Remembering Jean Stein
Author and editor Jean Stein led a life of letters and ideas that ranged from her recent study of mid-20th century Los Angeles to her classic take on model Edie Sedgwick to her tenure at the helm of the Paris Review and, later, the magazine Grand Street.
Stein’s own story came to a close Sunday. As the Los Angeles Times and other news outlets reported, Stein, 83, jumped that morning from a 15-story building in Manhattan. A spokesperson for The Nation magazine, which is headed by Stein’s daughter, Editor and Publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel, also confirmed Stein’s death.
Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer relayed memories of his decades-long friendship with Stein to the L.A. Times, recalling her character and her clout in literary circles that were frequented by some tough customers:
“She had the respect of the heavy hitters,” he said, “people who weren’t interested in the small talk — people like Joan Didion, Jules Feiffer. It was a circle of people who were very tough and demanding. …”
Scheer described events that featured a wild cross pollination of cultural figures.
“I was in her house with Black Panthers and Leonard Bernstein,” he said, “people who escaped from the Soviet Union and people critical of the American government. …”
It would be a mistake to dismiss Stein as a rich girl with a bohemian streak, Scheer said. …
“They were the best part of the Hollywood world,” he said. “They weren’t the brat pack. They wanted to give back to the world. They really studied at those great schools they were sent to. She really took things seriously.”
“She didn’t suffer fools,” he adds. “And when I was a fool, she didn’t suffer me.”
Stein was born in Los Angeles and saw a unique side of the city growing up as the daughter of Jules Stein, founder of the Music Corporation of America (MCA Inc.), who launched his business in the music industry and later became a major force in the film world.
He figured prominently in Stein’s most recent book, “West of Eden: An American Place.” Judith Freeman wrote glowingly of the end result in a 2016 L.A. Times review:
As with her previous book, “Edie,” about Andy Warhol’s muse, Stein’s method is to construct a narrative entirely from oral interviews, an approach that lends the book a kind of Rashomon quality: The subjects are viewed from various angles by those who either knew them intimately or are well equipped to comment on their lives. We feel, as readers, that we are listening to voices more than reading a text. It’s like being at an insider’s cocktail party where the most delicious gossip about the rich and powerful is being dished by smart people, such as Gore Vidal, Joan Didion, Arthur Miller and Dennis Hopper. The result is a mesmerizing book.
Stein’s authorial heft was also evident in “Edie: American Girl,” edited with George Plimpton, and “American Journey: The Times of Robert Kennedy,” her 1970 debut.
Stein is survived by her two daughters, Katrina and Wendy vanden Heuvel. Like many of the people whose lives she chronicled, she was an American original, and her loss is deeply felt at Truthdig.
Read the Paris Review’s tribute to and archive on Stein here.
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