Auntie Semitism at the Met
Gertrude Stein’s ties to Nazis, revisited at the museum, shouldn’t eclipse her nurturing of young artists
As their mutual affection and intimacy deepened, Faÿ obviously saw ways to be useful to a woman whose membership in her circle elevated him into a transatlantic cultural aristocracy. A knowledgeable Americanophile, he helped arrange Stein’s American tour of 1934 after the popular success of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. The tour was a triumph; it turned the expatriate, previously obscurantist writer into an American cultural celebrity of the first order.
Like Stein, Faÿ subscribed to an essentialist view of national characteristics and championed Stein’s literary style as an American linguistic coup. He enthused about this in, of all places, the extreme Right’s anti-Semitic periodical Je Suis Partout. Faÿ even claimed Stein was welcomed on her American tour “like Mussolini when he is greeting a fascist crowd.”
An opportunist, in due course Faÿ became an active Gestapo agent whose intelligence-gathering against French Freemasons—in his fevered mind, conspirators allied with international Jewry—ultimately aided in many deportations and deaths. In France’s postwar purge trials, Faÿ would be tried for his efforts on behalf of the Third Reich. Stein wrote to the court on his behalf, but Faÿ would be sentenced, as Will recounts, to “hard labor for life,” later commuted to 20 years.
Did Stein assume the Pétain translations to assure her and Alice’s safety? Maybe. But her admiration of Pétain, the Great War’s “hero of Verdun”—and in Faÿ’s estimation, the George Washington of a new France—was full-throated even after the Liberation. She saw Pétain’s collaboration with Hitler as a miraculous diplomatic legerdemain where France was spared another war on its soil. Under the Maréchal’s leadership, the Communists, whom Stein loathed, would be kept at bay. Nineteen-thirties France’s political chaos and “decadence” would be replaced by a return to fundamental values of hearth and home and the eternal verities of the French patrimony—where simple folk in small provincial towns adhered to their Catholic faith and prayed to their local saints. This was Christian knowledge in which Stein, the librettist of Four Saints in Three Acts, had long been an enthusiast.
Stein and Toklas retreated to their country home in Bilignin during the war, a provincial backwater of the Rhônes-Alpes where devout townsfolk were exactly the sort whose virtues she and Pétain could extol in tandem. And were it not for the protection of the local authorities, the two elderly American Jewesses would have been tallied in the local registry of resident Jews and eventually faced deportation to a concentration camp. Amazingly, the locals, with whom Stein maintained warm relations, kept her and Toklas’ secret. In the couple’s calculations, it seems not to have counted that their presence threatened the lives of their neighbors who might suffer reprisals for, in effect, “hiding” them within the community.
To the local peasants and bourgeois, unlike their cosmopolitan Paris crowd, the pair succeeded in some unspoken fiction of appearing mere companions who walked their poodle and made excellent small talk. Perhaps they were not an unusual sight. French women of their generation had, many indeed, lost the young men they would otherwise have married but for the decimations of World War I. In France, paired spinsterhood after the war might have appeared no more suspect than “Boston marriages” in America before the advent of Freud. Like her shriveled Jewish identity, Stein’s lesbianism was “hidden” in plain sight.
Stein would write about the psychological terrors and privations of this period in Wars I Have Seen, but she never lays specific claim to her and Toklas’ position as foreign Jews. At the Liberation, Stein and Toklas would be “discovered” by the journalist Eric Sevareid who trumpeted their survival inside France, although survival as Americans, not Jews. Neither Stein nor Toklas ever disavowed their relations to Faÿ or their support of Pétain. Stein would die of cancer in 1947, and Toklas would live on in straitened circumstances as keeper of the flame. She even channeled money raised by the sale of a Picasso drawing and gouache to aid Faÿ’s 1951 escape from a prison hospital. In Switzerland, Faÿ was welcomed into a community of ex-Nazis, collaborators, aristo-Catholics, and local right-wing zealots. Toklas survived in near penury after losing the art collection to Stein’s relations in a drawn-out legal battle. Attracted to Catholicism as Stein had been, Toklas would convert in 1957, reportedly with the encouragement of Faÿ, hoping to meet Stein in heaven—a particularly non-Jewish concept to begin with. In any case, Toklas’ personal Calvary may well have been surviving more than 20 years to live in the shadow of her great love. Of her devotion to Stein there can be no doubt. Her own memoir, What Is Remembered, ends with Stein’s death—as if, thereby, her own life was effectively over.
Why had the two women stayed in France as lesbians and Jews, when they could have returned to America and found support among their wide circle of intellectual and artistic friends? Perhaps publicly “hiding” had become a habit. But there is also something of the stubborn desire to face one’s destiny with one’s own chosen people. Perhaps they were willing to meet the martyrdom reserved for Catholic saints, but not the kind reserved for Jews.
In any case, like so many “geniuses,” Stein disappoints as a simple human being, but I cannot bring myself to hate her. It’s true that, for all her charming talk and manner—by all reports, remarkable—she had no warmth for her brethren in their hour of greatest need. And I have always had a sincere distaste for Jews who leave the faith by converting to Christianity or taking on WASP airs. It seems to me an act of cowardice. We Jews are so few in the world that even to be a bad Jew—and I hardly think of myself as an especially good one—is to serve and honor the memory of our people who have suffered as much as and more than many a Christian martyr. But if I hold my nose and give Stein and Toklas a pass, it is because I cannot bring myself to condemn two old women who believed they were different and even better than others when in fact they were the same—the same as any other pair of old Jews merely trying and hoping to live.
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