12 Facts About Gertrude Stein

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Born near Pittsburgh in 1874, American writer Gertrude Stein left a profound mark on 20th-century modernism through her literary work and her enthusiastic patronage of avant-garde art. From her salon at 27 rue de Fleurus on Paris’s Left Bank, Stein discovered and supported some of the greatest figures in modern art and literature, including Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Ezra Pound, Max Jacob, and Guillaume Apollinaire. She also wrote the modernist literary landmark The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Read on for more facts about her idiosyncratic life.

1. SHE STUDIED PSYCHOLOGY WITH WILLIAM JAMES.

From 1893 to 1898, Stein attended Radcliffe College, which was then an annex of Harvard University. She developed an interest in psychology and took courses taught by William James (brother of the novelist Henry James), now known as the father of American psychology. Under James’s supervision, Stein researched normal motor automatism [PDF], a behavior believed to occur when people divide their conscious attention between two simultaneous activities. Critics have suggested that her interest in consciousness and attention influenced her later experiments in repetition, a hallmark of her modernist writing.

According to the Harvard Crimson, Stein and James were often of the same mind. "Dear Professor James,” she wrote on an exam that she didn’t want to take, “I am sorry but really I don't feel a bit like an examination paper in philosophy today.” The next day she received a reply from James: “Dear Miss Stein, I understand perfectly how you feel. I often feel exactly that way myself.” He gave her the highest grade in the class.

2. SHE PLANNED TO BE A DOCTOR.

After Radcliffe, Stein enrolled in Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore after taking a summer course in embryology at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. In the beginning, she excelled in her studies. According to science journalist Deborah Rudacille, Stein earned top marks in “anatomy, pathology, bacteriology, pharmacology, and toxicology” [PDF]. She also formed close friendships with the few other female medical students and got along well with her professors. But in her third and fourth years at Johns Hopkins, institutional sexism and professional barriers led to disillusionment. Stein didn’t graduate, and instead followed her brother Leo to Paris, where he was already collecting art.

3. SHE MAY HAVE PRESIDED OVER THE FIRST MODERN ART MUSEUM.

Stein moved in with her brother at 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris’s sixth arrondissement in 1903. From then until 1914, the apartment was a mecca for artists of the modernist avant-garde. The two siblings collected paintings by the well-known artists Delacroix, Cézanne, Renoir, Manet, Gauguin, and Toulouse-Lautrec. But they also bought works by unknown painters that would later be viewed as masterpieces, including early Cubist paintings by Picasso, Georges Braque, and Juan Gris, and Expressionist pictures by Henri Matisse.

A 1968 article in The New York Times credited the Steins with forming the “first modern art museum” with their collection: Paintings hung on every wall in the apartment and Picasso sketches lined their dining room’s double doors. Braque, the tallest of the salon’s habitués, was usually given the task of hanging pictures.

4. PICASSO’S PORTRAIT OF STEIN LOOKS NOTHING LIKE HER.

Pablo Picasso started to work on a portrait of Stein shortly after their first meeting in 1905. The oil-on-canvas painting, completed in 1906, is considered one of the most important works of his Rose Period. Stein later complained that it took between 80 and 90 sittings for the Spanish master to achieve his vision of her, which is now part of the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Picasso was more interested in capturing Stein’s personality than her actual looks. Her figure is represented by minimal shapes and her mask-like face foreshadows his experiments in Cubism. Many who saw the final product said it didn’t look at all like Stein, but Picasso was confident in his work and unafraid of insulting his patron. He allegedly replied, “Never mind, in the end she will manage to look just like it.”

5. SHE DIDN’T LET HER TERRIBLE DRIVING STOP HER FROM CONTRIBUTING TO THE WAR EFFORT.

Neither Stein nor her partner, Alice B. Toklas, knew how to drive a car. But when they volunteered for the American Fund for the French Wounded, an organization that helped soldiers in France during World War I, they had to provide and drive their own supply vehicles. The couple ordered a Ford truck from the U.S. and Stein took driving lessons from her friend William Edwards Cook. She and Toklas would drive for miles to bring supplies to French hospitals (although Virginia Scharff, in her book Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age, wrote that Stein never really mastered the art of driving in reverse).

The open-topped two-seat vehicle was nicknamed “Auntie” after Stein’s aunt Pauline, “who always behaved admirably in emergencies and behaved fairly well most of the time if she was properly flattered,” Stein later wrote in her 1933 bestseller, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Thanks to their volunteer work, Stein and Toklas were awarded the Médaille de la Reconnaissance Française, a honor given to civilians as a token of the French government’s gratitude.

6. SHE PROBABLY HELPED HEMINGWAY WRITE A FAREWELL TO ARMS.

Stein met Hemingway in 1922 through the American novelist Sherwood Anderson. The pair initially hit it off. Stein took Hemingway under her wing and allegedly helped him rewrite his memoir of the First World War, which would later become A Farewell to Arms. The following year, Hemingway asked her to be the godmother of his son, Jack “Bumby” Hemingway.

But the relationship between the two writers grew bitter after Hemingway insulted Anderson in print. In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway looks back at his time in Paris and provides unflattering descriptions of Stein. At one point he overhears an argument between Stein and Toklas that enrages him. Afterward, he kept ties with her but was never again friends “in his heart.” In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein refers to Hemingway as “yellow ... just like the flat-boat men on the Mississippi River as described by Mark Twain.”

7. SHE PRACTICED IMMERSIVE WRITING.

Many critics compared Stein’s repetitive writing style to Cubism, and she often said she wanted to do with words what visual artists were doing with paint and canvas. Some of her writing techniques resembled those of painters en plein air. In her immersive writing sessions, Stein would venture outdoors and write exclusively about the surrounding landscape. In fact, her 1930 novel Lucy Church Amiably was completed to the sound of streams and waterfalls.

American poet and novelist Bravig Imbs once ran into a session in which Stein and Toklas were out in a field with Toklas leading a cow around with a stick. She would stop when instructed by Stein, who would then rush to write down her thoughts in her notebook.

8. WHITE STANDARD POODLES WERE HER FAVORITE DOGS.

Stein’s first commercial literary success came with the 1933 publication of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas [PDF], Stein’s fictionalized biography of her own life through the eyes of her partner. While the book details their friendships with Picasso, Matisse, Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, and other modernist luminaries in Paris, the couple’s white standard poodle Basket also makes a prominent cameo.

Stein was extremely devoted to Basket: She used to bathe the dog in sulphur water every morning to keep his coat white and shiny. Toklas also brushed Basket’s teeth with his very own toothbrush. He was so well known among the cognoscenti that he was photographed by Man Ray and Cecil Beaton.

“Basket although now he is a large unwieldy poodle, still will get up on Gertrude Stein's lap and stay there,” Stein wrote (as Toklas) in The Autobiography. “She says that listening to the rhythm of his water drinking made her recognize the difference between sentences and paragraphs, that paragraphs are emotional and that sentences are not.” When Basket died in 1937, the couple bought another standard white poodle and named him Basket II.

9. SHE FOLLOWED A STRICT DAILY SCHEDULE.

Basket’s daily bath was not the only morning routine at 27 rue du Fleurus. According to an account by American composer and critic Virgil Thomson, Stein would spend the early part of her day reading, writing letters, playing with the dog, and eventually getting dressed. After lunch she would drive her car around town and do errands. She would never make appointments or have visitors before 4 p.m.

Stein’s writing time was the only thing that was not scheduled. She would wait for the “readiness to write” to reach its peak before she started working.

10. SHE REALLY LOVED NICKNAMES.

A collection of love letters published long after Stein’s and Toklas’s deaths revealed a range of affectionate nicknames that the two women called each other. Stein dubbed Toklas “baby precious” or “wifey” while Toklas referred to Stein as her “husband” or “Mr. Cuddle-Wuddle.”

But Stein’s passion for nicknames was not limited to her immediate family. In 1913 she met American critic and photographer Carl Van Vechten, who would later become her American agent and promoter. The two invented a fictional family unit, the Woojums. Van Vechten was Papa Woojums, Toklas was Mama Woojums, and Stein, the genius at the center of the relationship, was Baby Woojums.

11. SHE DISCUSSED CINEMA WITH CHARLIE CHAPLIN.

In October 1934, after an absence of 30 years, Stein and Toklas returned to the United States to embark on a six-month lecture tour. Stein was, by then, known as a brilliant but inscrutable writer, and curious reporters greeted their ship expecting her to speak the way she wrote. An electric sign in Times Square screamed "Gertrude Stein Has Arrived."

Stein was invited to meet with high profile figures like Eleanor Roosevelt and Charlie Chaplin as the tour wound through 23 states. She met Chaplin at a dinner party in Los Angeles, and both would describe their chat in their respective autobiographies. “She would like to see me in a movie,” Chaplin wrote, “just walking up the street and turning a corner, then another corner, and another.”

The actor interpreted Stein’s suggestion as a cinematic representation of her famous phrase, “a rose is a rose is a rose.” He gave her a nod in his 1952 film Limelight, in a scene where the protagonist says, “the meaning of anything is merely other words for the same thing. After all, a rose is a rose is a rose. That’s not bad. It should be quoted.”

12. SHE WAS THE FIRST AMERICAN WOMAN TO HAVE A PUBLIC STATUE IN NEW YORK CITY.

When Stein died in France in 1946, she was buried in Paris’s Cimitière du Père Lachaise, which also hosts the remains of Oscar Wilde, Frédéric Chopin, Édith Piaf, Amedeo Modigliani, Jim Morrison, and other deceased notables. After Toklas’s death in 1967, the last of their collection—38 paintings by Picasso and nine by Gris—were sold by Stein’s heirs in 1968 for about $6.8 million.

In 1992, a life-size granite statue of her was erected in New York’s Bryant Park—the first of an actual American woman in the city.

Where Did the Phrase 'Red Herring' Come From?

iStock.com/Mathias Darmell
iStock.com/Mathias Darmell

You may have seen a red herring in a recent book or movie, but you probably only realized it after the fact. These misleading clues are designed to trick you into drawing an incorrect conclusion, and they're a popular ploy among storytellers of all stripes.

If you've seen or read the Harry Potter series—and really, who hasn’t?—then you may recall some of the many instances where J.K. Rowling employed this literary device. That endearing plot twist about the nature of Snape's character, for example, is likely one of the longest-running red herrings ever written.

Sometimes they aren't even subtle. Agatha Christie's murder mystery And Then There Were None directly mentions red herring in reference to a character's death, and a statue of a red herring appears in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Perhaps most blatantly, a character in the cartoon A Pup Named Scooby-Doo who was constantly being blamed for myriad crimes was named—you guessed it—Red Herring.

But where does this literary device come from, and why is it named after a fish? For a bit of background: herring are naturally a silvery hue, but they turn reddish-brown when they're smoked. Long before refrigerators were invented, this was done to preserve the fish for months at a time. They can also be pretty smelly. As Gizmodo's io9 blog points out, it was believed that red herring were dragged against the ground to help train hounds to sniff out prey in the 17th century. Another theory was that escaped prisoners used the fish to cover their tracks and confuse the dogs that tailed them.

However, io9 notes that red herring were actually used to train horses rather than dogs, and only if the preferred choice—a dead cat—wasn't available. The idea was that the horses would get used to following the scent trail, which in turn would make them less likely to get spooked while "following the hounds amid the noise and bustle of a fox hunt," notes British etymologist and writer Michael Quinion, who researched the origin of the phrase red herring.

The actual origin of the figurative sense of the phrase can be traced back to the early 1800s. Around this time, English journalist William Cobbett wrote a presumably fictional story about how he had used red herring as a boy to throw hounds off the scent of a hare. He elaborated on this anecdote and used it to criticize some of his fellow journalists. "He used the story as a metaphor to decry the press, which had allowed itself to be misled by false information about a supposed defeat of Napoleon," Quinion writes in a blog. "This caused them to take their attention off important domestic matters."

According to Quinion, an extended version of this story was printed in 1833, and the idiom spread from there. Although many people are more familiar with red herrings in pop culture, they also crop up in political spheres and debates of all kinds. Robert J. Gula, the author of Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language, defines a red herring as "a detail or remark inserted into a discussion, either intentionally or unintentionally, that sidetracks the discussion."

The goal is to distract the listener or opponent from the original topic, and it's considered a type of flawed reasoning—or, more fancifully, a logical fallacy. This application of red herring seems to be more in line with its original usage, but as Quinion notes: "This does nothing to change the sense of red herring, of course: it's been for too long a fixed part of our vocabulary for it to change. But at least we now know its origin. Another obscure etymology has been nailed down."

8 Facts About Shel Silverstein

Shel Silverstein was a multi-talented children’s author, comic artist, poet, playwright, and songwriter, and above all else, a rule-breaker. From The Giving Tree to Where the Sidewalk Ends, his titles are beloved by children and adults alike. At the time they were written, though, they defied common notions about what a "children’s" story could and should be. This isn’t all that surprising, considering that the Chicago-born author, who passed away in 1999, led a pretty unconventional life. Here are eight things you might not know about him.

1. One of Shel Silverstein's first jobs was selling hot dogs in Chicago.

Shel Silverstein didn’t always want to be a writer, or even a cartoonist or songwriter. His first love was baseball. "When I was a kid—12, 14, around there—I would much rather have been a good baseball player or a hit with the girls," he once said in an interview. "But I couldn’t play ball, I couldn’t dance. Luckily, the girls didn’t want me; not much I could do about that. So I started to draw and to write.” The closest he came to his MLB dream was when he landed a stint at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, selling hot dogs to White Sox fans.

2. Silverstein never finished college.

Silverstein was expelled from one school (the University of Illinois) and dropped out of another (the School of the Art Institute of Chicago). Finally, he managed to get through three years of the English program at Chicago's Roosevelt University, but his studies came to an abrupt end when he was drafted in 1953.

3. Silverstein was a Korean War veteran.

In the 1950s, Silverstein was drafted into the U.S. armed service. While he was stationed in Korea and Japan, he also worked as a cartoonist for the military publication Stars and Stripes. It was his first big cartooning gig. "For a guy of my age and with my limited experience to suddenly have to turn out cartoons on a day-to-day deadline deadline, the job was enormous,'' Silverstein told Stars and Stripes in a 1969 interview.

4. Silverstein worked for Playboy magazine and was Part of Hugh Hefner's inner circle.

That’s right: the lovable children’s author was on Playboy’s payroll for many years. He started drawing comics for the men’s magazine in the 1950s and ended up becoming close friends with Hugh Hefner. In fact, he often spent weeks or even months at the Playboy Mansion, where he wrote some of his books. His cartoons for the magazine proved so popular that Playboy sent him around the world to find the humor in places like London, Paris, North Africa, and Moscow during the Cold War. Perhaps his most off-color assignment, though, was visiting a nudist camp in New Jersey. These drawings were compiled in the 2007 book Playboy's Silverstein Around the World, which includes a foreword from Hefner.

5. Silverstein wrote Johnny Cash's hit song "A Boy Named Sue."

Few people know that Silverstein was a songwriter, too. One of his biggest hits was the comical tale of a boy who learned how to defend himself after being relentlessly bullied for his feminine-sounding name, Sue. The song was popularized by Johnny Cash and ended up being his top-selling single, while Silverstein was awarded a Grammy for Best Country Song. You can watch Silverstein strumming the guitar and shouting the lyrics alongside Cash on The Johnny Cash Show in the video above. Silverstein also wrote a follow-up song from the dad’s point of view, The Father of a Boy Named Sue, but it didn't take off the way the original did.

6. Silverstein is in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Three years after his death, Silverstein was inducted posthumously into this exclusive society of songwriters. He wrote more than 800 songs throughout his career, some of which were quite raunchy. But his best-known songs were performed by country legends like Loretta Lynn and Waylon Jennings. “His compositions were instantly identifiable, filled with elevated wordplay and captivating, humor-filled narratives,” the Nashville Songwriters Foundation said of Silverstein's music.

7. Silverstein wrote the first children’s book to appear on The New York Times best sellerS list.

A Light in the Attic (1981) was the first children’s book to ever make it onto the prestigious New York Times Best Sellers list. It remained there for a whopping 182 weeks, breaking all of the previous records for hardcover books at that time.

8. Silverstein wasn't a fan of happy endings.

If you couldn’t already tell by The Giving Tree’s sad conclusion, Silverstein didn’t believe in giving his stories happy endings. He felt that doing so would alienate his young readers. "The child asks why I don't have this happiness thing you're telling me about, and comes to think when his joy stops that he has failed, that it won't come back,” the author said in a 1978 interview. This turned out to be a risky move, and The Giving Tree was rejected several times for being too sad or too unconventional. Fortunately, after four years of searching for a publisher, it found a home at HarperCollins (then Harper & Row) and has gone on to become one of the best-selling—and most beloved—children's books of all time.

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