Inside Story

Good writers, bad politics

Gertrude Stein’s authoritarian views left her susceptible to Marshal Pétain’s wartime Vichy government

Sara Dowse Books 14 June 2012 2431 words

In the grey zone: an undated photograph of Gertrude Stein. Archives-Zephyr/Alamy

Sixty-five years after her death, Gertrude Stein, perhaps the quintessential American in Paris, has acquired legendary status. Her 1920s salon features in Woody Allen’s romantic Midnight in Paris; her portrait by Picasso graces coffee mugs; her name inspires beer steins and innumerable other collectibles. She is adored by gays and revered by feminists, critics and poets for her unabashed lesbianism, her generous patronage of major twentieth-century writers and artists, and her own bold experiments in writing.

But when is a rose not quite a rose? Biographers of Stein have had to contort themselves to gloss over the curious fact of her survival in relative comfort during the second world war. For here is the question. How did two Jews living in France – Stein and her life partner Alice B. Toklas – manage to avoid deportation and the confiscation of their property, the fate of most Jews under the Nazi occupation and the collaborationist Vichy regime? All told, some 77,000 Jews – men, women and children – a third of them French citizens, the others refugees or immigrants, were rounded up in Drancy and other concentration camps, to be sent to their deaths. Irène Némirovsky, one of France’s most popular writers, was among those captured in the Gestapo’s dragnet. But Stein and Toklas remained untouched, as did Stein’s priceless art collection.

Barbara Will, a Dartmouth College English professor, was one of those biographers. A specialist in modernism and American literature, she published Gertrude Stein, Modernism, and the Problem of “Genius”, a book mainly concerned with Stein’s aesthetics, in 2002. As more and more material was uncovered, however – not the least of which were Stein’s letters to Thornton Wilder and the handwritten manuscripts of her translations of Vichy president Marshal Pétain’s speeches – Will felt compelled to grapple with the problem of Stein’s wartime collaboration. As she puts it in her new book, Unlikely Collaboration, “Given the generally positive reputation Stein currently enjoys, it was simply hard to believe the accusations… We want our good writers to have good politics.”

Yet evidence to the contrary has long been with us, as even a short list of fascist or Nazi sympathisers shows. Louis-Ferdinand Céline, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Knut Hamsun, literary stars of their day, were all attracted to what they believed to be the stability offered by right-wing authoritarianism. It can be argued that their support for fascism or Nazism had less to do with anti-Semitism than with a longing for the perceived tranquillity of authoritarian regimes in the past, but the argument is not always convincing.

The period between the two world wars was one of rampant social and economic dislocation in Europe, the memory of wholesale slaughter still fresh. France, a nation divided since the convulsions of its 1789 revolution, was the major battlefield. Tradition-bound Catholic monarchists, still smarting from wounds delivered back in the eighteenth century and unreconciled to the Third Republic and democracy in general, were horrified by the looming spectre of communism. The left’s Popular Front encapsulated their deepest fears. Society had grown decadent. The odd thing is that Gertrude Stein – who, with her brother Leo, did more than just about anyone to promote “decadence” in the arts – believed this too.

By the end of the 1920s, the character of Stein’s famous salon had changed. Hemingway and Fitzgerald had gone, and so had Picasso. Unlike those macho characters of the early days, their replacements tended to be happily homosexual or bisexual and to share Stein’s openly authoritarian beliefs. The key figure in the new constellation was Bernard Faÿ, a French professor nearly twenty years Stein’s junior, who had a Harvard degree and had taught in various American universities. His specialty, indeed his passion, was America, but an America of a very distinctive kind. In contrast to the democratic decadence of nineteenth-century industrial capitalism, Stein and Faÿ favoured the eighteenth-century federalism created by America’s founding fathers – a theme elaborated by Stein in The Making of Americans and miscellaneous pieces and by Faÿ in countless lectures and monographs.

As a one-time student of American history myself (admittedly at the undergraduate level) I’m obliged to say that I find their ideas about the United States quite wacky. But their import here lies less in their validity than in their relevance to European politics of the time. Foreshadowing a quite different European Union by decades, Faÿ argued for a pan-European federation that would entrench Europe’s traditional Christian values. So long as his federation brought peace to the continent, he was more than willing to countenance German dominance. Peace was essential to Stein as well, for it was only under peaceful and stable conditions, she believed, that art and artists could flourish. This was her special take on the policy of appeasement.

Will presents what is essentially a double narrative of the lives of Stein and Faÿ, the latter of whom she has rescued from oblivion in order to explain his role in Stein’s and Toklas’s survival. She examines the Stein–Faÿ friendship and explores their diverging yet mutually beneficial paths under Vichy. Finally, in an epilogue, she tracks their markedly different postwar trajectories.

WHAT brought Stein and Faÿ together in the first place was their fascination with America. Despite his nostalgia for its ultimately pragmatic federalism (designed as it was to control the rabble), Faÿ was infatuated with the country’s wealth and vitality, the bustling capitalism that came to France’s rescue in the first war. Stein was, well, missing her home. True to America’s “melting pot” tradition, she regarded herself more American than Jew, and felt the American experiment had a great deal to offer Europe. The American Experiment, in fact, was what Faÿ called his first published book. A young man on the make (Will describes both Stein’s and Faÿ’s personalities as manipulative), he insinuated himself into Stein’s rarefied circle and was happy to be her acolyte, at least to begin with. Their friendship deepened through the exchange of manuscripts and a convergence of political opinion.

The 1930s was a turning point for both, catapulting each out of a kind of precious obscurity. After The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was published in 1933, Stein, aged sixty, became a celebrity. Her photograph, in the likeness of a bust of a Roman emperor, graced the cover of Time – even today, for some, America’s highest accolade. A high-powered lecture tour with Toklas of the two women’s native country followed. The astounding success of The Autobiography led Stein to hope that her more experimental prose and poetry would have a similar reception. That never really happened – few read it then and few read it now, outside academia; fewer still claim to understand it – but her reputation as a “genius” was secured.

Faÿ’s star, too, continued to rise in the thirties. He was accepted in government circles as an expert on America and helped shape French policy. An assiduous writer and public intellectual, he was elected to the prestigious Collège de France and eventually appointed director of the Bibliothèque Nationale, all the while evincing increasingly right-wing opinions and more than flirting with fascism. Though not particularly anti-Semitic himself, he was a regular contributor to anti-Semitic journals such as Je Suis Partout and La Gerbe, mixed in anti-Semitic circles and sprinkled the anti-Semites’ favoured hyphenates – including “Judeo-Communist” and “Judeo-Masonry” – through his writings.

Stein likewise used her newly acquired prominence to air her reactionary views, famously going as far as admiring Hitler for bringing order to Germany. By contrast, she loathed Franklin Delano Roosevelt, arguing that with his Dutch background he didn’t scrub up as truly American. (And this from the daughter of immigrant Jews!) The New Deal, which was slowly winching the country out of the Great Depression, was anathema to her, creating a nation of “idlers.” The mass industrial society the United States had become was the antithesis of her beloved Jeffersonian America (a delusory historical distortion we hear bandied about to this day).

Before the second war began, Stein and Toklas had settled in a chateau in the village of Bilignin in the Bugey region of southeastern France. There was some skulduggery involved in their renting the property, which belonged to a lieutenant who was due to retire and planned to take up residence there. It was through the Faÿ connection that Stein was able to arrange a promotion, and thus an extension of duty, for the hapless officer, who was sent off to another post. The move helped ensure their survival: when the Germans seized Paris in June 1940, Stein and Toklas were not among the tragic cavalcade of refugees that Irène Némirovsky wrote so movingly about in Suite Française. They were already safe, smack in the middle of Vichy.

At Bilignin they enjoyed the kind of bucolic idyll that Stein had promoted in her writings: gardening, growing their own produce and bartering with their neighbours. The neighbours were overwhelmingly Catholic and deeply conservative. When they were forced to move again (the lieutenant, then captain, had indeed retired) it was to Uriage, the centre, as it were, of the most reactionary elements of French society. Will writes of the cabal of royalists and Nazi sympathisers that operated there, and Stein’s rubbing shoulders with them.

Both Stein and Faÿ had long been admirers of Philippe Pétain, the hero of Verdun and the leader of France’s wartime collaborationist government, whom they compared with George Washington. They subscribed to his revanchist National Revolution well before he made his peace with the Nazis and set up the Vichy state. Opposed to the 1789 revolution’s ideals of liberté, egalité, fraternité, were Pétain’s travail, famille, patrie, the “core values” of his program of “static agrarianism.” Among the manuscript pages of Stein’s translation of his speeches is a prologue in which her support for both Pétain and his puppet state are made abundantly clear.

It has been argued that Stein’s translating the speeches was quid pro quo for the fact that she and Toklas were spared from extermination and her Paris art collection protected from appropriation by the Nazis. But Will makes a case for Stein’s genuine enthusiasm for the task. Will’s painstaking examination of the manuscripts reveals how closely Stein followed Pétain’s style. This has led Will to speculate that this was another instance of Stein’s contradictory and reactionary submissiveness to authoritarian father figures. (In the iconoclastic writings for which she is better known, Stein had claimed to disown the “fathers,” but these just happened to be Jewish.)

To be scrupulously fair, I’m not so sure that Will’s take on this is the only one to be had. It’s possible that Stein, a fluent French speaker and excellent translator, felt obliged to stick as close as she could to Pétain’s words because it would be dangerous to do otherwise. This is the “grey zone” that most who lived through those years had to negotiate, one way or another. But history, as we know, is the darling of the victor. As Will reminds us, in June 1940, when the Nazis closed in, the overwhelming majority of French people preferred the occupation to what they had experienced in the previous war. The Resistance we honour today was, in the main, a tiny group of leftists and Jewish partisans.

As the war continued and life under the Nazis proved increasingly harsh there is evidence enough that opposition to them grew. Certainly after November 1942, when they replaced Pétain with the more compliant Pierre Laval and Vichy was dissolved, it is fair to say that the French had had enough. But as Sylvia Lawson has noted in Demanding the Impossible, her recently published collection of essays about resistance, even so ardent an opponent to the Nazi regime as Simone de Beauvoir was forced at times to make her accommodation.

By 1943 Bernard Faÿ’s fortunes had dramatically turned. Too much a French patriot to wholly embrace Nazism, he had focused his energies on ridding France of Freemasonry, an obsession bordering on paranoia that saw him, as Bibliothèque Nationale director, draw up the infamous list of 500 card-carrying Freemasons that resulted in most of them being deported. Unwilling to cooperate with the Germans after Pétain’s fall, he was soon removed from this post and his lectureships. But this didn’t spare him from being convicted as a collaborator after the war. He spent six years in prison, but escaped with the help of Toklas after Stein had died.

Unlikely Collaboration is a challenging book. Stein’s reputation as feminist gay icon will probably not survive it. As for her literary reputation, that had already been interrogated if not completely undermined by the time Will embarked on her investigation. But Stein’s case poses yet again those perennial questions about politics and art. Can artists remain aloof from politics? Should artists collaborate for the sake of their art? And finally, do reactionary politics make for bad art? I would say not necessarily, and Will, I’m sure, would agree. But I still maintain that great art springs from large, if fallible, hearts; and that technical brilliance or even iconoclasm is not enough. I never was much for Gertrude Stein, and after reading this book I like her even less. But I can feel for her predicament, if not for the way she resolved it.

SEEING Gertrude Stein: Five Stories, on show recently at Washington’s National Portrait Gallery, might well be called a biography of Stein’s life, manifest in five stages and in a wealth of artworks attesting to her influence in the development of modern art. The exhibition was first mounted last year at the San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum, together with a larger exhibit of the Stein family art collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. More recently, The Steins Collect, with her brother Leo’s collections alongside hers, finished up at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Predictably, all the shows have attracted crowds.

Is it not a little ironic that a lesbian couple were kicked out of San Francisco’s exhibition for holding hands in public? And more – that this single incident sparked a huge protest? Politics today are not what they were when Stein was alive; and I’m grateful at least for that. •

Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ, and the Vichy Dilemma
By Barbara Will | Columbia University Press | $49.95