Auntie Semitism at the Met
Gertrude Stein’s ties to Nazis, revisited at the museum, shouldn’t eclipse her nurturing of young artists
In a rare move for a museum nearing the end of a popular exhibition, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced last week that it was amending a wall text at “The Steins Collect,” which brings together an amazing array of the Picassos, Matisses, and Braques, et al., amassed by the Stein family—Gertrude, her brothers Leo and Michael, and her sister-in-law Sarah—in the early part of the 20th century. The show, which began at the San Francisco Museum of Art before traveling to the Grand Palais in Paris, was inaugurated at the Met on Feb. 21 of this year and will close early next month.
What could account for such an astonishing turn of events—adding information to exhibition signage a mere four weeks before the show closes? The new wording, according to the New York Times, “will now acknowledge questions that have long surrounded Gertrude Stein’s sympathy toward the Vichy regime during World War II, leanings that might have contributed, amid Nazi looting during the war, to the survival of many of the works in the show.” The information is hardly new. The major outlines of this have been known at least since Janet Malcolm wrote about Stein’s “missing” Vichy years in a 2007 New Yorker, an account she later expanded into a book. A few scholars have delved even deeper, so we have to wonder what curatorial decisions allowed three major art institutions—the Met only the last among them—to suppress a fuller accounting. Another San Francisco venue, its new Contemporary Jewish Museum, also skimmed the surface of these troubling questions in “Seeing Gertrude Stein.” Alas, a wall label in an art exhibition may not be the best place to explain Stein’s sometimes hateful political views—their personal sources complex—that preceded her and Alice Toklas’ curious idyll in Occupied France. That said, Malcolm’s piece was, for me, a kind of wake-up call, for I might once have fashioned myself a Left-Bank 1920s American in Paris, which meant that I looked upon Stein’s world with nostalgia. But there are limits.
I first learned of Stein from Ernest Hemingway’s Paris memoir A Moveable Feast, which I read in my early college years when the Nixon Administration made living abroad seem quite an attractive draw. I saw France and things French as all that any American could ever hope to be: stylish, intelligent, sexually sophisticated. Hemingway’s portrait of the writers and painters who fawned at the feet of Gertrude and her companion Alice B. Toklas at their salon on rue de Fleurus inspired my travels to the City of Light, first in 1969, then on and off through the 1970s and 1980s. There was nothing on the streetscape of rue de Fleurus that distinguished the Stein residence from countless others in Paris, but I soaked up the atmosphere of faded cultural glory in and around the neighborhood of the Jardin du Luxembourg, the boulevards Saint-Michel and Saint-Germain and eventually visited such historical literary sites as the Café Flore, Le Dôme, and the Deux Magots.
For a long time, it didn’t even occur to me that “Stein” and “Toklas” were Jewish names. I simply relished the idea of Gertrude and Alice as a couple living in an arrangement where Gertrude nurtured the geniuses and Alice was relegated to the wives. Gertrude was built like a bountiful Mother Earth or, if you prefer a contemporary analogy, a Mack truck. I imagined wraithlike Alice, who looked nervous and delicate, serving the ladies tea with those thin cookies called langues-de-chat. Gertrude and Alice were gatekeepers to the heaven of the Left Bank, which rightly, I was sure, was where Americans should go to die.
When, years later, I realized that the pair of Jewish lesbians sat out World War II inside Occupied France, the question seemed obvious: How did they manage that trick? But, though curious, I was hardly obsessed.
Until recently, that is. Gertrude and Alice came back into focus for me in the course of my research for a life of the gay American photographer George Platt Lynes, who at the tender age of 18 entered the Stein orbit on his first trip to Paris in 1925. She provided moral support and career advice and let him print something of hers—“Descriptions of Literature”—for his precocious literary venture As Stable Publications. When he abruptly left Yale and took a summer course on the book-selling business at Columbia, Stein cautioned him—fully aware of the handsome young Lynes’ tastes—that “hanging around New York is not good for little boys.” Lynes maintained a correspondence with her that lasted 10 years.
Stein surrounded herself and lent the authority of her aesthetic judgment to young gay and bisexual artists who made their way to her door: Lynes, for one, but also composer Virgil Thomson, the painter and theater designer Pavel Tchelitchew and his successive lovers, composer Allen Tanner and poet Charles Henri Ford, and the chronicler and enthusiast of the Harlem Renaissance, Carl van Vechten. “We are surrounded by homosexuals,” she wrote to a friend in 1934. “They do all the good things in all the arts.” In her nurturing role to artists who might have been marginalized by their sexuality, Stein was truly The Mother of Us All—the title of the operatic pageant whose libretto she wrote to music by Thomson—and that was the way I chose to see her for years.
Yet journalist Janet Malcolm’s 2007 exposé in The New Yorker, and the book that expanded on it, Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, forced me to reconsider Stein and take her measure fresh. Malcolm explained how Stein and Toklas had been protected during the Occupation by a well-connected anti-Semite collaborator, committed Catholic, and conflicted homosexual, Bernard Faÿ, with whom Gertrude had been close friends for more than a decade and who had personally interceded on her and Alice’s behalf with Maréchal Philippe Pétain, the collaborationist leader of Vichy. Faÿ, director of the Bibliothèque Nationale during the Occupation, also secured Stein’s Paris art collection from the Germans. Recent scholarship by Barbara Will, Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ, and the Vichy Dilemma, paints a warts-and-all portrait of Gertrude and her conservative, anti-Roosevelt, fascist-leaning politics in the interwar period.
Stein was the product of a well-to-do German Jewish family whose father had made his money in the San Francisco streetcar business. When he died, older brother Michael took the fiscal reins and later sold the business for a sum that allowed Gertrude, who studied at Radcliffe and Johns Hopkins, and brother Leo, Harvard educated, to settle in Paris in 1903 and collect art. Raised a proper corseted Victorian, Gertrude gradually adopted loose gender-neutral ensembles with sandals, a mode of dress that marked her in Paris as une hommeuse—a mannish woman—which did not, necessarily, imply lesbianism. (Picasso once respectfully addressed a letter: “To Mademoiselle Gertrude Stein, Man of Letters.”) And while she did not announce her Jewishness, she was, all the same, perceived by the artistic goyim of that first decade of the 20th century—in a Paris still reeling from the combat of the Dreyfus Affair—as Jewish. Reflecting back in a letter of 1913, Mary Cassatt referenced Stein as “one of a family of California Jews who came to Paris poor and unknown, but they are not Jews for nothing … they … bought Matisse’s pictures cheap and began to pose as amateurs of the only real art.”
Oh, Mary, did you really put the words “Jew” and “cheap” into the same sentence? Yet the remark is a reflection of the standard social anti-Semitism of its time, no more disqualifying Cassatt as a significant Impressionist than Edith Wharton’s snide portrait of the millionaire Jew Rosedale in House of Mirth makes her less a great writer.
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