Sceme4 Magazine | The Steiny Road To Operadom | Karren Lalonde Alenier
Karren LaLonde Alenier

Gertrude Stein Once Loved a Man:
And So Did The Steiny Road Poet

From 1897 to 1901, Gertrude Stein studied medicine at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. My man Jim Rich—I, the Steiny Road Poet, was married to Jim for 17 years—died April 7, 2016, in the Cardiovascular Surgical ICU at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. This alone would not be remarkable for us as native Marylanders living on the border of Washington, DC, but Jim was also born on the fifth anniversary of Stein’s death—July 27, 1946.

Except for a framed copy of Joyce Kilmer’s poem “Trees,” an heirloom coveted by other members of his family, Jim did not grow up with much poetry. However, he had a surprising capacity for metaphor. He asked Steiny to marry him on Valentine’s Day in 1997. He wooed her with such traditional things as roses (yellow and red), trips to San Francisco (where she could conduct research on Stein), and nontraditional objects as the baking potato brought home from an Idaho business trip and on which he penned the word LOVE. The marked potato was a reference to the occasion when Steiny bought, as a joint gift, a stone engraved with the word love for a couple in their swing dance community on the occasion of their wedding. Jim was initially horrified. But much to his surprise, Harry and Nancy adored the stone and kept it in their kitchen for daily viewing and not in their garden which the San Francisco shop had recommended. Steiny exalted in Jim’s potato gift.  Then she, taking her time to observe how caring he was with his loving mother and his exceedingly difficult father, accepted his proposal and so they eloped to Cape May, New Jersey, to stand before the seaside town’s mayor—he was wearing a tie with ducks—on February 14, 1999.

Most Stein aficionados do not know that this woman, “married” to Alice Babette Toklas from 1910 to Stein’s death in 1946, had a love affair in her junior and senior years at Harvard Annex/Radcliffe with a Harvard graduate student named Leon Solomons. While it might have been platonic, Linda Martin-Wagner in “Favored Strangers”: Gertrude Stein and Her Family wrote, “they were intimate enough to disagree: ‘What right have you to talk like god almighty you never succeeded in doing anything. Perhaps not but I have a fighting chance to do a big thing sometimes and that makes it right for me to feel.’” Martin-Wagner also noted, “For at least some of her time at Radcliffe, however, Gertrude considered Solomons as a possible marriage partner. Years later, she wrote about the ‘definite mark’ the older, experienced man had left on her life. By all accounts, Leon was ‘widely read, deeply thoughtful, and enormously stimulating.’” Stein had also compared Solomons with herself: (quoting research from “Favored Strangers”) “both Jewish, both from San Francisco, both Californians who wanted to live a ‘free life in the mountains’ and were distressed to come east with the civilised ones.”


Solomons and Stein co-authorized “Normal Motor Automatism,” a paper based on research they conducted at Harvard and which was published in Psychological Review Vol 3(5) September 1896 (pp. 492-512). This is the paper many scholars, including B.F. Skinner, have mistakenly assessed as Stein’s foray into automatic writing, something Stein herself dismissed. Perhaps the paper might be better understood as a study in habitual behavior, something that William James told Stein would be a barrier to attaining genius.

After Solomons received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1898, he took a teaching position at the University of Wisconsin. Martin -Wagner documents that on February 2, 1900, the day before Stein’s 28th birthday, Solomons died either during or after an operation for cancer. In the fall, James wrote Stein “expressing sorrow over Leon’s ‘untimely and never too much to be regretted death,’ saying, ‘Exactly what he would have done had he lived, it is impossible to say, but it would have been absolutely original…and it might have been very important…. His eagerness, daring, honesty, good spirits, and scorn for all that nonsensical and mendacious in life were glorious.’” Steiny draws your attention, Dear Reader, to the word nonsensical. Stein always maintained her writings were not nonsensical and everything said by James about Solomons could be applied to Stein. One other thing to note is that Stein’s mother died from a female cancer, something male doctors of that time knew little about and often shrugged off as hysterical behavior. Research for “Normal Motor Automatism” dealt with study of hysterical subjects and their subconscious lives.

Something Steiny particularly admired about her man Jim was his ability to change his behavior and reinvent himself or, perhaps better stated, his ability to evolve using all his experience and training in his new pursuit. His number one strength was learning, which matched his all consuming curiosity. Like Stein, he enjoyed forming questions and answers. Jim’s business partner Catherine said he particularly had the courage to ask provocative questions.

Seeing the demise of the print and image world where Jim Rich had enjoyed his minutes of fame as the co-author with Sandy Bozek (now at Apple) of the highly popular Photoshop in Black and White, Jim carefully charted his move to the field of higher education. After undergoing a quadruple-bypass surgery in 2006—heart disease took his beloved mother, uncle, and grandfather—he enrolled at the University of Maryland Baltimore County to get a second master’s degree in instructional design. He already had a master’s in printing technology from the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Steiny would often consult with Jim about printing concepts that repeatedly come up in Stein’s Tender Buttons. And was her Jimbo satisfied that he learned everything he needed to know about instructional design? No, declaring himself a life-long learner, he set his sights on a doctorate at Harvard, working hard to increase his vocabulary and math skills, visiting the campus in Cambridge, cultivating people associated with Stein’s Ivy alma mater. While he wasn’t selected for Harvard (perhaps age was an issue), he continued to achieve and seek innovative solutions to real world problems. He wrote and published two books on re-training professionals in the field of graphic arts, having already published eight other books about imaging technology.

With his business partner Catherine, he won an award in Tbilisi, Georgia, at an International conference that took a real problem posed during the conference by the Ministry of Education in Tbilisi that dealt with educational accreditation. To win, he and Catherine used a performance model developed by Catherine and another of their graduate school colleagues and for which Jim provided a remarkably easy-to-understand visual. Jim was all about delivering answers that were easy to communicate, easy to receive and digest. His approach was very much like Stein using simple Anglo-Saxon words and saying she wanted people to participate in her mode of talking and listening.

Jim also loved networking with Millennials on how best to write software for Online Fluency (the startup company he was working on with Catherine and a third partner) to create a computer program that educators could use to adapt a face-to -face course into a course online. He advised Catherine who was at least 25 years younger than he that she needed to branch out and make friends among the bright-eyed young ones.

At this time Steiny is telling people who know her: “I live at the corner of Jim Rich and poetry.” On these streets of home where Jim Rich once rode motorcycles and horses (he practiced eventing with Olympian horse riders), Steiny has a preposterous vision of Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas riding in Stein’s Model T Ford Godiva. The naked truth is Steiny is very taxed by losing her Jim but the legend of Jimbo, just another story of many and which was born for Steiny in Negril, Jamaica, will live on. Next time you see Steiny ask her about the man in Sav La Mar whom she and Jimbo met at a cockfight who asked if Jim had ever been to Negril. It seems the man worked as a bartender in Negril in the 1980s and remembered my man Jim from a visit over 25 years before.


Now Steiny will hail Gertrude and Alice for a lift.

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Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier

Karren LaLonde Alenier's most recent book is
The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
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©2016 Karren LaLonde Alenier
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May 2016

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