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Gertrude Stein’s “Missing” Vichy Years

Portrait of Gertrude Stein, New York, November 4, 1934. (Photo: Carl Van Vechten)

Gertrude Stein was a complex, iconic, artistic figure: an experimental writer, an intellectual salon hostess, a collector and nurturer of modern artists, an openly gay woman who admired authoritarian men. Her contradictions abounded and so did contradictions in many of her political statements. But there is no disputing that she chose to stay in France during WW II at a steep price to her historical legacy.

The smoking gun of Stein's ignominious behavior during WW II lies “in a few yellowing notebooks tucked away in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University,” according to Dartmouth Professor Barbara Will. In her new book, “Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ and the Vichy Dilemma,” Will details that on these aging pages are Stein's translation of 32 speeches by Marshal Philippe Pétain.

Pétain was not a literary figure, but a WW I hero and general who was the head of the collaborationist Vichy regime – a puppet government of the Nazis. These speech translations in Stein's own handwriting, according to Will, included those “that announced Vichy policy barring Jews and other 'foreign elements' from positions of power in the public sphere and those that called for a 'hopeful' reconciliation with Nazi forces.” Stein also promoted Pétain as the George Washington of France.

Stein and her famous partner, Alice B. Toklas, chose to stay in the southeast of the so-called Vichy “Free Zone” during WW II, instead of returning to certain safety in the US. Yet, despite being Jewish lesbian Americans, they – and Stein's priceless modern art collection – survived the war without major incident.

It is the contention of Professor Will and many others that Stein was protected by a noted French academic and anti-Semite, Bernard Faÿ, who was a key adviser to Pétain. According to Will, Faÿ was a Gestapo agent. Faÿ, who was imprisoned after the war as a collaborator – despite a plea from Stein on his behalf – wrote a memoir in the '60s in which he claims that he convinced Pétain to ensure that Stein and Toklas not only were left unharmed, but were provided with necessary comforts by the local police:

Before the meeting ended the Maréchal dictated a letter to the sous-prefect at Belley, entrusting Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas to his care and directing him to see to it that they had everything needed to keep warm during the winter, as well as ration coupons for meat and butter. I came to Vichy quite regularly and I telephoned the sous-prefect to remind him of his instructions. During this horrible period of occupation, misery and nascent civil war, my two friends lived a peaceful life, They didn't lack courage, they didn't lack intelligence, they didn't lack a sense of reality and they didn't lack coal.

Faÿ, who was also gay, was enamored of Stein's intellect and creativity and thought of her as someone who “rose above” being a Jew. Stein, indeed – although her Jewish identity is complex – generally did not identify herself as Jewish and thought of many “types” of Jews with disdain.

Both Stein and Faÿ were on the right flank in the cauldron of European politics in the '30s. Both associated many European Jews with communism, which they dreaded. Both adored Pétain as a figure who would re-establish a French state based on “traditional values.” In a break with many of the modern artists and literary figures of her time, Stein supported Franco over the Spanish Progressive Front. Franco won, with the help of Mussolini and Hitler, becoming a dictator for decades.

Stein also detested Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal, scathingly attacking them at times. She vilified the notion of a “welfare state” and the concept of the government under FDR intervening as a public “organization,” according to Professor Will.

After the German military invaded the Vichy “Free Zone” in late 1942, Stein and Toklas still remained undeported and untouched. Professor Charles Robertson of Smith College informed BuzzFlash at Truthout that Stein and Toklas “still moved about freely.” In fact, even though the Vichy government organized a national registry of Jews at the request of the Nazis, the names of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas did not appear on that list.

As Professor Robertson added, “Incidentally, so far as Jews were concerned, officially, their nationality didn't matter: they were Jews first.” It is true that France — among major nations occupied by the Nazis — had the highest percentage of Jews who survived the Holocaust and that the “Free Zone” was slower in sending Jews to concentration camps (the Vichy police generally rounded up the Jews for the Germans). But the threat was palpable. Professor Will notes that in April of 1944 – just 30 miles from where Stein lived – 44 Jewish children were “seized and deported to Auschwitz.” All of them were murdered.

New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm, who disclosed Stein's relationship to Faÿ in her 2007 book “Two Lives,” perhaps understated the case when she concluded that Stein “did not behave well in World War II.”

“The full story of the relationship of modernist writers to fascist and pro-fascist regimes is just beginning to be told and Stein offers a fascinating case study of this relationship,” Professor Will stated to BuzzFlash at Truthout. “It is hard to get at the complexities and dilemmas of this modernism/fascism nexus if we only see a sanitized 'Saint Gertrude' image of Stein. She was a complex, layered, in some ways heroic, but in some ways despicable individual. The fact that her writing is so obscure has allowed people to say almost anything about her and up to this point the discussion around her has been mostly hagiographic. Looking at the facts of her life, her politics, even her aesthetic principles (which are more conservative than you would think) allows for a much fuller and more realistic picture of Gertrude Stein to emerge.”

Two recent exhibitions involving Stein in San Francisco raise the question that Professor Will asks about historic accountability when it comes to artists and revered literary figures. Should how one lives one's life as an artist or literary figure become a vital part of an art exhibit? Does the “industry” of promoting certain “hallowed” figures as branded artistic figures need to be balanced by vigilant historical accuracy and debate?

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) just finished an exhibition of the modern art collected by the Bay Area-based Stein family. The works of art purchased by and given as gifts to Gertrude Stein were prominent in the show. The exhibition drew blockbuster crowds and it will go on to the Grand Palais in Paris and then to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Almost concurrently with SFMOMA, the San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum ran an homage to Stein, which made it what some fans called a “Stein summer” in San Francisco.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum exhibition was divided into five “stories” about Stein. As described on the museum's web site, “Through a portrayal of Stein's contributions in her writings, patronage and lifestyle, the exhibition provides an intimate look at Stein's complex relationship to her identity, culture and history.” This exhibit is now on its way to the National Portrait Gallery, part of the Smithsonian Museum.

Given the history of Stein's World War II years, the protection of her art collection from the Nazis by collaborationists, her entirely conflicted identity as a Jew – that leaned sometimes into a gray zone of remarks and thoughts that could be construed as anti-Semitic – her promotion of the Vichy leader whose promulgation of anti-Jewish regulations she translated, her fascist leanings – all of these and more which came to a crux during her WW II life in southern France – it is a bit astonishing that neither museum elaborated on any of this in their exhibits.

The SFMOMA had less explaining to do because they were focusing on the Stein family collections, of which Gertrude Stein's paintings are a major part. But, still, one wonders how the exhibition can offer background on the Stein family and ignore Gertrude Stein's complexities and the reason that her collection was not seized by the Nazis.

In fact, in one account, from Professor Will's book, the Nazis were on the verge of looting Stein's irreplaceable paintings by the great modernists – left behind in Paris – but Faÿ intervened and the Germans backed off. (The Germans considered modern art to be degenerate, but knew the value of many of the paintings and sold them off for cash in Switzerland, among other places.)

BuzzFlash at Truthout writer Bill Berkowitz attended the SFMOMA Stein exhibit and was astonished about how the museum dealt with the missing war years: “There was a discussion of the years leading up to and including World War II. Buried in that particular narrative was a statement that Stein had spent the war years in southern France. As I left the museum, I turned toward my friend and asked him if he had noticed that sentence. He had. It was, after all quite remarkable.”

The SFMOMA's press office responded to Buzzflash at Truthout's inquiry about the historical omission, by saying: “Among the many fascinating aspects of the Stein story, the museum hasn't seen this particular topic as especially germane to our project, which looks at what the family collected and why, their taste in art, their relationship with the artists and the impact of that support. If Gertrude's collection had been confiscated during World War II, I am sure our exhibition would have addressed it.”

The Contemporary Jewish Museum, however – due to its mission and the nature of the focus on Stein's life – was much more glaring in its omissions. The first question, of course, is why is a Jewish museum honoring someone who had very mixed feelings about being Jewish – and about Jews – without openly discussing these complexities in the exhibit?

The second question for the Contemporary Jewish Museum is how could it promote Stein as its featured exhibit at the same time that it was holding a showing of the art work of Charlotte Salomon? Salomon, according to the Contemporary Jewish Museum, was “a young Jewish artist from Berlin, [who] worked feverishly between 1940 and 1942 to produce approximately 1300 paintings before she was arrested by the Nazis in 1943, transported to Auschwitz and killed at the age of 26.” She was five months pregnant when she was gassed, after being captured in, ironically, southern France.

Sonia Melnikova-Raich, who emigrated from the Soviet Union 25 years ago, felt that this type of historical “cleansing” of anything that would do damage to the favorable image of Gertrude Stein was similar to what she had seen done to some Soviet “heroes” and official cult figures. In an article for the Bay Area Jewish Weekly, Melnikova-Raich charges that “the current exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum 'Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories' noticeably lacks a sixth story.”

Indeed, the museum only provides a short romanticized mention of Faÿ's relationship to Stein in the exhibit and a few vague sentences about the World War II existence of Stein and Toklas. (The museum wall text does interestingly note, “German soldiers were billeted twice to their home in the village.” The museum's news release about the exhibit can be read by clicking here.)

The Contemporary Jewish Museum's Executive Director, Connie Wolf, issued a response to the exhibit's absence of an elaboration on Faÿ and the war years that included referring museum goers to the exhibit's companion book available for purchase. BuzzFlash at Truthout also received a polite response from Associate Curator and art historian Tirza Latimer, who explained that the reason more of this topic wasn't discussed was that it was a visual exhibit. She also indicated that she had invited Professor Will to participate on a panel when the exhibit moves to the Smithsonian. The “lead” guest curator Dara Solomon responded: “I want to reiterate that the museum did not overlook the complex issue of Gertrude Stein's Jewish identity.”

Stein, like many artists and celebrities, has become a thriving artistic “brand.”

Artistic pilgrimages such as the two San Francisco Stein exhibits bring extensive foundation support, large crowds that pay healthy admission fees and booming gift shop sales.

But trying to achieve historical transparency and context is not about increasing attendance at exhibitions and selling products; it is about seeking to arrive at some semblance of the truth. Writers and artists are not exempt from that scrutiny.

Primary research for this article was conducted by Sari Gelzer, senior editor at Truthout.

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