The Baltimore Literary Heritage Project

Gertrude Stein
Gertrude Stein pic
She Wanted to Write the Way Cubists Painted
How had he been in business in Baltimore?
He had been in business before in Baltimore,
he had not been in business before he was in business in Baltimore.
Business in Baltimore is business in Baltimore
and business in Baltimore is this business in Baltimore.
How many more are there in business in Baltimore than there were before?
–from "Business in Baltimore"

Gertrude Stein came to Baltimore because she wanted to be or not to be a doctor. She wasn't a stranger to the city; she had various relatives here. But she moved to Baltimore to Baltimore she moved to Baltimore to attend Johns Hopkins Medical School with plans to become a doctor.

Stein was born in Allegany, Pennsylvania, in 1874, and later moved with her family to Oakland, California. When her parents died (she was 18 at the time), she and her brother Leo came to Baltimore to live with their Aunt Fanny Bachrach and near their extended family.

Even while attending Radcliffe College, she returned frequently to visit that family. After graduating in 1897, she returned to Baltimore once again, this time to attend Johns Hopkins Medical School. She never graduated; having made it to her final year, she found her studies no longer enticing. She also experienced heartbreak in the romance department—which may have cooled her enthusiasm for school.

She moved to Europe with Leo, spending most of the rest of her life in Paris. But her influence in Baltimore continues. During medical school, she had become friends with medical researcher Claribel Cone, who became a well-known specialist in tuberculosis. Stein's friendship with Claribel and her sister Etta would provide great happiness for the Cone sisters and later for the city of Baltimore. Stein taught the Cones to appreciate the works of the French Impressionist painters and introduced them to Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and others. She convinced them to buy Impressionist paintings when everyone else was still buying traditional portraits and landscapes. The Cone sisters amassed and later left to the Baltimore Museum of Art a magnificent collection, including works by Picasso, Matisse, Degas, Monet, and Cassatt.

Many Baltimoreans are probably more familiar with Stein through her association with the Cone sisters-or for the museum's restaurant that bears her name-than through her experimental writing. Among her most widely read works is Three Lives (1909), fictional portraits of three women, including Melanctha, a liberated and intelligent black woman living in Baltimore. This was a rare case, at the time, of a white writer creating a sympathetic portrait of a black woman. What Stein knew of the black community, she may have learned as a medical student in clinical practice, according to a least one source (Cohen, 1984).

Stein remains a controversial figure in literature—possibly because of her openly gay relationship with her secretary, Alice B. Toklas, and her often inaccessible writing style. She once said that she attempted in her writing to parallel the theories of Cubism, emphasizing the present moment and using slightly varied repetitions. She influenced the American and European literary and art scenes in the United States, befriending many emerging writers and artists, including Katherine Anne Porter and Ernest Hemingway (who said that he and Stein were "just like brothers").

Gertrude Stein died in 1946 at age 72 from stomach cancer.

Places of interest: