Today in History – July 27

On July 27, 1946, American avant-garde writer and art connoisseur Gertrude Stein died in France. Her longtime companion, Alice B. Toklas, was at her side. In their last conversation, Stein reportedly questioned Toklas about the meaning of life: “Alice, what is the answer?” When Toklas was unable to reply, Stein queried, “In that case, what was the question?”

[Portrait of Gertrude Stein, with American flag as backdrop]. Carl Van Vechten, photographer, Jan. 4, 1935. Van Vechten Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

Stein was born on February 3, 1874, in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. Her family moved when she was three years old—first to Vienna, then to Paris. They returned to the U.S. and settled in Oakland, California, in 1879. After her parents died, she joined her eldest brother, Michael, in San Francisco in 1891. Next, she moved to Baltimore with her brother, Leo, and sister, Bertha, to live with an aunt. Stein attended the Harvard Annex—the precursor to Radcliffe College, from 1893-97 and then enrolled at Johns Hopkins University Medical School (1897-1901)—but decided not to pursue a medical career. She joined Leo in Paris in 1903.

In Paris, Stein enjoyed a reputation both as a cultural figure and for her circle of friends. She cultivated friendships with Picasso, Henri Matisse, and other experimental painters who frequently gathered for food and conversation at her home.

[Portrait of Alice B. Toklas, Chartres]. Carl Van Vechten, photographer, Oct. 8, 1949. Van Vechten Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

During the 1920s, Stein’s talent for the apt turn-of-phrase and her willingness to mentor others made her Paris salon a gathering place for American expatriates Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Carl Van Vechten, Virgil Thomson, and Archibald MacLeish. Watching these young men struggle to come to terms with World War I’s devastation, Stein observed to Hemingway, “You are all a lost generation.”

Stein’s writing—a fragmented, abstract style intended to capture the moment, was influenced by the Cubist school of art. Her first book was the novel Three Lives (1909). Her second book, Tender Buttons: Objects, Food, Rooms (1914), a poetry collection, exemplified the effect that modern painting had on her writing. Her other influential works include The Making of Americans (1925) and How to Write (1931). Her best seller, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) tells Stein’s life from Toklas’ point of view.

The composer Virgil Thomson scored Stein’s operas, Four Saints in Three Acts (1933) and The Mother of Us All (1947). Based on the life and career of Susan B. Anthony, the latter is described in its foreword as a “pageant” on the theme of winning rights for women in the United States.