A remembrance of the late author, who brought Hollywood, Manhattan, the art world, publishing, and the sciences together like perhaps no one else could.
In the midst of trying to come to terms with the heartbreaking news of Jean Stein’s suicide on Sunday, I remember the happy, fun times spent with this remarkable figure in our lives who, in her beguiling, undeniably, unstoppably eccentric way, really was one of a kind. Certainly, I’ve never known anyone quite like Jean. She was extremely cultivated—and yet, for example, whenever we went to the theater or opera together, she would almost invariably fall asleep as soon as the curtain rose. This usually struck me as a wise decision, particularly as I was a drama critic at the time. The lights would go down, the curtain rise—and zzzzzzzzz. After a while, she would awaken and produce a little plastic bag containing tiny little chocolates, and, without a trace of embarrassment, merrily offer to share them!
The point is, Jean knew what she liked. The near secret truth is that she quietly helped to finance the avant-garde theater of the likes of Fiona Shaw and Deborah Warner, launching their award-winning work in America. She was lifelong friends with Peter Brook and his actress-wife, Natasha Parry, while Jean’s second daughter, Wendy, is in turn an actress and an admired producer of avant-garde theater. (Not so incidentally, her eldest daughter, Katrina, is the editor and publisher of The Nation).
I first met Jean via our mutual friend Parry in the early 80s when I was adrift in New York: “See Jean Stein. She’ll help you . . .” An appointment was duly set up to meet her at her home where she lived in customary grandeur in an exclusive building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. (Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer got into one of their fistfights there at one of her parties; they had to be reluctantly separated.)
This is another thing about Jean: her great pleasure in life was to connect all the famous figures she knew to one another—and even to far, far lesser mortals like me.
She was smart, she was brainily well-read, she was tough if need be—look out!—and if you were fortunate enough to sit at her dinner table, you could meet practically anyone who was anyone in, for a start, the writing game (among her coterie: Joan Didion, Jules Feiffer, Gore Vidal in more loftily witty mood, or, to my delight, John Waters, wickedest and funniest company of them all).
Then again, in her deliberate mashup of unlikely meetings at her dining table, where her chef and confidant, the trusty Paul, offered four courses of something simple on a printed menu, you could meet figures in academe (the dashing Edward Said, whom Jean adored), in politics (her first husband, William vanden Heuvel, a favorite of Robert F. Kennedy, served as a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations); the sciences (her gregarious second husband, Torsten Wiesel—their marriage lasted 12 years until 2007—was a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine). Plus, there were all the internationally known visual artists she had known for years. To the surprise of some, Jean had such a discerning eye for the shock of the new that she was knowledgeable enough about art and sculpture and photography to curate her own unparalleled, classic modern art collection. She didn’t show it off. It was just there, enviably on the walls of her penthouse on Gracie Square.
Here’s a story I just heard from one of her closest friends of some 20 years till the end: when he was first invited to one of her dinner parties, he had yet to be awarded his Nobel laureate, in the sciences. A self-effacing man, who’s famously unknown to the public, he prefers anonymity in the telling: “I was delayed at the lab and when I arrived for the dinner everyone had just been seated and I could see one empty chair. So I sat down in it quickly and the man to my left very politely introduced himself. ‘How do you do,’ he said. ‘I’m Robert Rauschenberg.’ Then the man to my right turned to me and said, ‘How do you do. I’m Merce Cunningham . . .’ ” And that was the start of his beautiful friendship with Jean Stein. He adds this key observation about her: “I came to realize that all these famous artists she knew wanted to be around her. They weren’t the sort of people to waste their time. You see, they loved her.”