It took surprisingly long for word to trickle down to me that Jean Stein has left us (she died April 30, The New York Times reported on it on May 2). It was an apparent suicide; she was 83 and depressed, and she appears to have leaped from her 15 floor Gracie Square apartment. That is a spectacular, melodramatic and flashy end for a famous person; I’m kind of shocked the world isn’t talking about it (but then I’m not so shocked. After all, we’re trying to keep from drowning at the moment. Today, my feeds are full of people trying to prevent the overturning of Obamacare; and planning protests about 45’s visit to NYC today).
I spoke to Stein on the phone once. I applied to be her personal assistant about 10 or 15 years ago. She graciously told me I was overqualified, which was no doubt true, but that’s never a consolation when you badly need a job. She no doubt wanted an intern-slave to do all the drudgery, with no backtalk and no questions asked. Still….ya know…Beckett was Joyce’s assistant. There’s something to be said for taking a turn at somebody’s feet.
Stein’s book Edie (about socialite-model-actress-trendsetter Edie Sedgwick) is on my shortlist of favorite books (along with Helter Skelter and A Night to Remember) which I have read numerous times and will without a doubt read many times again. It’s better described as a job of editing than a job of writing, but the story she and her collaborator George Plimpton tell in this case, is so ripping, riveting and richly eloquent about America, families, art, capitalism, sex, EVERYTHING, that you can’t put it down. Like those other books I mentioned, I tend to read it cover to cover in one sitting, which usually takes several hours…much like, I dunno, watching Warhol’s movie Empire, but if it were fascinating instead of excruciating. My wife is also a big fan; the copy in our home belongs to her.
I was much less enamored of Stein’s most recent book West of Eden, which came out last year. I couldn’t even finish it actually. Whereas Edie seemed the definitive, epic encapsulation of its subject, West of Eden (about Hollywood) seemed to work much harder for less effect, telling numerous somewhat interesting stories where a single story, told in greater depth would have been much more effective. It’s disappointing, because Stein was essentially Hollywood royalty. Her father, Jules Stein, founded MCA, that HUGE talent agency (to tie it into familiar subjects of this blog, Stein’s clients included Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and Frank Sinatra). Jean’s own life was dazzling, as well. She was Elia Kazan’s assistant when he directed Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She had an affair with William Faulkner. She was an editor at The Paris Review and at Grand Street. And she raised two highly accomplished daughters: Katrina vanden Heuvel has been the editor of the leftwing The Nation for many years; Wendy vanden Heuvel is an actress and teacher who worked with the likes of Joe Chaikin and Jerzy Grotowski and is on the board of the 52nd Street Project. There’s a great interview with her here.
So this wasn’t one of those deaths of a person torn from us too soon, a life unlived, of unfulfilled promise. Stein gave the world a lot. Still there is a poeticism about her sudden, horrifying departure. It’s just the sort of thing she would have loved to have written about. It’s just the kind of event one read about in her books.