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Jean Stone, 93; Novelist's Widow Did Research for His Biographies

April 24, 2004|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Jean Stone, the widow of best-selling biographical novelist Irving Stone, for whom she served as research collaborator and "editor-in-residence" on all of his books since his 1934 "Lust for Life," has died. She was 93.

Stone, who also was a longtime cultural and educational leader, died April 16 at her home in Beverly Hills.

"Jean was a very lively woman, very intellectually astute, very interested in history and research," said historian Kevin Starr, the recently retired state librarian of California.

"She created a world for her husband in which he could be productive. They had a tremendous partnership."

The San Francisco-born Irving Stone met Minneapolis-born Jean Factor in the late 1920s in Jersey City, N.J., where she was living at the time.

Educated at UC Berkeley and USC, Irving Stone had moved to Paris to try his hand at writing plays in 1927. But he was so deeply moved by an exhibition of paintings by Vincent van Gogh that after returning to New York he felt compelled to write a novel based on the Dutch painter's life.

Stone paid for a research trip to Europe by writing murder mysteries for pulp magazines, and he wrote more pulp stories to support himself during the six months it took him to write four drafts of "Lust for Life."

Over a period of three years, 17 publishers turned down Stone's fictionalized biography of Van Gogh. Then Stone asked his fiancee, Jean, a secretary who shared his love of books and the theater, to read his bulky manuscript and tell him why it continued to be rejected.

As Jean Stone recalled in a 1984 Los Angeles Times interview: "I read the manuscript and found a thickness in certain places, and a great many obscure references, where he knew more than he was telling, and where he assumed the reader would simply understand. I suggested a series of cuts and fixes. Irving agreed, and afterward I retyped the pages."

The revisions did the trick: Stone sent his manuscript out again and an England-based publisher, Longmans Green, quickly offered him a $250 advance, which Jean Stone later described as "a tremendous amount of money" during the Depression.

Published in the fall of 1934, "Lust for Life" went on to sell tens of millions of copies in more than 70 languages. And with the $250 advance, the couple got married.

"My mother was not thrilled with the idea of me marrying an artist," Jean Stone told The Times in 1993. "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 me that after a number of years, I'd have very few areas of ignorance left."

From "Lust for Life" on, Jean served as Irving's collaborator on a string of biographical novels on the lives of such notable figures as Sigmund Freud ("The Passions of the Mind"), Michelangelo ("The Agony and the Ecstasy"), Mary Todd Lincoln ("Love Is Eternal") and many other books.

"I became indispensable," she told the New York 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."

While working on "The Agony and the Ecstasy," Jean Stone studied Renaissance culture and the Italian language at UCLA before she and Irving moved to Rome and Florence, Italy, for an extended period.

For Stone's biographical novel of Charles Darwin ("The Origin"), they were able to move into the scientist's home in London, where they slept in Darwin's bedroom and Irving wrote in Darwin's study. "I could feel and hear his pen scratching on the paper as I sat at his desk," he later recalled.

During the more than five years it took to research and write "Depths of Glory," a biographical novel about Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro, the Stones lived in a hotel on Paris' Left Bank and visited the country houses once occupied by the Pissarros.

Jean Stone's name never appeared on the cover of her husband's books, but he dedicated every one of them to her.

"She possessed a natural gift for editorial work," Irving Stone told the New York Times in 1982, when his wife received the Maxwell Perkins Award from the writers' group PEN Center USA West.

Irving Stone died in 1989 at age 86, after a nearly 55-year partnership with his wife.

"She was always a class act," novelist and critic Carolyn See told The Times this week. "She was sort of in the Nancy Reagan tradition, just following the traditional values: dressing like a fashion plate, deferring to her husband with respect. She always behaved with dignity, and she was a tremendously generous philanthropist."

Among other charitable contributions, Jean Stone donated the funds to build what is known as the Jean and Irving Stone Seminar Room at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley for the study of rare books and manuscripts.

Starr said that even though Jean Stone became increasingly frail in later years, she remained "very engaged in life" and interested in new developments, such as researching on the Internet.

Starr recalled that "when you went up to their home in Beverly Hills, her husband's studio was adjacent to the house and you got a sense of a tremendous production center for research that she organized."

Jean Stone devoted many years of leadership and service on museum boards, cultural committees and educational councils. She helped found the Arts for Communities in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Ballet and the Assn. of Ethnomusicology at UCLA. She was a member of the first cultural exchange for the State Department with the Soviet Union and Iron Curtain countries.

Stone is survived by a son, Kenneth; a sister, Norma Seigel; a grandchild; and a great-grandchild.

Donations may be made to the Jean Stone Memorial Fund, UCLA Foundation, 10920 Wilshire Blvd., 11th Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90024.

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