Lincoln Edward Kirstein was born in Rochester, New York, to Louis E. and Rose Stein Kirstein. His family later moved to Massachusetts. Kirstein’s father was the head of the Boston Public Library. Kirstein’s mother was a daughter of the Stein family, owners of the Stein-Bloch department stores in Rochester. Kirstein attended Phillips Exeter and graduated from the Berkshire School. Upon gaining admission to Harvard, he deferred for a year, starting in 1926, to work a year in the Connick stained-glass factory in Boston. A sequence of short poems in Low Ceiling records his experiences.
As a student at Harvard, Kirstein encountered such teachers as Alfred North Whitehead, whose lectures on metaphysics Kirstein attended. He was not a very dedicated student, but he had a way of absorbing culture and information just by being in conversation with people more learned than he or who had different experiences and backgrounds. He said reading Charles H. Grandgent, who translated Dante for the general reader, was the most important of his academic and literary experiences.
Kirstein formed two arts societies before he graduated from Harvard in 1930. The first was for the literary magazine Hound and Horn, which he edited with Varian Fry, starting in 1927, with its title taken from the poetry of Ezra Pound, and in 1928, he started the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art. Hound and Horn featured writing by many important literary figures, including Ezra Pound, Yvor Winters, and Seán O’Faoláin. It was admired by T. S. Eliot and favorably reviewed in the United States and the United Kingdom.
In 1931, Kirstein moved to Manhattan, and in January, 1934, after persuading choreographer George Balanchine to come to the United States, Kirstein started the School of American Ballet. In 1941, Kirstein married Fidela Cadmus. For the rest of his life, he was among the most prominent figures in the New York performing arts world. Among his civic duties, Kirstien was the chairman of the Pierpont Morgan Library’s Council of Fellows in the late 1950’s and was an avid antique collector, especially of William Shakespeare memorabilia. His correspondence with book and antique dealer George Heywood Hill reveals Kirstein’s sense of humor, his political support of the Civil Rights movement, and his passions and frustrations with the ballet. He died in New York in January, 1996.