Auntie Semitism at the Met

Tablet 8 May 2012
By Allen Ellenzweig

Gertrude Stein’s ties to Nazis, revisited at the museum, shouldn’t eclipse her nurturing of young artists 

Gertrude Stein’s automobile authorization from Bordeaux, France, 1940. (Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

In a rare move for a museum nearing the end of a popular exhibition, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced last week that it was amending a wall text at “The Steins Collect,” which brings together an amazing array of the Picassos, Matisses, and Braques, et al., amassed by the Stein family—Gertrude, her brothers Leo and Michael, and her sister-in-law Sarah—in the early part of the 20th century. The show, which began at the San Francisco Museum of Art before traveling to the Grand Palais in Paris, was inaugurated at the Met on Feb. 21 of this year and will close early next month.

What could account for such an astonishing turn of events—adding information to exhibition signage a mere four weeks before the show closes? The new wording, according to the New York Times, “will now acknowledge questions that have long surrounded Gertrude Stein’s sympathy toward the Vichy regime during World War II, leanings that might have contributed, amid Nazi looting during the war, to the survival of many of the works in the show.” The information is hardly new. The major outlines of this have been known at least since Janet Malcolm wrote about Stein’s “missing” Vichy years in a 2007 New Yorker, an account she later expanded into a book. A few scholars have delved even deeper, so we have to wonder what curatorial decisions allowed three major art institutions—the Met only the last among them—to suppress a fuller accounting. Another San Francisco venue, its new Contemporary Jewish Museum, also skimmed the surface of these troubling questions in “Seeing Gertrude Stein.” Alas, a wall label in an art exhibition may not be the best place to explain Stein’s sometimes hateful political views—their personal sources complex—that preceded her and Alice Toklas’ curious idyll in Occupied France. That said, Malcolm’s piece was, for me, a kind of wake-up call, for I might once have fashioned myself a Left-Bank 1920s American in Paris, which meant that I looked upon Stein’s world with nostalgia. But there are limits.


I first learned of Stein from Ernest Hemingway’s Paris memoir A Moveable Feast, which I read in my early college years when the Nixon Administration made living abroad seem quite an attractive draw. I saw France and things French as all that any American could ever hope to be: stylish, intelligent, sexually sophisticated. Hemingway’s portrait of the writers and painters who fawned at the feet of Gertrude and her companion Alice B. Toklas at their salon on rue de Fleurus inspired my travels to the City of Light, first in 1969, then on and off through the 1970s and 1980s. There was nothing on the streetscape of rue de Fleurus that distinguished the Stein residence from countless others in Paris, but I soaked up the atmosphere of faded cultural glory in and around the neighborhood of the Jardin du Luxembourg, the boulevards Saint-Michel and Saint-Germain and eventually visited such historical literary sites as the Café Flore, Le Dôme, and the Deux Magots.

For a long time, it didn’t even occur to me that “Stein” and “Toklas” were Jewish names. I simply relished the idea of Gertrude and Alice as a couple living in an arrangement where Gertrude nurtured the geniuses and Alice was relegated to the wives. Gertrude was built like a bountiful Mother Earth or, if you prefer a contemporary analogy, a Mack truck. I imagined wraithlike Alice, who looked nervous and delicate, serving the ladies tea with those thin cookies called langues de chat. Gertrude and Alice were gatekeepers to the heaven of the Left Bank, which rightly, I was sure, was where Americans should go to die.

When, years later, I realized that the pair of Jewish lesbians sat out World War II inside Occupied France, the question seemed obvious: How did they manage that trick? But, though curious, I was hardly obsessed.

Until recently, that is. Gertrude and Alice came back into focus for me in the course of my research for a life of the gay American photographer George Platt Lynes, who at the tender age of 18 entered the Stein orbit on his first trip to Paris in 1925. She provided moral support and career advice and let him print something of hers—“Descriptions of Literature”—for his precocious literary venture As Stable Publications. When he abruptly left Yale and took a summer course on the book-selling business at Columbia, Stein cautioned him—fully aware of the handsome young Lynes’ tastes—that “hanging around New York is not good for little boys.” Lynes maintained a correspondence with her that lasted 10 years.

Stein surrounded herself and lent the authority of her aesthetic judgment to young gay and bisexual artists who made their way to her door: Lynes, for one, but also composer Virgil Thomson, the painter and theater designer Pavel Tchelitchew and his successive lovers, composer Allen Tanner and poet Charles Henri Ford, and the chronicler and enthusiast of the Harlem Renaissance, Carl van Vechten. “We are surrounded by homosexuals,” she wrote to a friend in 1934. “They do all the good things in all the arts.” In her nurturing role to artists who might have been marginalized by their sexuality, Stein was truly The Mother of Us All—the title of the operatic pageant whose libretto she wrote to music by Thomson—and that was the way I chose to see her for years.

Yet journalist Janet Malcolm’s 2007 exposé in The New Yorker, and the book that expanded on it, Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, forced me to reconsider Stein and take her measure fresh. Malcolm explained how Stein and Toklas had been protected during the Occupation by a well-connected anti-Semite collaborator, committed Catholic, and conflicted homosexual, Bernard Faÿ, with whom Gertrude had been close friends for more than a decade and who had personally interceded on her and Alice’s behalf with Maréchal Philippe Pétain, the collaborationist leader of Vichy. Faÿ, director of the Bibliothèque Nationale during the Occupation, also secured Stein’s Paris art collection from the Germans. Recent scholarship by Barbara Will, Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ, and the Vichy Dilemma, paints a warts-and-all portrait of Gertrude and her conservative, anti-Roosevelt, fascist-leaning politics in the interwar period.

Stein was the product of a well-to-do German Jewish family whose father had made his money in the San Francisco streetcar business. When he died, older brother Michael took the fiscal reins and later sold the business for a sum that allowed Gertrude, who studied at Radcliffe and Johns Hopkins, and brother Leo, Harvard educated, to settle in Paris in 1903 and collect art. Raised a proper corseted Victorian, Gertrude gradually adopted loose gender-neutral ensembles with sandals, a mode of dress that marked her in Paris as une hommeuse—a mannish woman—which did not, necessarily, imply lesbianism. (Picasso once respectfully addressed a letter: “To Mademoiselle Gertrude Stein, Man of Letters.”) And while she did not announce her Jewishness, she was, all the same, perceived by the artistic goyim of that first decade of the 20th century—in a Paris still reeling from the combat of the Dreyfus Affair—as Jewish. Reflecting back in a letter of 1913, Mary Cassatt referenced Stein as “one of a family of California Jews who came to Paris poor and unknown, but they are not Jews for nothing … they … bought Matisse’s pictures cheap and began to pose as amateurs of the only real art.”

Oh, Mary, did you really put the words “Jew” and “cheap” into the same sentence? Yet the remark is a reflection of the standard social anti-Semitism of its time, no more disqualifying Cassatt as a significant Impressionist than Edith Wharton’s snide portrait of the millionaire Jew Rosedale in House of Mirth makes her less a great writer.

It’s near impossible, however, even for the experts, to resolve the riddle of Stein and Toklas’ decision to stay in Vichy France when it would have been obvious to any other two aging lesbian Jews with foreign citizenship to get the hell out. Malcolm quotes Stein from a 1940 piece in the Atlantic Monthly, written after Stein had been warned by the American consul in Lyon to leave France immediately. Stein says to Toklas, “Well, I don’t know—it would be awfully uncomfortable and I am fussy about my food. Let’s not leave.”

One marvels at the sheer narcissistic chutzpah: to say such a thing when a great many people were “uncomfortable” because the Nazis were overrunning Europe. Better thinkers and artists than she, Jew and non-Jew, had already abruptly left their homes and daily lives and been separated from loved ones. But Stein was fussy about her food. And she had no compunction about sharing this fact with the American public two years after Kristallnacht.

Then again, condemning Stein for her moral blindness is simply a way of assuming our own behavior, in similar circumstances, would surely have been better. When Stein told this story to her American compatriots in the Atlantic, it was not as a Jew under threat. Rather, she was engaged in a form of magical thinking; she was so modern she was beyond being merely Jewish. As a writer, she believed and declared herself a “genius.” That was her tribe, and it was a select one.

By contrast, she didn’t hide her deeply conservative streak in magazine pieces of the 1930s; she was against the Republican cause in Spain and for Franco. Her politics were a contrarian amalgam of Jeffersonian agrarianism, American frontier “individualism,” both mixed with romance for la France Profonde and the appeal of a “peace” at any price that secures the comforts of a regulated “daily life” when one can, in other words, be fussy about one’s food. She hated the New Deal’s collective “organizing” of the American citizenry. She could even write about “the Jews” as if she wasn’t one herself—ironic, given that her series of articles in the Saturday Evening Post in 1936 was on the theme of “Money,” which is, no doubt, a topic nearly every Gentile thinks is reserved for Jewish expertise. In one of these articles, Stein lamented Roosevelt’s anti-big-business stance, for by “getting rid of the rich … everybody is poor.” Such opinions stick in my craw; suddenly, Gertrude Stein seems as if she’d be perfectly comfortable shilling for today’s Tea Party.

It gets worse. Stein famously said of Hitler in a 1934 interview that “[he] should have received the Nobel Peace Prize … because he is removing all elements of contest and struggle from Germany. By driving out the Jews and the democratic and Left elements, he is driving out everything that conduces to activity. That means peace.” After parsing this statement’s perversity, Barbara Will concludes that for Stein’s contemporaries, her “pontifications” of this period were “not clearly ironic but apparently deeply felt.”

By any measure, Stein was a deracinated Jew. She disliked Jewish patriarchy—fair enough. But what possessed her in 1941 to 1943 to translate a large group of Pétain’s speeches into English for eventual propaganda purposes? The anti-Semitic Faÿ, appealing to his favored Jewess—every anti-Semite has to have one—was hoping to sway the American public in favor of Vichy. What better way than to use Gertrude Stein to translate for American publication Pétain’s self-serving exhortations to his countrymen? The surprise, I suppose, is that no factotum of Benito Mussolini’s thought to ask James Joyce to help Il Duce out with his public relations; Joyce, after all, spent a solid 10 years living in Trieste! On the other hand, let’s not even mention Ezra Pound. In fact, one of the few “modernist” writers of the last century whose moral/political sense fares well at this distance is one who fortunately missed the European interwar period completely: Marcel Proust died before he had to condemn French democratic institutions of the 1930s and align himself with either right-wing or left-wing authoritarians—but at least he was a solid supporter of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus when it mattered.

But to understand Stein’s submitting to this exercise, or Faustian bargain, it helps to understand her relationship to Faÿ, and his to her—for surely each party was getting something from the other. Although French, Faÿ was, like Stein’s brilliant brother Leo, a Harvard man, and a well-regarded scholar of America’s Founding Fathers; he had good American connections. He first met Stein in 1926 when the salon on rue de Fleurus was increasingly the preserve of gay and lesbian acolytes like New Yorker writer Janet Flanner, the surrealist poet René Crevel, and composer Aaron Copeland—he of a physiognomy we would have to call typically Jewish. Into this mix came Faÿ, already with friends of influence in both France and America and, like the others, coming to the Stein salon to venerate their patron saint and mentor. At the same time, for her part, Stein was, according to Barbara Will, “deeply engrossed in her own imaginative exploration of saints and sainthood.” Eventually, Stein shared with the homosexual and deeply Catholic Faÿ—sometimes in quiet walks at the Stein-Toklas country retreat—an intimate discourse that may have first been religious in nature but, for Saint Gertrude, evolved into “an appreciation for the political critique of the French Third Republic emerging from Catholic intellectuals on the Right.”

As their mutual affection and intimacy deepened, Faÿ obviously saw ways to be useful to a woman whose membership in her circle elevated him into a transatlantic cultural aristocracy. A knowledgeable Americanophile, he helped arrange Stein’s American tour of 1934 after the popular success of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. The tour was a triumph; it turned the expatriate, previously obscurantist writer into an American cultural celebrity of the first order.

Like Stein, Faÿ subscribed to an essentialist view of national characteristics and championed Stein’s literary style as an American linguistic coup. He enthused about this in, of all places, the extreme Right’s anti-Semitic periodical Je Suis Partout. Faÿ even claimed Stein was welcomed on her American tour “like Mussolini when he is greeting a fascist crowd.”

An opportunist, in due course Faÿ became an active Gestapo agent whose intelligence-gathering against French Freemasons—in his fevered mind, conspirators allied with international Jewry—ultimately aided in many deportations and deaths. In France’s postwar purge trials, Faÿ would be tried for his efforts on behalf of the Third Reich. Stein wrote to the court on his behalf, but Faÿ would be sentenced, as Will recounts, to “hard labor for life,” later commuted to 20 years.

Did Stein assume the Pétain translations to assure her and Alice’s safety? Maybe. But her admiration of Pétain, the Great War’s “hero of Verdun”—and in Faÿ’s estimation, the George Washington of a new France—was full-throated even after the Liberation. She saw Pétain’s collaboration with Hitler as a miraculous diplomatic legerdemain where France was spared another war on its soil. Under the Maréchal’s leadership, the Communists, whom Stein loathed, would be kept at bay. Nineteen-thirties France’s political chaos and “decadence” would be replaced by a return to fundamental values of hearth and home and the eternal verities of the French patrimony—where simple folk in small provincial towns adhered to their Catholic faith and prayed to their local saints. This was Christian knowledge in which Stein, the librettist of Four Saints in Three Acts, had long been an enthusiast.

Stein and Toklas retreated to their country home in Bilignin during the war, a provincial backwater of the Rhônes-Alpes where devout townsfolk were exactly the sort whose virtues she and Pétain could extol in tandem. And were it not for the protection of the local authorities, the two elderly American Jewesses would have been tallied in the local registry of resident Jews and eventually faced deportation to a concentration camp. Amazingly, the locals, with whom Stein maintained warm relations, kept her and Toklas’ secret. In the couple’s calculations, it seems not to have counted that their presence threatened the lives of their neighbors who might suffer reprisals for, in effect, “hiding” them within the community.

To the local peasants and bourgeois, unlike their cosmopolitan Paris crowd, the pair succeeded in some unspoken fiction of appearing mere companions who walked their poodle and made excellent small talk. Perhaps they were not an unusual sight. French women of their generation had, many indeed, lost the young men they would otherwise have married but for the decimations of World War I. In France, paired spinsterhood after the war might have appeared no more suspect than “Boston marriages” in America before the advent of Freud. Like her shriveled Jewish identity, Stein’s lesbianism was “hidden” in plain sight.

Stein would write about the psychological terrors and privations of this period in Wars I Have Seen, but she never lays specific claim to her and Toklas’ position as foreign Jews. At the Liberation, Stein and Toklas would be “discovered” by the journalist Eric Sevareid who trumpeted their survival inside France, although survival as Americans, not Jews. Neither Stein nor Toklas ever disavowed their relations to Faÿ or their support of Pétain. Stein would die of cancer in 1947, and Toklas would live on in straitened circumstances as keeper of the flame. She even channeled money raised by the sale of a Picasso drawing and gouache to aid Faÿ’s 1951 escape from a prison hospital. In Switzerland, Faÿ was welcomed into a community of ex-Nazis, collaborators, aristo-Catholics, and local right-wing zealots. Toklas survived in near penury after losing the art collection to Stein’s relations in a drawn-out legal battle. Attracted to Catholicism as Stein had been, Toklas would convert in 1957, reportedly with the encouragement of Faÿ, hoping to meet Stein in heaven—a particularly non-Jewish concept to begin with. In any case, Toklas’ personal Calvary may well have been surviving more than 20 years to live in the shadow of her great love. Of her devotion to Stein there can be no doubt. Her own memoir, What Is Remembered, ends with Stein’s death—as if, thereby, her own life was effectively over.

Why had the two women stayed in France as lesbians and Jews, when they could have returned to America and found support among their wide circle of intellectual and artistic friends? Perhaps publicly “hiding” had become a habit. But there is also something of the stubborn desire to face one’s destiny with one’s own chosen people. Perhaps they were willing to meet the martyrdom reserved for Catholic saints, but not the kind reserved for Jews.

In any case, like so many “geniuses,” Stein disappoints as a simple human being, but I cannot bring myself to hate her. It’s true that, for all her charming talk and manner—by all reports, remarkable—she had no warmth for her brethren in their hour of greatest need. And I have always had a sincere distaste for Jews who leave the faith by converting to Christianity or taking on WASP airs. It seems to me an act of cowardice. We Jews are so few in the world that even to be a bad Jew—and I hardly think of myself as an especially good one—is to serve and honor the memory of our people who have suffered as much as and more than many a Christian martyr. But if I hold my nose and give Stein and Toklas a pass, it is because I cannot bring myself to condemn two old women who believed they were different and even better than others when in fact they were the same—the same as any other pair of old Jews merely trying and hoping to live.

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