Gertrude Stein was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, on February 3, 1874. Her grandfather, Michael Stein, came from Austria in 1841, married Hanna Seliger, and settled in Baltimore. One of his sons, Daniel, Gertrude’s father, was in the wholesale wool and clothing industry. Daniel was mildly successful and very temperamental. He married Amelia Keyser in 1864 and had five children, Michael (born in 1865), Simon (1867), Bertha (1870), Leo (1872), and Gertrude (1874). In 1875, the family moved to Vienna, and three years later, Daniel returned to the United States, leaving his family for a one-year stay in Paris. In 1879, the family moved back to the United States and spent a year in Baltimore with Amelia Keyser’s family. In 1880,...

(The entire section is 1517 words.)

Gertrude Stein Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Gertrude Stein, who studied psychology under William James (1842-1910) at Harvard University and went to medical school at The Johns Hopkins University, became one of the United States’ most celebrated expatriates. Abandoning her medical studies just months short of graduation, Stein moved to Paris in 1903 and, except for occasional brief visits, she never returned to the United States.

Stein spent her childhood in Europe and until her teens was more comfortable speaking French and German than English. Her parents—Daniel Stein, a businessman who became vice president of the Omnibus Cable Company in San Francisco, and Amelia Keyser Stein—were both dead before Gertrude Stein went east in 1893. Stein left Oakland,...

(The entire section is 678 words.)

Gertrude Stein Biography

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, on February 3, 1874 to Daniel and Amelia (Keyser) Stein, Gertrude Stein became a voice for the avant-garde...

(The entire section is 464 words.)

Gertrude Stein Biography

(Short Stories for Students)

Born on February 3, 1874, in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, Gertrude Stein was the youngest child of upper-middle-class, Jewish-American parents....

(The entire section is 885 words.)

Gertrude Stein Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Gertrude Stein was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, on February 3, 1874, the youngest of five children in a well-to-do Jewish family of German descent. Before she was a year old, her family began a sojourn in Austria and France that would last five years. Stein’s early exposure to the sound of English, German, and French may account for her conviction that words possess a weight and shape of their own.

Her childhood and adolescence were spent in Oakland, California, on a ten-acre farm where she grew up close to nature and the simple domestic objects that would make up the vocabulary of much of her later experimental writing. Her formal education was haphazard, but she read the works of William Shakespeare, Mark...

(The entire section is 1265 words.)