I have explored the Mount Vernon neighborhood of Baltimore a lot since moving to the city eight months ago. After nearly 18 years in Chicago -- a city that sprawls for nearly 230 square miles -- this National Landmark Historic District feels compact, yet grand. Although I grew up in Montgomery County and have never lived in Baltimore, this is a homecoming of sorts. My great-grandparents settled in Baltimore in the mid-19th century, and my father (now 90) grew up here and lives here today. Also, my grandfather’s most famous cousin, Gertrude Stein, made her home in Baltimore while attending medical school.
With this history in mind, I recently made a pilgrimage to 215 E. Biddle Street in Mount Vernon, where Gertrude lived with her brother Leo from 1897 to1900 while she attended Johns Hopkins. According to a recent article in Baltimore Style magazine by Deborah Rudacille, Gertrude “set up housekeeping with her brother Leo. . . at 215 E. Biddle St., near where the future Duchess of Windsor would later reside. A photograph of Stein, age 23, in her study at the house shows a human skull perched atop a tall pile of books glowering at her as she bends over a microscope, absorbed in her work.”
Today the building bears a plaque noting that Gertrude and Leo lived there, and on the quiet afternoon I visited it was easy to imagine her bustling up the marble Victorian steps on a cool spring day to her books inside. It is interesting to visit a site Gertrude Stein occupied before she became an icon, a quietly historical building known only because of what its famous resident went on to achieve. Although Gertrude did not finish her medical training, her keen sense of observation, particularly of the lives of women of various classes and races in Baltimore, formed the basis for her first major (published) work, Three Lives. A collection of three novellas, this book tells the story of two immigrant women and an African American woman living in a mid-sized American port city. This work seems to tell us that Gertrude Stein certainly carried a bit of Baltimore with her to Paris.
-Phoebe Stein Davis
Phoebe Stein Davis is Executive Director of the Maryland Humanities Council.