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'FAVORED STRANGERS' by Linda Wagner-Martin


Gertrude Stein and Her Family

by Linda Wagner-Martin

Pub Date: July 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-8135-2169-6
Publisher: Rutgers Univ.

 An amiable and perhaps charitable portrait of the self- proclaimed grandmother of the modern movement. Although it's impossible to write a life of Gertrude Stein (18741946) without mentioning her famous Paris salon and her many well-known friends, Wagner-Martin (Telling Women's Lives, 1994, etc.) does an excellent job here of downplaying those more hackneyed aspects of Stein's existence. The author instead focuses on Stein's complex personality and relationships, especially those with her immediate family members and her longtime partner, Alice B. Toklas. The author begins with Stein's early years as the youngest of five children in an upwardly mobile American- Jewish family in Oakland, Calif.; her time abroad as a very young girl; the early trauma of her mother's death from cancer; and her father's domineering personality. By age 16, Stein was an orphan, and she looked to her eldest sibling, Michael, as a surrogate parent. Michael was a pillar of financial and emotional security for the family--especially the two youngest, Leo and Gertrude. After several years in school in the east, Gertrude and Leo--and later Michael and wife Sally--moved to Paris, where they became collectors of avant-garde art and artists. Stein began writing and, in 1907, met Toklas--two events that were catalysts in her breakup with Leo. Wagner-Martin describes the split well but cannot adequately explain how the formerly inseparable siblings could have had no contact for the last 25 years of their lives. Nor does she fully elucidate Stein's complex relationship with Toklas, or why the two Jewish Americans remained in Vichy France during WW II. The author does convey well, however, Stein's near-obsessive need for recognition and fame--or gloire--which she finally achieved, in 1933, with The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Not the innovative work the author claims, but clear, lively, and comprehensive.