Jean Stein, the much-lauded journalist, editor, best-selling author, and oral historian whose work covered the most glittering and intriguing spheres of 20th century America—from Andy Warhol’s Factory years to the founding families of Los Angeles—died in Manhattan this week after a fatal fall from her 15th floor Upper East Side penthouse. She was 83. Her death was ruled a suicide.
Known for her probing, multifaceted reporting that wove many strands of society—the arts, the sciences, the government, the demimonde—into one cohesive and evocative tapestry, Stein was the kind of journalist who could coax deep insights out of even the most reticent of subjects. She was an intellectual Paris Review editor, collaborating on two oral histories with the august literary journal’s founder, George Plimpton. By all accounts, she didn’t suffer any fools or foolishness and could therefore appeal to the kinds of the interviewees—among them Joan Didion, Jules Feiffer, William Faulkner, John Ashbery, whom she counted as a close friend—not as supplicant, sycophant, or inquisitor, but as a respected colleague, an equal. She was a private person and had many, many friends.
The daughter of music producer and MCA founder Jules Stein and his wife, Doris Oppenheimer, Stein was raised in Beverly Hills splendors, attended Swiss boarding schools, Wellesley, and the Sorbonne. She raised two daughters with diplomat and Robert F. Kennedy associate William van den Heuvel, one of whom is Katrina van den Heuvel, the current editor-in-chief and publisher of The Nation. (Stein’s debut oral history was the much-admired American Journey: The Times of Robert F. Kennedy, which she was inspired to write after riding on the assassinated senator’s funeral train.) Hers was a starry biography, one that reflects the kind of glamorous, challenging, and influential spheres she wrote about so compellingly, in perhaps the clearest illustration of the truth of the writer’s maxim: “Write what you know.” Not many of us know Stein’s world—or many worlds, as the case may be—and a large part of her thrilling ability to synthesize the milieu she recorded was that she was so deeply enmeshed inside of it.
But all that complexity of ideas can also reflect a complexity of the soul, and even an ultimate insider can feel as lonely as anybody else. Stein had, according to close friends like the journalist Robert Scheer, struggled with severe depression off and on through her life, and mightily in her later years, although this didn’t seem to affect her productivity; her most recent book, West Of Eden: An American Place, about the powerful families, such as the Warners and the Dohenys, who made Los Angeles the city it is today, was published by Random House in 2016 to universal acclaim. Tragic though the circumstances of her death might be, the scope of Stein’s literary accomplishments remains a beacon. She managed to merge the high brow with the low, in showing how what is too often dismissed as “celebrity journalism” can, in the right hands, illuminate deep and enduring truths about our cultural moments, our history, and ourselves. Jean Stein’s life was remarkable, and her achievements even more so. She will be deeply missed.