Pittsburgh is still "there" for Gertrude Stein, and she may even get her own dedicated day of celebration | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Pittsburgh is still "there" for Gertrude Stein, and she may even get her own dedicated day of celebration

Pittsburgh is still "there" for Gertrude Stein, and she may even get her own dedicated day of celebration
Photo by Carl Van Vechten via picryl.com
Gertrude Stein

When the American modernist poet and writer Gertrude Stein died in Paris in 1946, she was buried beneath a block of polished granite in the world’s most visited cemetery, Père Lachaise, not far from the final resting places of Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt, and Frederic Chopin. The text on Stein’s tombstone — simply, “GERTRUDE STEIN,” no epithet, no religious invocation — is as spare and structural, as self-contained (“Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”) as any of her experimental work. But unlike Stein’s careful writings, which she worked over until they were musical in their tautological rhythms, meant to be read aloud at the salons she and her partner of three decades, Alice B. Toklas, held in their Paris apartment almost every Saturday night throughout the 1920s and ‘30s — whoever carved Stein’s gravestone made a mistake in recording her birthplace.

In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein writes, in Toklas’ voice, about herself, “She used to say if she had been really born in California as I wanted her to have been she would never have had the pleasure of seeing the various french [SIC] officials try to write, Allegheny, Pennsylvania.” A line of text along the very bottom of Stein’s headstone reads “ALLEGHANY 3 FEBRUARY 1874-PARIS 29 JULY 1946.”

At the time of Stein’s birth, which took place at 850 Beech Ave. on the North Side neighborhood of Allegheny West, that neighborhood was its own municipality, then called Allegheny. It was established in 1788 and annexed to the city of Pittsburgh in 1907. Was this Parisian stone-carver who etched Stein’s last mark lacking information and literacy in American geography, or perhaps a devoted reader of Stein who wanted to honor her by memorializing this joke in stone?

click to enlarge Pittsburgh is still "there" for Gertrude Stein, and she may even get her own dedicated day of celebration
CP Photo: Mars Johnson
850 Beech Ave., Gertrude Stein's family home on Pittsburgh's North Side
Before the end of 1874, Stein’s parents, Daniel and Amelia, a wealthy couple with real-estate holdings, had left Allegheny with their five children for Oakland, Calif., because of conflict with Stein’s aunt and uncle, who lived next door: “A year before her birth, the two sisters-in-law who had never gotten along any too well were no longer on speaking terms,” Stein wrote in Autobiography.


While Stein never returned to her birthplace, it also never left her; in the 1932 Autobiography, Gertrude Stein as Alice B. Toklas wrote: “Gertrude Stein was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. As I am an ardent Californian and as she spent her youth there I have often begged her to be born in California but she has always remained firmly born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania.”

What did Allegheny mean to Stein? Why bother holding on to it when she had lived so briefly in this place which, strictly speaking, no longer existed? Especially when she eventually became a Californian, and then a Parisian, who almost never returned to the United States between 1903 and her death?

In the book she wrote about her own life, Everybody’s Autobiography (1937), Stein describes her impressions upon returning to Oakland, Calif. during the American book tour: “There is no there there.” Stein was disappointed to find her former home demolished, the landscape changed, the essence of the place she remembered steamrolled by industry and capital — a phenomenon which is now also familiar to many Pittsburgh residents, especially of neighborhoods like East Liberty and Lawrenceville. While Stein saw Oakland become unrecognizable to her, Pittsburgh, which she never visited again, remained unchanged in her imagination, representing to Stein a “somewhere,” a place rich in specifics like her beloved adopted Paris, and so indeed equal to that more famous city, twinned by slant to Pittsburgh on her grave.

In Allegheny Center, much of the "there" is still there, even as it’s under threat of gentrification: Pauline’s Caribbean restaurant on Federal, Gus and Yiayia’s shaved ice cart in Allegheny Commons Park, Randyland on Jackson Street, the lively summer scene at the city pool on the commons and the rare foot traffic and decades-old businesses on East Ohio Street.

click to enlarge Pittsburgh is still "there" for Gertrude Stein, and she may even get her own dedicated day of celebration
CP Photo: Mars Johnson
A plaque at 850 Beech Ave., Gertrude Stein's family home on Pittsburgh's North Side
At 908 Galveston Ave., Arlan Hess runs City Books, a used bookstore that hosts a writing residency. On Feb. 3, Gertrude Stein’s 150th birthday — which North Side city councilor Bobby Wilson is proposing be officially recognized as Gertrude Stein Day — they will be holding, in partnership with the Hugh Lane Foundation, a celebration of the writer and her work. Attendees can expect a short talk from Stein scholar Kathleen Donnelly, as well as refreshments, giveaways, and a walk around the corner to the house in Allegheny where Stein was born, and which, in all her life, she never forgot.

Gertrude Stein Day, Feb. 3, 12-4 p.m., City Books, 908 Galveston Ave. North Side. citybookspgh.com/stein

Cupid's Undie Run in Pittsburgh, 2024
18 images

Cupid's Undie Run in Pittsburgh, 2024

By Mars Johnson