Irving Stone's Steadfast Partner
© Copyright 2019 by Dale Fehringer
Irving Stone was a successful biographer for decades, extensively researching and writing about famous people. He didn't do it by himself, but was instead greatly helped by a smart, talented, and loving partner.
Irving Stone wrote more than two dozen books during his lifetime, most of them about famous people; including Vincent van Gogh, Michelangelo, and Charles Darwin. He spent years studying his subjects travelling where they travelled, seeing what they saw, and sometimes even living in their homes.
Then he wrote about them, substituting what he thought they would have done and said if it wasn’t available. His books sold millions of copies, were translated into dozens of languages, and made him very successful.
He didn’t do it alone. Behind him, supporting him, for each of the books and for more than 55 years, he had a steadfast and loving partner.
Jean Factor, who became Jean Stone, was his wife, editor, and supporter; and, in many ways, she was a major force behind him. Later in their lives they both said she became indispensable to him.
Irving was born in 1903 in San Francisco, a town trying to become a city that had many excellent writers, like Jack London and Dashiell Hammett. As a boy, Stone was greatly influenced by their work. He was not a good student, especially at math and science, but he could write, and after reading one of his short stories, a teacher told him to sit in the back of the classroom and write.
Jean was born in Minneapolis. She was an average student who developed an early interest in theater. She moved to the East Coast as a teenager, with secretarial skills and hopes of becoming an actress. She auditioned for parts in plays and worked for firms in New York and New Jersey.
Irving attended college at Berkeley and USC, studying political science and economics. He wrote murder novels and short stories which were unsuccessful. When his mother died, he moved to Paris to write plays. A friend took him to an exhibit of art by a largely-unknown artist named Vincent van Gogh. Impressed with the art, Irving researched the artist and wrote a book about his life. Despite years of effort, he couldn’t find anyone to publish it. He returned to the U.S. and wrote mystery stories while running a small community theater in Jersey City.
Jean and Irving met at that theater. She was 17, he was 29. They talked about his work and his book, and he told her he couldn’t find a publisher. She offered to read it.
"He had the same problem then with his work as throughout his career,” Jean later said. “He was an academic. He repeated himself a lot as if he did not trust his readers to understand what he was writing. My actual words to him were, 'To my taste it is a little dry – it has no real human approach, warmth. You don't trust your readers.'”
As Jean recalled in a 1984 Los Angeles Times interview: "I suggested a series of cuts and fixes. Irving agreed, and afterward I retyped the pages."
They found a small publisher who took a gamble and published it. It reached the best seller list and stayed there.
Jean and Irving dated, he proposed, and she accepted. Her mother was not supportive of their union.
"My mother was not thrilled with the idea of me marrying an artist," she told The Los Angeles Times. "She asked me why I thought it was a good idea. I told her that the best of a man is in his work, and the closer I get to it, the better my life.”
As for Irving there was no talk of love or affectionate words. He simply promised her that after a number of years, she would have very few areas of ignorance left. They were married in 1934 with the $250 advance they received from the publisher.
From that first book (Lust for Life) on, Jean was Irving's collaborator for all of his books. There were biographical novels about Sigmund Freud (The Passions of the Mind), Michelangelo (The Agony and the Ecstasy), Mary Todd Lincoln (Love Is Eternal), and many others. Theirs was a relationship of mutual admiration and a certain amount of love.
"I became indispensable," she told the Los Angeles Times in 1985. "It really takes two to do the job. And we've always worked together, even after our two children came along. If I was busy typing, Irving did the diapers."
Irving decided to write a book about a famous woman, from the woman’s perspective. He researched the life of Jessie Benton Fremont, the daughter of a powerful U.S. senator and the wife of John C. Fremont – a soldier, explorer, and candidate for U.S. president. He drafted a first chapter and sheepishly gave it to Jean to read.
“I think you are alright,” she told him. “Under these circumstances, this is probably how a woman would feel, and think, and act.” So he wrote a second chapter, which he gave her to review. “No,” she told him, “No woman ever thought or felt like that.” With that, he went back to his approach in the first chapter, and together they produced a successful book.
Jean and Irving had no trouble finding new subjects, and they threw themselves into researching and writing about each of them. They published biographical novels about Earl Warren, Sigmund Freud, and Camille Pissarro.
They wrote about the marriages of three American presidents and their spouses: Andrew and Rachel Jackson, Abe and Mary Todd Lincoln, and John and Abigail Adams – focusing on the wives. They wrote about the men who ran for, but did not win, the U.S. presidency. And they produced non-fiction books about Jack London (Irving’s personal hero), Clarence Darrow, and the opening of the U.S. West.
Each project was a major effort for Irving and Jean. Often, they travelled to where the subject lived and spent months (sometimes years) researching the subjects’ lives. Sometimes, they even moved there, uprooting their personal lives and their children.
Jean's name never appeared on the cover of their books, but Irving dedicated every book to her.
Irving died in 1989 at age 86, after a very productive life. He was fortunate; his work was well-received and he was rewarded with numerous awards during his lifetime.
After Irving’s death, Jean wrote one book (Dear Theo) on her own, a selection of Vincent van Gogh's letters, published in 1937. But it carried her husband's name for years.
''I never cared about the credit until women's lib came along,'' she said, ''I didn't need it, because I have the inner satisfaction of what I've done.''
Jean died in 2004 at age 93 in Beverly Hills, California. In her later years, she was a philanthropist, devoting many years of service to museum boards, cultural committees, and educational councils.
As far as I can tell, Jean won only one award for her decades of work on their books. It was the Maxwell Perkins Award, presented to California-based editors. That likely meant a great deal to her. She spent the best years of her life helping others, and like so many people she helped make someone she loved better, taking no credit for it.
Asked once if she thought she got enough recognition, she said "I have never . . . had to face the blank page. That is the author. I'm not convinced there would be anything for you to read if I faced the blank page."
Irving Stone was a remarkable man and an inspiring writer. He developed and mastered a new genre of writing, and he told the stories of people who dedicated their lives to their passions.
he did not do it alone. Jean, the love of his life and his most
ardent supporter, was always there for him, and she was an
indispensable force behind his pen.
(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)
Dale's story list and biography
The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher