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.

5 Facts About Edgar Allan Poe on His 210th Birthday

You’ve read Edgar Allan Poe’s terrifying stories. You can quote "The Raven." But how well do you know the writer’s quirky sense of humor and code-cracking abilities? Let’s take a look at a few  things you might not know about the acclaimed author, who was born 210 years ago today.

1. He was the original balloon boy.

You probably remember 2009’s infamous “Balloon Boy” hoax. Turns out the Heene family that perpetrated that fraud weren’t even being entirely original in their attempt at attention-grabbing. They were actually cribbing from Poe.

In 1844 Poe cooked up a similar aviation hoax in the pages of the New York Sun. The horror master cranked out a phony news item describing how a Mr. Monck Mason had flown a balloon flying machine called Victoria from England to Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina in just 75 hours. According to Poe’s story, the balloon had also hauled seven passengers across the ocean.

No balloonist had ever crossed the Atlantic before, so this story quickly became a huge deal. Complete transatlantic travel in just three days? How exciting! Readers actually queued up outside the Sun’s headquarters to get their mitts on a copy of the day’s historic paper.

Poe’s report on the balloon was chock full of technical details. He devoted a whole paragraph to explaining how the balloon was filled with coal gas rather than “the more expensive and inconvenient hydrogen.” He listed the balloon’s equipment, which included “cordage, barometers, telescopes, barrels containing provision for a fortnight, water-casks, cloaks, carpet-bags, and various other indispensable matters, including a coffee-warmer, contrived for warming coffee by means of slack-lime, so as to dispense altogether with fire, if it should be judged prudent to do so.” He also included hundreds of words of excerpts from the passengers’ journals.

The only catch to Poe’s story was that it was entirely fictitious. The Sun’s editors quickly wised up to Poe’s hoax, and two days later they posted an understated retraction that noted, “We are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous.”

2. He dabbled in cryptography.

If you’ve read Poe’s story “The Gold-Bug,” you probably know that he had a working knowledge of cryptography. But you might not know that Poe was actually a pretty darn good cryptographer in his own right.

Poe’s first notable code-cracking began in 1839. He sent out a call for readers of his Philadelphia newspaper to send him encoded messages that he could decipher. Poe would then puzzle over the secret messages for hours. He published the results of his work in a wildly popular recurring feature. Poe also liked to toss his own codes out there to keep readers busy. Some of the codes were so difficult that Poe professed utter amazement when even a single reader would crack them.

Poe was so confident in his abilities as a cryptographer that he approached the Tyler administration in 1841 with an offer to work as a government code cracker. He modestly promised, “Nothing intelligible can be written which, with time, I cannot decipher.” Apparently there weren’t any openings for him, though.

3. The "Allan" came later.

It would sound odd to just say “Edgar Poe,” but the famous “Allan” wasn’t originally part of the writer’s name. Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809 to professional actors, but his early childhood was fairly rotten. When Poe was just two years old, his father abandoned the family—leaving the toddler's mother, Elizabeth, to raise Edgar and his two siblings. Not long after that, Elizabeth died of tuberculosis.

Poe actually had a little luck at that point. John and Frances Allan, a well-to-do Richmond family, took the boy in and provided for his education. Although the Allans never formally adopted Poe, he added their surname to his own name.

Like a lot of Poe’s fiction, his story with the Allans didn't have a particularly happy ending. Poe and John Allan grew increasingly distant during the boy’s teenage years, and after Poe left for the University of Virginia, he and Allan became estranged. (Apparently the root of these problems involved Poe’s tendency to gamble away whatever money Allan sent him to subsidize his studies.)

4. He had a nemesis.

Like a lot of writers, Poe had a rival. His was the poet, critic, and editor Rufus Griswold. Although Griswold had included Poe’s work in his 1842 anthology The Poets and Poetry of America, Poe held an extremely low opinion of Griswold’s intellect and literary integrity. Poe published an essay blasting Griswold’s selections for the anthology, and their rivalry began.

Things really heated up when Griswold succeeded Poe as the editor of Graham’s Magazine at a higher salary than Poe had been pulling in. Poe began publicly lambasting Griswold’s motivations; he even went so far as to claim that Griswold was something of a literary homer who puffed up New England poets.

Poe might have had a point about Griswold’s critical eye, but Griswold had the good fortune to outlive Poe. After Poe died, Griswold penned a mean-spirited obituary in which he stated that the writer’s death “will startle many, but few will be grieved by it” and generally portrayed Poe as an unhinged maniac.

Slamming a guy in his obituary is pretty low, but Griswold was just getting warmed up. He convinced Poe’s aunt, Maria Clemm, to make him Poe’s literary executor. Griswold then published a biography of Poe that made him out to be a drug-addled drunk, all while keeping the profits from a posthumous edition of Poe’s work.

5. His death was a mystery worth of his writing.

In 1849 Poe left New York for a visit to Richmond, but he never made it that far south. Instead, Poe turned up in front of a Baltimore bar deliriously raving and wearing clothes that didn’t fit. Passersby rushed Poe to the hospital, but he died a few days later without being able to explain what happened to him.

Poe’s rumored causes of death were “cerebral inflammation” and “congestion of the brain,” which were polite euphemisms for alcohol poisoning. Modern scholars don’t totally buy this explanation, though. The characterization of Poe as a raging drunk mostly comes from Griswold’s posthumous smear campaign, and his incoherent state of mind may have been the result of rabies or syphilis.

Some Poe fans subscribe to a more sinister theory about the writer’s death, though. They think he may have fallen victim to “cooping,” a sordid 19th century political practice. Gangs of political thugs would round up homeless or weak men and hold them captive in a safe place called a “coop” right before a major election. On election day—and there was an election in Baltimore on October 3, 1849, the day Poe was found—the gangs would then drug or beat the hostages before taking them around to vote at multiple polling places.

This story sounds like something straight out of Poe’s own writing, but it might actually be true. Poe’s crummy physical state and delirium would be consistent with a victim of cooping, and the ill-fitting clothes jibe with gangs’ practice of making their hostages change clothes so they could cast multiple votes. With no real evidence either way, though, Poe’s death remains one of literature’s most fascinating mysteries.

This post originally appeared in 2011.

This Test Will Tell You How Many Books You Can Read in a Year

iStock.com/elenaleonova
iStock.com/elenaleonova

It's tempting to compare yourself to others when pursuing a reading goal. According to the Pew Research Center, the average person in the U.S. reads about 12 books per year—but that number won't help you if you read at a different pace than the average American. To figure out how many books you should read in a year, Lenstore has come up with a test that measures your individual reading skills.

To start, click on the test below and read the passages that pop up at your natural reading speed. Once you've finished, you'll be asked a few questions about the reading to prove you understood it.

Lenstore gave the test to 1600 people and found that the average participant took 101 seconds to complete the passage. If a person reads for 30 minutes a day at that speed, they can get through 33 books a year (assuming book lengths average out to 90,000 words). Speedy readers who blast through the passage in 60 seconds can read 55 books in a year with 30 minutes of daily reading time—which comes out to just over one book a week.

If half an hour of reading a day sounds overly optimistic, you can see how your book goal would change based on your reading schedule. Lenstore also shows you how long it would take to read specific books based on your reading speed. They give examples of long reads that require many hours of commitment, like War and Peace, as well as quick books like The Color Purple.

After taking the test, check out our list of the best books of 2018 for some suggestions of what to read next.

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