“I know I am” (Burnett 51). This response form Gertrude Stein was given in answer to the question “You think you are a genius?” posed to her by the French artist Henri Matisse. This was the epitome of Stein.
Born in 1876, in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, Gertrude was the fifth child, and youngest, to Daniel and Amelia Stein, German-Jewish immigrants. She was a bright girl, but was noted for “her lifelong indifference to rules” (Gombar 41), especially in school. The early death of her mother was the cause of this. Her father was the king of his castle, often acting as a tyrant, and Stein “credited her lifelong aversion to all authorities and father figures” (Gombar 41) to him.
Gertrude always had a close relationship to her older brother, Leo. They were fast friends throughout their childhood, and into their adulthood. Though she had completed few years of high school, and did not meet the requirements in Latin, when Leo attended Harvard in 1892, Gertrude followed in 1893, in the women’s Harvard Annex. While at Harvard, she was taken under the wing of noted psychoanalyst, William James. James had an effect on Stein’s later writings as well. His method of “automatic writing, in which subjects wrote down their unedited, free-associative thoughts” (Gombar 42), was often the way Gertrude wrote many of her literary pieces.
In 1897, she was denied her bachelor’s degree, but the next year, she graduated magna cum laude with the class of 1898. Because of high recommendations from James and her other professors, she was granted admission to Johns Hopkins Medical School, where her brother was also studying. They lived together in Baltimore, and Leo would gather friends on the weekends for their infamous salons. Leo, from his familiar post leaning against the bookcase, would direct discussions that lasted five to six hours. Life was pleasant in their household, and Gertrude failed to notice Leo was changing. Within weeks, he was packed and on his way to Europe. For a while, Gertrude lived with another roommate, but she, too, got restless, and in 1903, she joined Leo in Europe.
After traveling in Europe and Africa, she settled with Leo in France. Their apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus was soon filled with paintings by the new Modernists, such as Pablo Picasso, Paul Cezanne, and Henri Matisse. Being among the first to accept the Modernist paintings, Gertrude and Leo became friends with the artists.