Jean Stein, who died on Sunday in New York, was fiercely private, and her friends respected that line, but speaking openly about this extraordinary person is the only way to describe the selfless presence she had in so many people’s lives.
You can read about Jean’s achievements in the obituaries. She was both literary and social. She worked tirelessly at a listening craft – the interview—and to create a community of people whose ardor and values she admired. In both scenes, she preferred to be anonymous and to watch. In her oral histories, she perfected the art of letting the bastards hang themselves without knowing they had done so. You can read the best of these interviews in her last book, West of Eden— and see what a savage view Jean had of society and its effects on the sensitive.
Socially she was a flower arranger. She sought out independent, radical, and ungovernable people. Her closest friends were creative people who were living life on their own terms. Many were famous. Norman Mailer, Dennis Hopper, John Waters, Diane Keaton, Joan Didion, Kennedy Fraser, Dennis Kucinich, Chris Hedges, Arthur Miller, Robert Scheer, Emma Williams, Tom Hayden, and of course Edward Said—these were some of the people I met at her apartment.
Edward Said in particular: Edward had opened the Middle East to her, and Edward had been punished for his work. There was a room in Jean’s house called the Edward Said room, because he felt so comfortable there, with a frieze in Arabic and a tiled fireplace and a view of Roosevelt Island.
Jean cosseted the people she liked, she was ferociously loyal to them, and she had contempt for those who crossed her lines, whether by thuggery, dishonesty, or toadying. Ambition she admired, but kissing up to power disgusted her. “He’s such a hustler,” she said in that earnest whisper that bore her insights, her eyes wide with the marvel. Or there was the time that a former associate of hers maligned Alex Cockburn’s character in a comment on his death in 2012. At the memorial service, Jean flew up to this man and told him that he should leave. It was unforgivable to her that someone with any malice for Alex would shine around his memorial.
I came to Jean’s attention in 1989 for an accomplishment I’ve been unable to live down: when I trespassed into Bohemian Grove on the Russian River in California for a week and then wrote it up in Spy magazine. It was a delight to Jean to learn the secret rituals of the stuffy Grove; she loved wicked journalism. We became friends, and later she supported this website, because it was transgressive, yes; but more, because it fulfilled the understanding Edward had imparted to her about the conflict, and of her own responsibility for it. Israel offended her on a number of levels. The idea that she must be a member of the Jewish people and therefore stand by Israel, so often expressed in mainstream journals, was the kind of coercive claim that would make her tremble and shoot daggers from those dark eyes, and say nothing. It upset her to think she had gone over there in the late 50s with her dear friend Leonard Bernstein and known so little about what she was celebrating. I used to invite her back; Jerusalem is so beautiful; but she always shook her head with a shudder over the horror of what she would see. It was at her table that I met the human rights crusader Michael Ratner, who said, “Leon Golub said to be a Jewish artist means you don’t talk about Palestinians,” and Jean and I both felt the responsibility that came out of that shadow. When Norman Finkelstein was being persecuted, she made it a point to meet him and express solidarity; we went to Five Broken Cameras together.
Jean supported the work of young Palestinian writers, and she pushed the publication of this excellent children’s book about the siege of Gaza. For all her privilege and glamour, Jean had a keen identification with suffering people, and a pure fear of gangsters, no matter their status. Read the portrait of Lew Wasserman and the Dohenys in her Hollywood book, read about the tragic relationship of Grace and her daughter Jane Garland. Jean had the highest standards about how you should treat someone you loved. She was a great mother but had trouble hearing that, she was so self critical. She also refused to hear praise of her writing. She changed the subject to my bee hives; she always wanted to know, how are the bees doing?
I failed her standards at times, and went into purdah, for half a year once. For being too loud, or crass, or insensitive. But she would relent before too long. In the room with the photograph of Charles Dodgson and Alice, she would reluctantly give me her wisdom on family and literary matters. Today I remember her finding fault in someone for being “militant,” as she said in that whisper. She ran away from militancy. It was tedious, and a breach of her social contract: she honored truth, but she treasured kindness.
Jean suffered herself. She got what Holly Golightly called the mean reds, and avoided company. Last spring she was in that mood and I dropped off a dahlia that my wife had grown. Jean said it was her favorite flower, so decorative, noble and delicate. We’re growing another one now for her.