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