GERTRUDE STEIN HAS HAD a renaissance and, right on its heels, a controversy. Two epochal recent exhibitions in San Francisco, Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (now at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.) and The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde at the San Francisco Museum Of Modern Art (now at the Paris Grand Palais and soon to open at the New York Metropolitan Museum) have run into criticism for not sufficiently addressing Stein's survival of World War II. Stein and her long-time partner Alice Toklas held out in the French countryside while France was occupied by the Nazis. So why weren't they deported like other American enemies, Jews, and lesbians? Stein was apparently protected by a close friend of hers, Bernard Faÿ, an official in the Vichy Government who turned out to be a fascist and Nazi collaborator. Her collection of "degenerate" art, all of those pieces by Picasso, Matisse, and Cézanne left behind in Paris, were saved as well.
Questions about Stein's wartime survival have been addressed in many books. A few years ago they were raised again, more aggressively, by Janet Malcolm's Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice (2007). When Malcolm's book came out nobody seemed to care, but now that Stein has had a comeback, the controversy has gained urgency. It was triggered by an article in the Bay Area Jewish Weekly that accused the Contemporary Jewish Museum of using Stalinist methods to preserve an idealized image of Stein. At the same time, Barbara Will's new book, Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ and the Vichy Dilemma (2011) tries to show the "real" Stein in just one color: black. Visitors and bloggers who had never before read or studied Stein became enraged by certain details snapped up from the agitation: What? Stein had a Nazi friend? Stein said Hitler ought to get the Nobel Peace Prize? Stein a collaborator! Worse, Stein a Nazi! The scandal recently got to the Washington Post, prompting critic Phil Kennicott to review Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories and openly declare his "hatred" for her.
Stein's remark about the Nobel Peace Prize for Hitler has been taken at face value in the blogosphere and seen as an immediate reason to condemn her. But what are the grounds? Freshly famous after the bestselling success of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), Stein was interviewed by Lansing Warren for the New York Times Magazine in 1934: "'I say that Hitler ought to have the peace prize,' she says, '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 ...read more