Stein was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, into a wealthy Jewish family. She attended Radcliffe College and then Johns Hopkins University, where she studied medicine. After a brief career as a doctor, she moved to Paris in 1903. There she met her lifelong partner, Alice B. Toklas.
Stein began writing novels in the early 1900s, but it was her novel The Making of Americans (1925) that brought her lasting fame. This massive work traced the history of three generations of an American family. It was both highly experimental and controversial.
Stein’s other well-known works include the novels Four Saints in Three Acts (1934) and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933). She also wrote a number of influential essays, including “Composition as Explanation” (1926) and “What Are Masterpieces and Why Are There So Few of Them?” (1935).
In the 1930s and ’40s, Stein became friends with a number of prominent artists, including Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway. She was also an important collector of modern art. Her Paris home was filled with works by such artists as Henri Matisse and Georges Braque.
Stein died in France in 1946. After her death, her work fell into relative obscurity. But in the 1960s, there was a resurgence of interest in her work, and she is now considered one of the major figures of early 20th-century literature and art.