Gertrude Stein on East Biddle Street
A novelist, playwright, poet, and essayist, Gertrude Stein is remembered as a literary innovator who fearlessly experimented with language in the early twentieth century. Today, Gertrude Stein is still renowned as a magnet for those who would profoundly change art and literature. In 1892, at age 18, newly-orphaned Gertrude and her brother Leo moved to Baltimore. Her experiences in Baltimore paved the way for her later successes, as she wrote in her biting 1925 piece "Business in Baltimore": "Once upon a time, Baltimore was necessary."
The siblings lived briefly with their Aunt Fanny Bachrach in Baltimore before moving to Massachusetts for college. In 1897, the duo truly settled in Baltimore, living at 215 East Biddle Street, marked by the traditional Baltimorean marble front steps. The unique environment of Mount Vernon introduced Stein to a variety of people and perspectives that would influence both her literature and her life.
The Steins' five-bedroom rowhome was luxurious, dictating a certain lifestyle. Like their neighbors, the Steins kept servants. Through her familiarity with the neighborhood servants, who generally were African American women, along with her experience caring for African American patients during clinical rotations, Gertrude developed an understanding of "black language rhythms" and a knack for reaistic characterization of African Americans, both of which later appeared in her writing.
Like their servants, Biddle Street residents also influenced Stein. The gossip that filled the parlors of Biddle Street and the affairs that occurred in the bedrooms above reappeared in several of Stein's works. For instance, Wallis Simpson of 212 East Biddle Street, future Duchess of Windsor, inspired Ida, while Stein's own relationship with May Bookstaver and the ensuing love triangle created by Bookstaver's lover, Mabel Haynes, provided the plot for the novel Q.E.D. as well as the story "Melanctha."
Life in Baltimore influenced more than just Stein's literature. Her experiences, particularly while studying medicine at Johns Hopkins University, prompted her lifelong habit of challenging societal standards. She learned to smoke cigars, confronted sexist professors (thereby earning the nickname "old battle ax"), took up boxing, rejected feminine stereotypes and instead "went flopping around...big and floppy and sandaled and not caring a damn," as one male classmate remembered.
Stein left Baltimore in 1903 after leaving Hopkins following her third year of medical school. However, despite her 39-year absence, Stein claimed Baltimore as her "place of domicile" in her will, as, in her words, she was "born longer [in Baltimore] because after all everybody has to come from somewhere."
Watch our Five Minute Histories video on Stein!