It was probably in 1930 that Gertrude Stein wrote the story "How She Bowed to Her Brother", which records a chance meeting in a Paris street: "If she were walking along. She would be. She would not. Bow to her brother. If she were riding. Along. She would. Be. She would ..." And so on, in the fractured, repetitious style that Gertrude considered appropriate for the genius of the Stein family, the literary counterpart to Matisse and Picasso. As usual, the starting-point from which this lava flowed - erupted, bubbled, spurted, gushed - was an incident in the writer's own life, some 10 years earlier.
The brother bowed to was Leo, two years her senior, who had been her closest companion for roughly the first 40 years of her life. The youngest of five surviving children of a German-Jewish industrialist in Pittsburgh (and later East Oakland, California) they grew up, according to their biographer, in the knowledge that they would probably not have been conceived had their parents not lost two other children in infancy. Then it was the children who lost their parents: their mother to cancer in 1888, when Gertrude was 14, and their overbearing father, suddenly, three years later. The oldest brother, Michael, became head of the family and managed their father's business interests so successfully that none of them ever had to work. Gertrude followed Leo east to Harvard, where they both fell under the influence of the psychologist William James. She embarked on an academic career that ended in an abortive attempt to qualify as a doctor, and remained convinced that she knew about psychology (she would develop her own taxonomy of personality types, according to which Picasso was "a Bazarov" - from the nihilistic character in Turgenev's Fathers and Sons - "with a dirty sexual bottom" though "bottom", disappointingly, seems here to refer to the lower of two levels on the Steinian personality scale). Leo cultivated a rather more productive interest in aesthetics, and eventually underwent successful psychoanalysis.
Brenda Wineapple is particularly good at describing the Steins' background in the cultured German-Jewish community, as well as the pleasures and prejudices that Leo and Gertrude encountered at Harvard. The anti-semitism of the Anglo-Saxon majority was casual and pervasive, like its hostility to women. It is not surprising, perhaps, that Gertrude espoused some of its values, just as she and Leo were later to admire the anti-semitic, anti-homosexual writings of Otto Weininger, the homosexual, Jewish author of Sex and Character; but while Weininger's answer to the hated parts of himself would be suicide, Gertrude took refuge in a sense of her own singularity. She argued that "the ideal of maternity is the only one worthy for [the American woman] to hold" and that women's intelligence, though probably superior to that of men, was not practical; only a few, very rare, exceptions should be allowed to deviate from their proper function and participate in the masculine world. She had to believe herself one of these exceptions.
Wineapple gives tantalisingly few details about Gertrude's own homosexuality. Both Gertrude and Leo grew up feeling that they had things to hide about their natures. In many other ways, they were contrasting or complementary: Gertrude was heavily-built, Leo was thin, would go on long fasts and suffered throughout his life from digestive problems. He was secretive and reclusive, while she sought the limelight. It was his judgement, however, that allowed them to create a superb collection of modern paintings, including key works by Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso. They were the patrons and friends of the Parisian artistic elite in the period before the First World War and an important feature of the intellectual scene up to the time of the New York Armory Show of 1913, which brought the European avant-garde to America just as Gertrude was starting to make a name for herself. Leo, much respected by the artists of this avant-garde, gets his due here.
Why did they fall out? Gertrude was by this time deeply involved with Alice Toklas and Leo had started an affair with his future wife, Nina. Neither sibling liked the other's choice of partner. Gertrude was an admirer of Picasso and Braque's first Cubist experiments, while Leo understood Picasso less and less. The usual explanation is that in the end Gertrude would fall out with everyone, and Leo's turn had come; but the breach was as much the responsibility of the placid Leo as of his easily outraged sister. Perhaps 40 years together was simply enough for them both.
After 1915, they never spoke again, though both lived for another 30 years. The incident related in "How She Bowed to Her Brother" was probably their last encounter. Leo eventually published a couple of books on art, dying just as he was getting his first good reviews. Gertrude became the centre of a largely expatriate literary salon (she didn't like reading French, according to Hemingway), and wrote on, unburdened by any excessive sense of humour or irony. Not surprisingly, there is scarcely a hint of a laugh in Wineapple's book, the product of meticulous research and a qualified affection for both its subjects; but the personal and social conflicts that the Steins had to confront are still relevant now, and so are their earnest responses to them.
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