SISTER BROTHER by Brenda Wineapple


Gertrude and Leo Stein
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 Like Wineapple's Genàt: A Biography of Janet Flanner (1989), an impressively researched portrait of American expatriates--in this case, the writer Gertrude Stein (18741946) and her brother Leo (18721947), a pioneering modern art collector. The author begins with the Steins' roots in Baltimore's affluent, cultivated German-Jewish immigrant community. Orphaned before either was 20, the siblings had financial independence, which freed them to concentrate on their intellectual life. Gertrude specialized in psychology at Harvard and nearly attained a medical degree from Johns Hopkins before abandoning it with a shrug. Leo's studies at the same two institutions were less focused, but he was known as an expert on art and opera. In 1902 he led the way to Paris and the famous apartment at 27, rue de Fleurus, which became a showcase for extraordinary paintings and a gathering place for the avant garde. His sister joined him in 1903, and they began collecting works by CÇzanne, Picasso, and Matisse, while Gertrude groped in early writings like Three Lives toward the elliptical prose style that would provide a literary equivalent to the artists she loved. Wineapple makes good use of formidable amounts of material--the Steins apparently committed to paper every mental hiccup--to give vivid impressions of her subjects' characters: Gertrude earthy, gregarious, and domineering; Leo more neurotic, indecisive, and introspective. The author also captures the gossipy, close-knit world they moved in. She does not quite succeed, however, in elucidating the dynamics of the pair's exceptional closeness, nor does her account of their estrangement in 1914 offer much beyond the facts: Alice B. Toklas and the woman who would become Leo's wife drew them apart; the final blow was Leo's failure to appreciate Gertrude's increasingly experimental prose. They died 12 months and two days apart, still not speaking. Thorough and intelligent, but lacking that final spark of empathy that distinguishes a truly exceptional biography. (b&w photos)

Pub Date: April 16th, 1996
ISBN: 0-399-14103-0
Page count: 512pp
Publisher: Putnam
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 1996


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