Class of 1948
It was, as the fellow in the movie “Casablanca” once said, the start of a beautiful friendship.
In 1939, two teenagers from Depression-era families showed up at DeWitt Clinton High School’s literary magazine, Magpie. As Sol Stein tells it, the odds were poor that they would become pals. One youngster, Stein, was white, Jewish and attracted to women. The other, James Baldwin, was black, the stepson of a Pentecostal minister and attracted to men.
But they hit it off and their friendship — “one of the great moments in interracial harmony and intimacy in the history of American literature,” according to literary critic Henry Louis Gates Jr. — lasted until Baldwin died of stomach cancer in 1987. Baldwin went on to become a preeminent novelist, playwright and essayist whose “Notes of a Native Son” endures as a classic of the black experience. Stein went on to edit Baldwin’s manuscript and coax it into publication in 1955. Together with Patricia Day, then his wife, he founded the publishing house of Stein & Day in 1962, serving as its president and editor-in-chief for over a quarter of a century and publishing 1,600 books. He worked with some of the 20th century’s most notable writers including George Orwell (“Homage to Catalonia”), Elia Kazan (“America, America” and “The Arrangement”), Dylan Thomas, Lionel Trilling, W.H. Auden and Jacques Barzun.
Stein was born on Oct. 13, 1926 in Chicago. His family moved to the Bronx when he was four. He had a childhood love of performing magic tricks, but by the time he got to DeWitt Clinton, it was Magpie, the literary magazine, that got his attention, along with classmates Baldwin and a young photographer named Richard Avedon. In 1944, while a student at City College with nearly three years of infantry ROTC under his belt, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps. He was summoned to active duty in March 1945 just as the war in Europe was about to end and served as commander of occupational training schools in Germany. He returned in 1946, completed his degree at CCNY and after graduating in 1948, worked at the College as a social studies lecturer. At the same time, he got a master’s degree in comparative literature at Columbia University and studied under both Lionel Trilling and Jacques Barzun, both of whose writings he later edited. From 1951 to 1954, he worked for the Voice of America, writing daily scripts that were translated into 46 languages and broadcast to millions of people behind the Iron Curtain. He was also executive director of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, a group of some 300 intellectuals opposed to totalitarianism.
Stein has mastered every form of writing. As a playwright he was lauded for his play “Napoleon,” which won the Dramatists Alliance Prize for “the best full-length play of 1953.” He also wrote the 1957 play “A Shadow of My Enemy,” which was produced on Broadway and starred Ed Begley and Gene Raymond. He was a founding member of the Playwrights Group at the Actors Studio.
He is the author of nine novels, including “The Magician,” which sold over one million copies. He wrote “Stein on Writing,” an essential text, and has taught writing at Columbia University, the University of Iowa and other colleges. He created three computer software programs for writers, the award-winning WritePro, FirstAid for Writers and FictionMaster. His software is in use by over 110,000 writers in 38 countries. In 2004, Ballantine Books published Stein’s memoir “Native Sons,” about his friendship with Baldwin. The book is enhanced by their correspondence and a story and play they wrote together. He told The New York Times when the book came out: “So much happened in our work together that his color disappeared, my color disappeared and it stayed that way for the rest of our lives.”