American author and art collector Gertrude Stein (February 3, 1874 – July 27, 1946) is as celebrated for her distinctive non-narrative, non-linear writing as she is for her legendary, formidable presence. When Alice B. Toklas, the love of Stein’s life, first met the author in 1907, she wrote in her diary:
“She was a golden brown presence, burned by the Tuscan sun and with a golden glint in her warm brown hair. She was dressed in a warm brown corduroy suit. She wore a large round coral brooch and when she talked, very little, or laughed, a good deal, I thought her voice came from this brooch. It was unlike anyone else’s voice — deep, full, velvety, like a great contralto’s, like two voices.”
In 1903, Stein moved to Paris, where her regular Saturday evening salons for expatriate American artists and writers became a mecca of creative and intellectual life, featuring such icons as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and Sherwood Anderson. Works by many of the artists who attended the salons – including Picasso, Renoir, Cézanne, and Matisse – were included in the famed Stein collection.
But it wasn’t until the 1933 publication of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas – which, despite the title, was in fact Stein’s own memoir of her years in Paris – that the author was catapulted into literary fame. Her writing style – usually challenging, frequently polarizing, always provocative – went on to challenge the conventions of the English language, shaking its very skeleton to radically reconstruct the relationship between words and meaning.
On her death bed, Stein asked Toklas, “What is the answer?” Upon receiving no reply, Stein revised: “In that case, what is the question?”
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