DECEMBER 17, 2011
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 means peace.'” Knowing Stein’s writing, I took this as a joke if ever there was one. People who only look at the quote out of context could easily miss the irony, together with the laugh and “impish” look on Stein’s face (which the interviewer points out) as she brings out such outrageous pronouncements. When Sigmund Freud’s supporters tried to pay his way out of Vienna in 1938, the Germans made a condition for his release. They demanded a declaration that he had been well treated by them. Freud declared: “Ich kann die Gestapo jedermann auf das beste empfehlen,” which translates, “I can heartily recommend the Gestapo to anyone.” Isn’t this the way Jewish humor works? Stein recommends Hitler for the Nobel Peace Prize, just as Freud “recommends” the Gestapo — with the same perfect irony.
Further on in the same interview, Stein says,
Building a Chinese wall is always bad. Protection, paternalism and suppression of natural activity and competition lead to dullness and stagnation. It is true in politics, in literature, in art. Everything in life needs constant stimulation. It needs activity, new blood.
Stein hands Hitler the prize for paternalism, suppression, dullness, and stagnation; in short, the social order she mocks as “peace.”
There is no denying that Stein was, in the words of her friend W.G. Rogers ,”a Republican all her life.” She came from a bourgeois background, an assimilated Jewish family admiring Washington and Grant, and was “unfamiliar in the fields of economics and politics.” “Writers only think they are interested in politics, they are not really, it gives them a chance to talk and writers like to talk but really no real writer is really interested in politics,” she admitted to the Partisan Review in 1939. Stein loved to talk about her French hero, Maréchal Pétain, who had been every French person’s hero after saving France in the battle of Verdun in 1916. Elected prime minister of the Vichy Government in 1940, Pétain’s armistice prevented the destruction that had just been witnessed wherever the Nazi war machine steamrolled across a border. In Stein’s eyes, Pétain was the great man who would not only keep France safe but lead the country out of the chaos of the Third Republic and restore it to its cherished agrarian and disciplined traditions.
This view was shared by the American government’s Department of State. At the time of Stein’s translation project, Vichy France was not yet at war with America; in Pétain’s Unoccupied Zone, the Zone Libre, where Stein and Tolkas’s country house was located, American Jews lived freely, especially if — like Gertrude and eventually Alice — they were over 65 years old. Charles Glass, in Americans in Paris: Life and Death under the Nazi Occupation (2010), points out that no Americans were interned in the Unoccupied Zone. “Despite Allied attacks on French soil, Washington and Vichy preserved their diplomatic relations in 1942.” Stein’s hope in Pétain’s France was encouraged when, according to Rogers, “the Franco-American Committee […] asked her to translate for her compatriots Marshal Pétain’s messages.” Did Stein simply overlook the repressive content of these speeches, the fascist and even anti-semitic tendencies in Pétain’s “messages”? Nobody knows. But in taking on this project, in Janet Malcolm’s judgment, Stein “behaved badly.” For Barbara Will, Stein’s writing of this period is tireless “Vichy propaganda.”
From today’s viewpoint, it certainly casts a shadow over Stein to acknowledge her blindness. When a great literary figure is brought down a notch from her apparent height it seems to bring us down as well; it is saddening. How could a radical avant-gardist like Stein at the same time be a traditionalist, a conservative, even a reactionary? We could also ask how Picasso could join the Communist party in 1944, after Stalin’s show trials, gulags, and mass murders had become public knowledge in France? How could Andre Breton, Paul Éluard, or Frida Kahlo serve Stalin’s agenda by being active Communists?
A partial answer is found in the modernist movement itself, which dreamed of extreme political renewal, of rebirth for their respective nations under the leadership of what modernists considered the “great men” of their time. Stein was part of the modernist paradox, about which we do not yet know as much as we might. With her usual honesty and self-irony, Stein herself was aware of the dilemma:
It could be a puzzle why the intellectuals in every country are always wanting a form of government which would inevitably treat them badly, purge them so to speak before anybody else is purged. It has always happened from the French revolution to to-day. It would be a puzzle this if it were not that it is true that the world is round and that space is illimitable unlimited. I suppose it is that that makes the intellectual so anxious for a regimenting government which they could so ill endure. (Paris France, 1939)
The same paradox can be found in Stein’s long friendship with Bernard Faÿ. Stein met Faÿ in the mid-twenties, long before he turned fascist and collaborator. The gay, Harvard-educated historian from a Catholic, royalist background was highly respected in the States as an academic teacher and author. During the thirties, he had in many ways helped Stein’s literary career. Nobody has found any evidence that Stein knew what Faÿ was doing as a personal advisor of Pétain, or that he collaborated with the Gestapo to persecute the Freemasons in France. Even Will, after years of research, cannot come up with any proof that Stein knew of or condoned his activities. Will quotes as major evidence one remark in a letter Stein wrote to Faÿ in the early thirties: “and of course I see politics but from one angle which is yours.” We do not know what politics Stein was referring to. It could have been a shared disapproval of Roosevelt, or Stein’s opinion that, as Rogers sums it up, “labor unions deprive the worker of independence.”
When Faÿ was put on trial after the war and condemned to lifelong forced labor, he claimed that he had helped and protected Stein and Toklas throughout the war. Were the two women his “token Jews” whom every collaborator claimed to have saved? Can Faÿ’s often-quoted assertions from his memoir (Les Précieux, 1968) be believed? Can the collaborationist officials questioned in recent American and French studies be believed? Stein makes not a single mention of Faÿ’s assistance in her wartime writing or correspondence. She delivers a lukewarm letter of support during his trial, mentioning his “patriotism” and acknowledging that he helped to protect her art collection.
But what if Faÿ indeed helped Stein and Toklas survive in more ways than one? Some of the complexities of the war situation come to light when one learns that Sylvia Beach, the founder of the famous bookstore Shakespeare & Company and first publisher of James Joyce, was rounded up and sent to the Vittel detention camp at the end of 1942, but set free in 1943 because her lover Adrienne Monnier appealed to Jacques Benoist-Mechin, minister of police in the Vichy government. Beach personally thanked this police collaborator, who had helped the Germans round up Jews, Freemasons, and resisters, because “under the occupation friends made compromises to help friends” (Glass). Does this compromise condemn Beach and Monnier?
The suspicious questioning of how Stein and Toklas were able to survive the war as Jews reveals a considerable ignorance of the conditions in Vichy and Occupied France, and a troubled confusion of France with Germany. In Germany, half of the German Jews were trapped after 1938, and almost every one of them was murdered. In France, three quarters of the Jewish population survived in the same way Stein and Toklas did, with the help of friends and neighbors, and often with the help of local French officials who quietly resisted German orders.
These historical complexities are all missing from the current debate over Stein’s war experience. A particularly interesting omission is the fact that, by early 1943, Stein had reversed her position. In her diary-like record of the Occupation, Wars I Have Seen, she is increasingly enamored with the resistance and keeps excitedly reporting about local successes of the Maquis. She drops her translation of Pétain and is now clearly anti-Vichy, writing passionately that
[t]he one thing that everybody wants is to be free… not to be managed, threatened, directed, restrained, obliged, fearful, administered, none of these things (…) The only thing that any one wants now is to be free, to be let alone, to live their life as they can, but not to be watched, controlled and scared, no no, not.
Notably, Stein did not write this book with the benefit of hindsight. It was smuggled out of France before the war was over, and Stein didn’t add or change a word of it when it was published — to great success — in 1945. In contrast to many other writers and intellectuals of her time, who had propagated extremist doctrines, she thoroughly changed her mind, and said so.
We can deplore Stein’s regressive politics, her right-wing, Republican beliefs, her admiration for Pétain, her misguided translation project, and her friendship with an intellectual who turned fascist. But none of it makes her a likely, or unlikely, collaborator.