Auntie Semitism at the Met
Gertrude Stein’s ties to Nazis, revisited at the museum, shouldn’t eclipse her nurturing of young artists
It’s near impossible, however, even for the experts, to resolve the riddle of Stein and Toklas’ decision to stay in Vichy France when it would have been obvious to any other two aging lesbian Jews with foreign citizenship to get the hell out. Malcolm quotes Stein from a 1940 piece in the Atlantic Monthly, written after Stein had been warned by the American consul in Lyon to leave France immediately. Stein says to Toklas, “Well, I don’t know—it would be awfully uncomfortable and I am fussy about my food. Let’s not leave.”
One marvels at the sheer narcissistic chutzpah: to say such a thing when a great many people were “uncomfortable” because the Nazis were overrunning Europe. Better thinkers and artists than she, Jew and non-Jew, had already abruptly left their homes and daily lives and been separated from loved ones. But Stein was fussy about her food. And she had no compunction about sharing this fact with the American public two years after Kristallnacht.
Then again, condemning Stein for her moral blindness is simply a way of assuming our own behavior, in similar circumstances, would surely have been better. When Stein told this story to her American compatriots in the Atlantic, it was not as a Jew under threat. Rather, she was engaged in a form of magical thinking; she was so modern she was beyond being merely Jewish. As a writer, she believed and declared herself a “genius.” That was her tribe, and it was a select one.
By contrast, she didn’t hide her deeply conservative streak in magazine pieces of the 1930s; she was against the Republican cause in Spain and for Franco. Her politics were a contrarian amalgam of Jeffersonian agrarianism, American frontier “individualism,” both mixed with romance for la France Profonde and the appeal of a “peace” at any price that secures the comforts of a regulated “daily life” when one can, in other words, be fussy about one’s food. She hated the New Deal’s collective “organizing” of the American citizenry. She could even write about “the Jews” as if she wasn’t one herself—ironic, given that her series of articles in the Saturday Evening Post in 1936 was on the theme of “Money,” which is, no doubt, a topic nearly every Gentile thinks is reserved for Jewish expertise. In one of these articles, Stein lamented Roosevelt’s anti-big-business stance, for by “getting rid of the rich … everybody is poor.” Such opinions stick in my craw; suddenly, Gertrude Stein seems as if she’d be perfectly comfortable shilling for today’s Tea Party.
It gets worse. Stein famously said of Hitler in a 1934 interview that “[he] should have received the Nobel Peace Prize … 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.” After parsing this statement’s perversity, Barbara Will concludes that for Stein’s contemporaries, her “pontifications” of this period were “not clearly ironic but apparently deeply felt.”
By any measure, Stein was a deracinated Jew. She disliked Jewish patriarchy—fair enough. But what possessed her in 1941 to 1943 to translate a large group of Pétain’s speeches into English for eventual propaganda purposes? The anti-Semitic Faÿ, appealing to his favored Jewess—every anti-Semite has to have one—was hoping to sway the American public in favor of Vichy. What better way than to use Gertrude Stein to translate for American publication Pétain’s self-serving exhortations to his countrymen? The surprise, I suppose, is that no factotum of Benito Mussolini’s thought to ask James Joyce to help Il Duce out with his public relations; Joyce, after all, spent a solid 10 years living in Trieste! On the other hand, let’s not even mention Ezra Pound. In fact, one of the few “modernist” writers of the last century whose moral/political sense fares well at this distance is one who fortunately missed the European interwar period completely: Marcel Proust died before he had to condemn French democratic institutions of the 1930s and align himself with either right-wing or left-wing authoritarians—but at least he was a solid supporter of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus when it mattered.
But to understand Stein’s submitting to this exercise, or Faustian bargain, it helps to understand her relationship to Faÿ, and his to her—for surely each party was getting something from the other. Although French, Faÿ was, like Stein’s brilliant brother Leo, a Harvard man, and a well-regarded scholar of America’s Founding Fathers; he had good American connections. He first met Stein in 1926 when the salon on rue de Fleurus was increasingly the preserve of gay and lesbian acolytes like New Yorker writer Janet Flanner, the surrealist poet René Crevel, and composer Aaron Copeland—he of a physiognomy we would have to call typically Jewish. Into this mix came Faÿ, already with friends of influence in both France and America and, like the others, coming to the Stein salon to venerate their patron saint and mentor. At the same time, for her part, Stein was, according to Barbara Will, “deeply engrossed in her own imaginative exploration of saints and sainthood.” Eventually, Stein shared with the homosexual and deeply Catholic Faÿ—sometimes in quiet walks at the Stein-Toklas country retreat—an intimate discourse that may have first been religious in nature but, for Saint Gertrude, evolved into “an appreciation for the political critique of the French Third Republic emerging from Catholic intellectuals on the Right.”
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