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Madeleine Stern, 95; dealer in rare books, writer and Alcott scholar

September 09, 2007|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Madeleine Stern, a rare-book dealer, writer and scholar who uncovered a trove of Gothic thrillers by Louisa May Alcott, the author best known for her wholesome domestic saga, "Little Women," has died. She was 95.

Stern, who with her partner Leona Rostenberg owned Rostenberg & Stern Rare Books, died Aug. 18 at her home in New York City after a brief illness, according to a statement by Eric Holzenberg, director of the Grolier Club for graphic arts in New York City.

She got started in the business in the mid-1940s after helping launch Rostenberg's career in rare books. Stern gave up a teaching job and formed a partnership with Rostenberg in 1945. Four years later she became a founding member of the Antiquarian Booksellers Assn. of America.

"Madeleine did more to further the association and establish its prestige than anyone I can think of," said Bernard M. Rosenthal, a rare-book dealer in Berkeley and a longtime colleague of Stern. "She was very dynamic; she got things done."

She also helped to establish the inaugural antiquarian book fair in New York City in 1960, Rosenthal said.

With her serious manner, bubbling curiosity and deep knowledge of books, Stern was a powerful presence despite her 5-foot-3-inch stature.

"Madeleine was the doyenne of antiquarian booksellers," said Judy Cohen, a rare-book dealer in New Paltz, N.Y. "I once was invited for tea. I was so intimidated I just listened."

Stern lived and worked in an apartment lined with dark wooden bookcases filled with leather-bound antique books. Throughout her years in the business, she kept up a writing career as well.

Stern was doing research on Alcott for a biography she planned to write when she discovered hints that the author of wholesome fiction also wrote stories of "blood and thunder," as Alcott referred to them. She filled them with "pirates, wolves, bears and distressed damsels" and gave them titles like "The Maniac Bride," Alcott confided in a letter of 1862.

Patient research by Stern and Rostenberg led them to a letter that Boston publisher James R. Elliott wrote to Alcott in the mid-1860s. It stated, "We would like more stories from you . . . and if you prefer you may use the pseudonym of A.M. Barnard or any other man's name if you will."

Stern's critically acclaimed biography, "Louisa May Alcott" was published in 1950. She went on to edit or co-edit a number of books on her subject, including "Louisa May Alcott Unmasked: Collected Thrillers," and "The Lost Stories of Louisa May Alcott" both published in 1995.

Among more than a dozen scholarly works by Stern, several are biographies of early feminists, among them Margaret Fuller, the 19th century writer and journal editor.

Stern and Rostenberg co-authored several memoirs, including "Old & Rare: Thirty Years in the Book Business" (1974), "Old Books, Rare Friends: Two Literary Sleuths and Their Shared Passion" (1997) and "Bookends: Two Women, One Enduring Friendship" (2001). They recount their years as partners who shared a business, a home and a "deep, deep love" as friends.

They insisted that they were not lesbians and included a chapter in their last memoir titled, "The Men We Didn't Marry."

"It's shocking to people that Mady and Leona were platonic lovers," said playwright Katharine Houghton, who wrote a stage musical version of "Bookends," with music and lyrics by Dianne Adams and James McDowell, that played at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch this summer.

"Mady said that if she got involved with marriage and children she could never do what she wanted in her career," Houghton said. "Her mother encouraged her choice."

Stern was born July 1, 1912, in New York City. Her father was a successful businessman. She graduated from Barnard College in 1932 and earned a master's degree in English literature from Columbia University two years later.

She met Rostenberg when she was a freshman and Rostenberg was a senior in college. In 1943, when Rostenberg dreamed of owning a rare-book business, Stern gave her a prescient gift of business cards, stationery and shipping labels imprinted, "Leona Rostenberg -- Rare Books." She also gave her friend $1,000 to help her get started.

When the women joined forces, they worked and lived in the house in the Bronx where Rostenberg grew up. They later moved to Manhattan.

Rostenberg died in 2005. She and Stern had sold most of their books by that time, but Stern continued working until recently.

She has no immediate survivors.


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