Gertrude Stein at Radcliffe: Most Brilliant Women Student

"To live in the world of creation--to get in it and stay in it--to frequent it and to haunt it."--Henry James.

"I wanna be a lion," Gertrude Stein announced to her brother Leo. So she followed him to Cambridge, and, in 1893, registered at the "Harvard Annex." Gertrude Stein has since become legend. Not only did she define the rose, but she influenced such men as Picasso, Matisse, Hemingway.

What manner of woman ignored the provincialism of the 1890's and went to college? Certainly not the timid, nor the average, nor the society conscious, nor the unambitious. Yet Gertrude, even among her brilliant and determined classmates, was somehow different. Later, when she wrote at great length about her life, she always skimmed over the Radcliffe period. "I knew the flexible Mass Stein for twenty years," says Miss Alice Roullier, a former art dealer. "She never mentioned her college days to me."

"She didn't like us and we didn't care for her," says one member of the administration.

Yet William James called her his "most brilliant woman student." And Gertrude Stein herself, in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, remembers "enjoying her life" and "liking it all." The apparent contradiction may arise from the complexity of her mind, from the habit she had of speaking just any old thought. Robert M. Hutchins, former president of the University of Chicago, recently told an anecdote which bears this out. Apparently Miss Stein and friend Alice B. Toklas went to a dinner party where the conversation turned into a Gertrude monlogue. As the guests were leaving. Miss Toklas said, "Gertrude has said things tonight it will take her years to understand."


Gertrude's years began in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, February, 1874. The Steins, a prosperous middle-class couple of German-Jewish descent, planned to have five children. If two babies had not died at birth, Gertrude and her brother Leo might never have been born. From patriarch Daniel, Gertrude inherited an intense philosophical streak, a habit of starting what did not get finished, and the love of a good fight. The mother, whom Gertrude called "little" and "sweet" kept a diary reminiscent of her daughter's long-winded and oversimplified writing.

Gertrude's childhood, while not precisely happy or secure, was not unusual. The Steins took their children abroad for four years, where governesses and tutors worked to give them a European education. Miss Stein remembered having French bread with mutton soup for breakfast and always maintained that Paris got into her blood during that period.

Upon return to America, the family settled in Oakland, California, where the children became thoroughly westernized. Gertrude approved of California because she got "all anybody could want of joyous sweating, of rain and wind, of hunting, of cows and horses and dogs, of chopping wood, of making hay, of dreaming, of lying in a hollow all warm with the sun shining while the wind was howling, of knowing all poor kinds of queer people...."

Gertrude often went in for "poor kinds of queer people," preferring the neighborhood ragamuffins to children with governesses. Perhaps it was at this point in her life that Gertrude was happiest: eating, laughing loudly, crying, playing with little French boys, reading, reading. For this reason she never forgot how to be a child.

Her adolescence, on the other hand, was dismal. It began to matter that she outweighed her contemporaries. As W. G. Rogers says in his book, When you see this remember me Gertrude Stein in person, "The normal adolescent girl, busy with playmates, clothes, parties, school lessons, does not read Wordsworth, Scott, and other poets, a set of Shakespeare with notes, Burns, Congressional Records, encyclopedias; she does not absorb Shakespeare nor pore over Clarissa Harlowe, Fielding, Smollett, and a tremendous amount of history." Strangely, she already feared that there would not be enough books to fill her lifetime.

She described herself as an adolescent, dark skinned and sensuous, alone on a street corner listening to music. Overcome by frustration and melancholy, she muttered, "Books, books. Is there no end to it? Nothing to feed my own empty self but musty books?" Again the contradiction, again the complexity.

Part of this confusion arose from growing pains which separated her from her beloved Leo. Always, Gertrude reminisced, they had been "two together two" in what Leo called "a romance that began when we were toddlers." Because they had been so close, Gertrude felt lost when he went off to Harvard, off to a man's world. Perhaps if Daniel Stein had not died when Gertrude was seventeen, she would have stayed in California. As it was, she wrote, "Life without a father began a very pleasant one." After settling the estate, Bertha, Leo, and Gertrude moved permanently to Baltimore, where they lived with relatives, the Bachrachs. Life in Baltimore agreed with Gertrude. Later she wrote that she became "more humanized and less adolescent and less lonesome in the restful surroundings."

Says Miss Helen Bachrach, a cousin, "Gertrude was an exceedingly attractive buxom young woman of seventeen, quick thinking and speaking, original in ideas and manner, with a capacity of humor so deep that you found yourself laughing at every thing she found amusing, even yourself. Leo made you uncomfortable, you always felt he thought you were ridiculous...Everybody was attracted to Gertrude--men, women and children, our German maids, the Negro laundresses, even casual acquaintances she talked to on long walks we used to take in the country."

Nevertheless, she became restless and bored. Though her formal education had stopped after a year of high school, Gertrude Stein decided she was going to Harvard. Latin was required for entry, and Gertrude knew only German and French. The stories of how this titanic young woman came to be admitted do not agree. In any case, Radcliffe accepted her and she went to live in a Cambridge boarding house, which she described as "interesting and knowing a lot who I had never seen before."

But if Gertrude responded immediately to her challenge, she did complain often and loudly. "The intolerance of these New Englanders is overwhelming!" she exploded. "There is never a curve in all their vocabulary." A true Californian, she spoke of "the New England habit of self-repression, the intense self-consciousness, the morbid fear of letting one's self go."