Jean Stein, the literary editor and author known for producing engrossing oral histories on topics as disparate as the tumultuous life of an Andy Warhol acolyte and the dastardly intrigues of early Hollywood, died April 30 in New York. She was 83.
Her death was confirmed by a representative of the Nation magazine in New York City, where Ms. Stein’s daughter, Katrina vanden Heuvel, serves as editor and publisher.
The representative did not reveal the cause of death, but a New York City police official said that Ms. Stein had jumped to her death from the 15th floor of a Manhattan tower.
Robert Scheer, a Los Angeles journalist and editor of the political website Truthdig, who had known Ms. Stein since the 1960s, said she was “pretty depressed” recently. “We were all worried.”
But even in shock, he recalled a small, soft-spoken woman who harbored an incredibly sharp mind.
Her 2016 book “West of Eden: An American Place,” her most recent oral history, tracked the development of Hollywood and Southern California through the lives of five powerful Los Angeles families, such as the Warners and the Dohenys — individuals for whom roadways and movie studios have been named.
It also included a section on her own family: the Steins. Her father, Jules Stein, was the co-founder of Music Corp. of America. She too was a member of Hollywood royalty.
“West of Eden” had been well-received by critics.
Reviewer Judith Freeman, in the Los Angeles Times, described it as “compulsively readable, capturing not just a vibrant part of the history of Los Angeles . . . but also the real drama of this town, as reflected in the lives of some of its most powerful players.”
Over her lifetime, Ms. Stein also produced two other oral histories in collaboration with journalist and editor George Plimpton, who served as editor on some of her projects.
This included her debut oral history “American Journey: The Times of Robert Kennedy,” published in 1971 after she rode Kennedy’s funeral train from New York to Washington. Eleven years later she published the international bestseller “Edie: An American Biography,” about the life of socialite bohemian actress Edie Sedgwick, who often hung out at Andy Warhol’s studio in New York and whose life ended in a drug overdose.
Ms. Stein’s interviews were thorough and relentless. For “Edie,” which didn’t just capture Sedgwick’s life, but the entire New York artistic milieu of the 1960s, Ms. Stein spent a decade interviewing subjects — returning to some individuals as many as 15 times.
Independent book critic David Ulin said the oral histories are “eye-opening” for the ways the ways in which they played with the conventions of story-telling.
“The thing about that form is that it brings together all of those voices,” he said. “The form allows for a breadth you wouldn’t otherwise get. It can’t help but become a multi-personality collage.”
“When the ‘Edie’ book came out, I read the book even though I wasn’t overly interested in Edie Sedgwick,” he added. “I’d written Sedgwick off as this superficial person, but the human portrait is so incredible.”
Ms. Stein was born in Los Angeles , the eldest daughter of Jules Stein and Doris Babette Oppenheimer. She was raised in a majestic Beverly Hills mansion on Angelo Drive that overlooked the home of the late silent screen star Rudolph Valentino.
She and her siblings (a sister and two stepbrothers) were raised by her strong-willed parents and a strict German governess. She later attended the Katherine Branson School in the Bay Area — now known as the Branson School — a place that Ms. Stein later described as being “located between San Quentin and Alcatraz.”
She also attended a private school in Switzerland, followed by a stint at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. But she dropped out to move to Paris and study at the Sorbonne, a move that would lead her to a life in letters.
It was in Paris that she met Plimpton and by the mid-1950s was working at the Paris Review, where she interviewed figures such as novelist William Faulkner (with whom she also had a romantic dalliance).
By the end of that decade she had landed back in New York City, where she worked as an assistant to Clay Felker, the features editor at Esquire and who would ultimately go on to found New York magazine.
Ms. Stein had married attorney William vanden Heuvel, who became an assistant to then-Attorney Gen. Robert F. Kennedy. After Kennedy’s assassination, the mournful ride on his funeral train to Washington inspired Ms. Stein’s first oral history — which she structured in parallel with the journey by train. The New Yorker called the book “serious, credible, and even beautiful.”
She and vanden Heuvel had two daughters: Katrina vanden Heuvel and Wendy vanden Heuvel, a film and stage actress. The couple later divorced. Ms. Stein got remarried in the mid-1990s to Torsten Wiesel, a Nobel Prize-winning neurophysiologist. That marriage also ended in divorce. Ms. Stein is survived by her two daughters.
During her decades in New York, Ms. Stein was known for hosting regular salons in her Manhattan apartment.
Scheer described events that featured a wild cross pollination of cultural figures.
“I was in her house with Black Panthers and Leonard Bernstein,” he said, “people who escaped from the Soviet Union and people critical of the American government.”
From 1990 until 2004, Ms. Stein edited the literary journal Grand Street, known for combining the literary high-brow (work by, say, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet John Ashbery) with the more popular (an interview with actor Dennis Hopper, whom Ms. Stein counted as a friend).
She was regarded as the rare cultural figure who didn’t serve as a guardian at the gate, but instead sought to tear some of those gates down.
“I am very interested in these different worlds coming together,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1990, “so you’re not only writing, you’re not only art, you’re not only science, you’re bringing them together.”
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