Wednesday, June 08, 2011

The Summer of Gertrude Stein 2: The Making of Parisians

The Daniel Stein family in Europe. Left to right: Simon, Daniel, Michael, Amelia, Leo, Bertha; foreground: Gertrude with doll. (Gertrude Stein Collection, Yale University)

Gertrude Stein's father Daniel emigrated from Bavaria to Baltimore in 1841 when he was nine years old with his parents and five brothers. His father Michael opened Stein Brothers Clothiers in 1846 shortly before his death, when his sons took over its successful management. In 1862, Daniel and his brother Solomon moved to Pittsburgh where they opened up a branch of the store, and in 1864 the 32-year-old Daniel married the 22-year-old Amelia Keyser, taking her away to Pennsylvania from her large, prosperous Baltimore family.

According to Linda Wagner-Martin's Favored Strangers biography of the Stein clan, "Daniel Stein's personal history is a fabric of stories about his unpredictable behavior; for example, his brother Solomon saw his role in the business as winning back the customers Daniel regularly drove away. After his children were born, Daniel threw his considerable energy into schemes for manipulating the five of them to succeed." There was a financial divorce between the two brothers in 1874, and Daniel packed up his brood and moved them to Vienna, Austria "so that the children could learn German and French in childhood."

The Stein children in Vienna with their governess and tutor. Left to right: Getrude, Bertha, Simon, Michael, with Leo on the floor. (Gertrude Stein Collection, Yale University)

Michael Stein was the leader of the children's group, followed by simpleminded Simon and bossy Bertha. Amelia then had two miscarriages followed by the successful births of her two youngest, Leo and Gertrude the baby. In 1878, with Daniel back in the United States, Amelia "decided that living in Paris would be more interesting than staying on in Austria." Daniel returned to Europe and packed off his brood back to Baltimore, which was their resting place before Daniel decided to make his fortune on street railroad development in San Francisco, and so the family packed up again in 1880 and made the transcontinental rail journey to California.

According to Wagner-Martin, "Daniel was now far from wealthy and chose to live in East Oakland, a bedroom community...which claimed to be 'the most healthful city on the continent.' " Gertrude loved it. "Until then, the Stein children had lived a hotel childhood, having to be well dressed for meals and outings. Just doing the girls' curls had taken much of each morning. Living on their California hilltop turned Gertrude into a thorough tomboy, as her exuberant description suggested: "The sun was always shining...Sunday meant sunshine and pleasant lying on the grass with a gentle wind blowing...It meant the full satisfied sense of being stuffed up with eating, it meant sunshine and joking, it meant laughing and fooling, it meant warm evenings and running."

The father, who was investing in real estate and working with the Omnibus Railroad & Cable Company in San Francisco, was a problem, however. "They knew that polite children deferred to authority, yet their authority figure was not only unpredictable; he was often simply mean. Leo remembered his disappointment when Daniel did not buy him a promised treat after he had a tooth pulled. When he confronted Daniel about the broken promise, his father said he had been waiting for Leo to ask for the treat; by not asking, Leo had forfeited the reward." The situation became worse when their mother Amelia went through a four-year illness that ended with her death in 1888 from stomach cancer, and they were stuck with the mean old man as their only parent.

In a lucky stroke of fate for the children, Daniel Stein didn't come to breakfast one morning in 1891, so Leo "climbed up onto the roof and through his father's bedroom window...After a lifetime of wishing his father dead, of leading his life to avoid conflicts with him, Leo got his wish. Not yet sixty, Daniel Stein was dead."

Michael, the eldest son, was faced with an inheritance that was mostly a pile of debts, so with a much more winning personality he realized his father's dream of combining the eight rail lines in San Francisco into one, and sold the idea to Collis P. Huntington, one of the Big Four railway barons. "In 1893, the great consolidation of the cable railroads was effected, and in 1895 Huntington hired Mike to work for him as division superintendent of the Market Street Railway Company. In the interim, Mike invested money from the deal in real estate. Just past the turn of the century, he built a block of duplexes in a new residential area on Lyon Street. Designed by Arthur Matthews, the houses were shingled, comfortable, stylish. The concept was new to San Francisco, and each unit brought a good rental."

Michael also decided it was time for his younger siblings to get out from under his wing. Simon remained in San Francisco working occasionally as a cable-car gripman until his death in 1917 "from the consequences of his obesity," but Bertha, Leo and Gertrude were sent to live with relatives in Baltimore in 1892. The eighteen-year-old Gertrude later wrote, "Then our life without a father began a very pleasant one."

Michael married Sarah (Sally) Samuels the next year, and they moved to 1118 O'Farrell Street (near Van Ness), which according to Wagner-Martin, "marked them as upwardly mobile though not yet a part of what Sally called the 'Jewish money aristocracy.' O'Farrell was a German-Jewish neighborhood; the Levys and the Levinsons (Harriet Levy's and Alice Toklas' families) lived nearby."

Gertrude and Leo Stein on the tennis court in Cambridge, Massachusetts(Gertrude Stein Collection, Yale University)

The two youngest, book-devouring, intellectual Stein children, Leo and Gertrude, were best friends for the first half of their lives. (The second half is an entirely different story but that's for the next installment.) Leo was a sophomore at UC Berkeley when he was sent east by Michael, and he soon enrolled at Harvard. Gertrude became lonely in Baltimore without him, and though she enjoyed her huge collection of aunts, she didn't appreciate the constant matchmaking attempts to find her a good Jewish husband. So she joined Leo in Cambridge and enrolled in the Harvard Annex, which a few years later was renamed Radcliffe. She had a wonderful time at the university and forged a special relationship with the professor William James, author of Principles of Psychology and The Varieties of Religious Experience.

Leo and Gertrude graduated from Harvard in 1898 (she with a degree in philosophy) and moved on to Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore. Leo shined in his science courses but was too squeamish and neurotic to deal with the lab courses, so after two years he announced he was moving to Italy to study art. Gertrude had a more difficult time of it, dealing with institutional sexism at the school, and then falling madly in love with a recent Bryn Mawr graduate named May Bookstaver. The relationship was about as messy as can be, complicated by May being "still in a kind of financial and emotional bondage to Mabel Haynes, her companion of many years." The love affair broke up and Gertrude, hating Johns Hopkins Medical School, didn't bother graduating.

Bachrach Studio, Gertrude Stein, c. 1903. Courtesy of the Therese Erhman Papers, The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

After touring Europe with her brother Leo during the summer for a number of years, Gertrude realized it would be easier to stretch her allowance from her brother Michael on the Continent than it would be to stay in America. In 1903, she moved to Paris where Leo had settled, and they shared living quarters at the soon to be famous 27, rue de Fleurus.

Meanwhile, according to Wagner-Martin: "During the 1902 San Francisco streetcar operators' strike, Mike finding himself on the side of workers rather than of management, he realized that he should change occupations or perhaps even do what he had long dreamed of doing, leave the world of business. Careful planning enabled him to invest so that the resulting income, augmented by rents from the duplexes, would provide a modest living for his family and for Gertrude, Simon, and Leo." Bertha meanwhile had married well in Baltimore, and demanded a cash payout for her inheritance.

"In December 1903, Mike, Sally, Allan [their son], and Therese Jelenko, a teenage neighbor who taught Allan piano, arrived in Paris." They were reunited with Leo and Gertrude (above left flanking Allan) and eventually installed themselves at 58, rue Madame. Both households started buying modern art, eventually holding weekly Saturday salons to show off and explain their collection, and for the next two decades they became the nexus of art history in Paris, which was the center of the Western artistic world.

More to come.

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