Loyalty to the Cause

Gertrude Stein, as Barbara Will confirms for us in 'Unlikely Collaboration,' was a complex, experimental writer, a collector of modern art, a salon hostess to modern artists and writers, a feminist, and a lesbian.

Gerald Sorin
Gerald Sorin
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Gerald Sorin
Gerald Sorin

Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Fay, and the Vichy Dilemma, by Barbara Will. Columbia University Press, 274 pages, $35

Gertrude Stein, as Barbara Will confirms for us in "Unlikely Collaboration," was a complex, experimental writer, a collector of modern art, a salon hostess to modern artists and writers, a feminist, and a lesbian. It is understandable, then, that through much of the 20th century and into the 21st, she has been seen by many as a radical progressive. But as the writer Janet Malcolm earlier demonstrated in her book "Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice" (2007 ), Stein, who was Jewish, had a very close relationship with the prominent French academic Bernard Fay, a Nazi agent imprisoned after the war as a collaborator. Gertrude, Malcolm writes, "did not behave well in World War II."

This turns out to be an understatement of enormous proportions. For as we learn in Barbara Will's excellent, if somewhat puffed-up and repetitive book version of her earlier article "Lost in Translation: Stein's Vichy Collaboration" (published in 2004 in the journal Modernism/modernity ), Gertrude Stein was a reactionary modernist and an out-and-out fascist.

This was not entirely unknown during Stein's lifetime. Pablo Picasso, for example, recognized that she "was a real fascist." She had always had "a weakness for Franco," the artist said, but he still found it hard even to imagine that Stein also translated and helped write speeches for Marshall Phillipe Petain, the chief of state of Vichy France. After all, Picasso said, she was an "American, a Jewess what's more." Yes, it was that Gertrude Stein, the same one you may have thought you knew, the iconic woman and modernist writer who was celebrated for her "genius" and her having survived the European conflagration of the 1930s and 1940s. But what you may not have known is that Stein - along with her partner, Alice B. Toklas - not only emerged unscathed, but lived willingly and comfortably in Nazi-occupied France during World War II. Barbara Will, a professor of English at Dartmouth, is entirely persuasive on this point.

Stein's fascism, which apparently emerged in the early '30s, and her cooperation with the Vichy regime in the 1940s were bolstered by her intimate intellectual connection with Bernard Fay. Stein's political views, wherever they came from originally, were informed by her admiration for authoritarian men, order and peace, which she thought necessitated the existence of a homogenous population deeply rooted in its own soil - the kind of peace that would allow the artist "the requisite conditions for creative freedom."

For further reading:

The silence was deafening
He thought Nazism was poetry
Claims of innocents

Stein's contradictions were legion, and so were the inconsistencies in her political statements, something Will might have examined more analytically. Stein despised Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal for what she saw as their profligacy, paternalism and passion for, as Will puts it, organizing everything, but the author doesn't address why Hitler's obsession with bureaucratization seemed not to bother Stein.

In 1934, during a lecture tour in the United States, Stein told an interviewer from The New York Times Magazine that she did "not approve of the stringent immigration laws in America today," adding: "We need the stimulation of new blood." But she went on to say we should select our immigrants with "greater care ... bar certain peoples and preserve the color line." In the same interview she said, "Hitler should have received the Nobel Peace Prize" because "he is removing all elements of contest and struggle from Germany," especially "the Jews" and their democratic and left-wing counterparts. "This," she concluded, "means peace."

Provocative and ironic

Yet Stein's venerable reputation among feminists, lesbians and modernists moved many of them to believe that the author of "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas," in saying bizarre things about Hitler and peace, was merely being her eccentric, provocative, ironic self. What seems to have gone unnoticed for decades is that Stein actually lobbied the Nobel committee on Hitler's behalf in 1938 and continued, in her 1945 book "Wars I Have Seen," to praise Petain, despite his having been convicted as a war criminal. Shortly before her death, in 1946, Stein also agreed to write a testimonial in support of Fay ahead of his trial in Paris for working with the Gestapo.

The tight relationship between Stein, "the Jew," and Fay, "the anti-Semite" (the broad characterization to which their collaboration had been reduced until recently by historians and journalists ), was less "unlikely" than Will's title implies. In many ways, Fay and Stein were like two peas in a pod. Fay, like Stein, was gay; though he was openly anti-Semitic, he was bedazzled by Stein's intellect, imagination and right-leaning political principles, and saw her as a "great" woman who "rose above" being a Jew. Stein herself rarely, if ever, identified herself as Jewish, and moreover, often made disparaging remarks in letters, published writings and conversation about particular "types" of Jews.

Both Fay and Stein were deeply committed to the right during the 1930s and '40s, and were in thrall to Petain. And though, unlike Fay, Stein never collaborated directly with the Nazi occupiers, she moved about quite openly in southern France, even after the German military "invaded" the Vichy "free zone" in 1942. Neither she nor Toklas ever appeared on the national registry of Jews compiled by Petain's government at the Nazis' request.

Indeed, as Fay reported in his memoir, Petain directed him to see that the couple "had every thing they needed to keep warm during the winter, as well as ration coupons for meat and butter." He added, "During this horrible period of occupation [and] misery," Stein and Toklas "didn't lack courage, they didn't lack intelligence, they didn't lack a sense of reality and they didn't lack coal."

About the coal he was right. About most of the rest Fay was wrong. I'm with Picasso on this. It is difficult to understand how Stein could have continued to translate Petain's speeches, like those that announced the Vichy policies barring Jews from important positions, and explicitly called for "a 'hopeful' reconciliation with Nazi forces." Even when the mass deportations to death camps began - including 44 children sent to Auschwitz after being seized from an orphanage in Izieu, less than 30 miles from where Stein lived - she remained seemingly unconcerned, and certainly unthreatened and untouched. Oh, yes, the Nazis were on the verge of looting Stein's private collection of paintings by the great modernists, including Picasso, Cezanne, Renoir, Daumier and Toulouse-Lautrec, but Fay intervened and the Germans relented.

A fascist is a fascist is a fascist

Barbara Will's "Unlikely Collaboration" deftly demonstrates that on balance, "Stein's activity was less about opportunities than about loyalty to a cause." In the process, she puts to rest the unsubstantiated, bordering on perverse, idea in Linda Wagner-Martin's book "Favored Strangers: Gertrude Stein and Her Family" (1997 ), that although Stein was deeply involved in a platonic relationship with Fay, she may have had simultaneous "familiarity with the Resistance." Will's work on Stein makes it clear that just as "Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose," as Stein wrote in her 1922 poem "Sacred Emily," a fascist is a fascist is a fascist.

Yet coinciding with the publication of Will's book and two years after Malcolm's, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Contemporary Jewish Museum, in the same city, are running exhibits on and paying homage to Gertrude Stein's writing and her and her family's art collection - without any reference to Stein's wartime experience or the reason that her invaluable paintings were not seized by the Nazis.

This raises the age-old question of whether we ought to separate the art from the artist. Stein is especially interesting here in that she, like many other modernist writers, including Yeats, Eliot, Celine, Wyndham Lewis and Knut Hamsun, was drawn to the right. Near the beginning of her book, Will seems to promise a hard look at this phenomenon, using Stein as a case study to illuminate the "improbable" connection between modernism and fascism.

I have problems with this. When Yeats, Eliot, Pound, et al, are trotted out, by Will or anyone else, to demonstrate the nexus of modernism and reactionary politics, we are rarely told of modernists who were not drawn to the right - Joyce, Kafka, Proust and Beckett, for example, or Robert Musil and William Carlos Williams.

The best Will can do is to say that unless we look deeply beneath the "moralistic terrain" upon which the Fay and Stein relationship has existed in the minds of many, we are kept from "grasping the real dilemma" of their time: what accounts for the "attraction of modernist writers and thinkers to right-wing or reactionary politics." But Will has looked very deeply and continues to have no answer. What she has done, however, and done well, is to move us away from seeing a sanitized "Saint Gertrude" and help us see her as a complicated, mutltifaceted woman and writer whose often obscure work allowed her admirers to say anything they wanted about her. Will's "Unlikely Collaboration" ought to make Stein hagiography much less possible in the future. She has given us a fuller, more realistic picture of a multilayered Stein who was fairly talented, but who also, in Will's own words, was in morally significant ways a "despicable individual."

Gerald Sorin, a professor of American and Jewish studies at the State University of New York, New Paltz, is author of "Irving Howe: A Life of Passionate Dissent," and a biography of Howard Fast, to be published next year.

Stein and her pet poodle, September 1944.Credit: Carl Mydans/ Time & Life Pictures/ Getty Images



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