Jean Stein

Jean Stein (1934–2017)

American writer, editor, and pioneer of oral histories Jean Stein, best known for her groundbreaking book Edie: American Girl (1982), which chronicled the life of Andy Warhol’s muse Edie Sedgwick, died on Sunday at the age of eighty-three. According to the New York Daily News, the author leapt to her death from the fifteenth floor of her apartment building at 10 Gracie Square in Manhattan.

Born in Los Angeles in 1934, Stein studied at Miss Hewitt’s Classes, a private school on the Upper East Side, before attending Wellesley College. She later traveled to Paris to attend the Sorbonne. While visiting Saint Moritz in 1953, Stein met fellow author William Faulkner. In 1982 she told People Magazine that he “has a great influence on my life.” Stein conducted an interview with the Nobel Prize laureate for the Paris Review, which supposedly helped advance her career as a journalist. She later became a longtime editor of Grand Street magazine.

Commenting on the ten years she spent reporting for her book on Sedgwick, Stein said, “I could have had about three children for the postpartum depressions that hit at different points during this project . . . I first saw Edie in an idealized way—a free spirit, daring. At the end I thought she reveled in being a victim. She was in a sense a projection of all our needs, wishes, and fantasies.”

In 1970, Stein published American Journey: The Times of Robert Kennedy, and in 2016 she wrote West of Eden: An American Place, which documents the lives of five Los Angeles families who influenced the public’s outlook on the city: the Dohenys, the Warners, the Garlands, the Selznicks, and her own family. Her father, Jules Stein, an American physician and businessman, founded Music Corporation of America, a music-booking agency that grew to produce television programs, motion pictures, and music. Recalling her childhood and the endless procession of parties at her home in Beverly Hills, a mansion known as Misty Mountain, Stein wrote: “I had a sense that my world was make-believe.”

In July 2016, Stein teamed up with PEN America to establish two new major literary awards. The PEN/Jean Stein book award recognizes works for their “originality, merit, and impact.” The $75,000 prize is one of the largest literary awards in the United States. In addition, the PEN/Jean Stein Grant for Oral History honors a writer, nominated by a panel of writers, who compiles an oral history that illuminates an event, individual place, or movement.