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Auntie Semitism at the Met

Gertrude Stein’s ties to Nazis, revisited at the museum, shouldn’t eclipse her nurturing of young artists

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Gertrude Stein’s automobile authorization from Bordeaux, France, 1940. (Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

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.

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.”

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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cesera cesera says:

Dear  ,
You are right and they are right to tell the historic truth about Gertrude Stein in this however wonderfull exhibition,”The Steins Collect;Matisse,Picasso,Cezanne and the Parisian Avant Garde” in NewYork at the Metropolitan Museum of Art .
Because what a pleasure to see the portrait of Gertrude Stein by Riba-Rovira .Who was as Picasso an antifascist and antinazi artist .Persecuted by Franco and the Nazis .Whose father was in jail after the spanish civil war .Beside Tchelitchew and Balthus and Francis Rose near Picabia and Picasso in the last room of this exhibition .

And you have an interesting article in Appollo London Revew about him .And also in Artes Magazine from San Francisco where the exhibition was before .The main document is with the mention beside the picture with the Preface Gertrude Stein wrote for his first Riba-Rovira’s exhibition in the Galerie Roquepine in Paris on 1945 .
Where we can read Gertrude Stein writing Riba-Rovira “will go farther than Cezanne…will succeed in where Picasso failed…I am fascinated ” by Riba-Rovira Gertrude Stein tells us .

And you are you also fascinated indeed as Gertrude Stein by Riba-Rovira ?

Me I am when I see « L’Arlequin » on the free access website of « Galeria Muro ».

But Gertrude Stein spoke also in this same document about Matisse and  Juan Gris .
And we learn Riba-Rovira went each week in Gertrude Stein’s saloon rue Christine with Masson ,Hemingway and others.By Edward Burns and Carl Van Vechten we can know Riba-Rovira did others portraits of Gertrude Stein .

But we do not know where they are ;and you do you know perhaps ?

With this wonderful portrait we do not forget it is the last time Gertrude Stein sat for an artist who is Riba-Rovira .
This exhibition presents us a world success with this last painting portrait before she died .And her last Gertrude Stein’s Art Retrospective before dead .
Both ,it is one of the last text where she gives her last art vision .As a light over that exhibition now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York thanks to Curator Rebecca Rabinow .
Coming from San Francisco “Seeing five stories” in the Jewish museum to Washington in National Portrait Gallery .And now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York for our pleasure .
And the must is to see for the first time in the same place portraits by Picasso, Picabia, Riba-Rovira, Rose ,Tall-Coat, Valloton .Never before it was . 
You have the translate of Gertrude Stein’s Riba-Rovira Preface on english Gertrude Stein’s page on Wikipedia and in the catalog of this Roquepine exhibition you can see in first place the mention of this portrait .And also other pictures Gertrude Stein bought to Riba-Rovira .
There is another place where you can see now Riba-Rovira’s works in an exhibition in Valencia in Spain “Homenage a Gertrude Stein” by Riba-Rovira in Galleria Muro ,if you like art … 

But we do not missed today that all over Europe a very bad wind is blowing bringing the worth in front of us .And we must know that at least were two antinazis and antifascists in this exhibition but the only one fighting weapons in hands while the war was Riba-Rovira and also who did one of the first three « affiches » supporting Republicans in the beguining Spanish civil war .
Picasso fighting also but only with his brushes .

It is telling that Mr. Ellenzweig is more exorcised by the fact  Gertrude Stein somehow reminds him of the Tea Party than that she was an antisemitic Nazi collaborator.  

Jill Meyer says:

Excellent article.

irvingdog says:

Wonderful article, but doesn’t anti-Semitism (even, especially? among Jews) decrease a putative genius’s stature?  Edith Wharton, Ezra Pound (of course), and Stein/Toklas disappear from my radar with such revelations.   No?

Saint_Etienne says:

Oh come on, the tea party was mentioned in one (quite apposite, actually) remark. The rest of the article *is* about collaboration. Perhaps, you are reading this article about the past with an eye too trained upon the present. So, as the saying goes, Kol haposel bemumo posel…:(

Saint_Etienne says:

Would that it were so simple. How about Dostoevsky? Gogol?  Cicero? Seneca? As men, their antisemitism is a huge blot on their character. But as artists (of whatever genre, broadly speaking)? I’m afraid not.

It may be just one small sentence in a long article, but it is the only one in which the author actually shows any anger at Stein.  I thought it was interesting that to a Jewish art critic, artists are to be excused their antisemitism and collaboration with Nazis but if they even remind us of the tea party, than the long knives are out.

I’m not exactly sure what it has to do with kol haposel?  Ma inyan shmitta?

HansG53 says:

Allen,
Thank you for this. As a 30 year Stein/Toklas collector, this issue has long been a difficult one to digest, particularly too since my family suffered severely in Nazi Germany. I have  recently addressed it in my blog at
gertrudeandalice.com

Saint_Etienne says:

How about this, from the closing paragraph?

“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.”

Sounds good enough for me.

As for har sinai, what I meant is that you seemed to care more about the casual and inconsequential remark re the party, than about the 3 pages of the whole article. This seemed to me like a bit of cherry-picking in the service of nit-picking.

 Distaste is a bit pareve in my mind compared to the sentiments expressed re: proto-tea-partiers, but to each his own.

maxiguess says:

I’m no Tea Party lover, but the conflating and comparisons of 30s fascists to contemporary conservatism is astoundingly stupid and the article should have been sent back for revisions.  Conservative nationalist socialism, which created several states with completely centralized power in the 30s has literally *nothing* to do with American conservatism, which is obsessed with reducing the role of the Federal government.  It’s a shame that the author decided to use this fascinating topic as a podium for expressing his ignorance and inability to think beyond the semantic restrictions of his time and place.  The editors should have caught it.  

irvingdog says:

 I take your point, but as great as Dostoevsky was, he’s diminished by his AS.  Otherwise, how are we to admire philo-Semites of yore–George Eliot, et al.?

Saint_Etienne says:

 I guess we can agree to differ on this, can we not? :)

 Yes we can.

Saint_Etienne says:

 The whole of the author’s remark was:

“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.”

I see no comparison as such that you indicated.

Saint_Etienne says:

Oh, that’s the easy question. I admire them on two separate counts:  once as artists, and once as philo-semites.

irvingdog says:

 But, can you have it both ways?  Again, I see your point but don’t find it quite so easy.

maxiguess says:

Yes, but the rest of the article is about the “right” of the Fascist era. The intended association seems clear.
Incidentally, the author seems to have missed (or dismissed) that Stein was being ironic in her Hitler statement.  If he had read the rest of the interview that quote was taken from he would have seen how it is incompatible with her actual views, which are pretty basic free market stuff:

“Building a Chinese
wall is always bad. Protection, paternalism and
suppression of natural activity and competition lead to
dullness and stagnation. It is true in politics, in
literature, in art. Everything in life needs constant
stimulation. It needs activity, new blood. To the young
people who, wanting to become writers, ask me for
advice, I always say, ‘Don’t think it isn’t possible to
be senile at 22.’ It is even very difficult to keep from
becoming senile in youth. It is hard to keep one’s self
open and receptive to stimulation. Doing what other
people tell you and being protect from this and from
that is not so good, is not stimulating. You must face
life and struggle. Satisfaction comes from overcoming
opposition and sometimes from enduring things that are
not supposed to be good for one.”

Saint_Etienne says:

 I still must disagree with your inference. In my understanding, the tea party was mentioned only casually and was by no means the focus of the article. Neither was the article about the “right” at all, contemporary or pre-War. It was mostly about Stein and  Tolkas and their personal choices of identity, with some general Jewish-related musings.

However, the interview excerpt you’ve brought up is interesting. Do you have a link to the whole thing? Thanks.

maxiguess says:

You’re certainly entitled to your opinion. 
Stein seems pretty clear in her dismissal of the German people.  She essentially says that Hitler brought peace to Germany by removing all elements of contest and struggle, before going on to say that contest and struggle are the most significant qualifications of a healthy society, and that Germans have no capacity for such things and can only obey. Anyways, here is the link.  Pretty fascinating read actually:

http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/05/03/specials/stein-views.html

Gertrude Stein was an anti-semitic Jew, the worst kind of anti-semite. Just because she was gay doesn’t mean she should be clutched to the bosom of all Jewish gays!   This is pure schizophrenic reasoning; nonsense. She happily shut her mind to Nazi oppression of all homosexuals.

maxiguess says:

 Etienne, when one identifies as being in any way conservative (Republican, classical liberal, skeptic, whatever) in the US, one becomes hyper sensitive to being associated with or called fascists, Nazis, racists, etc… These are code words for “we are going to stigmatize your views rather than addressing them honestly.” Hence the irritation when we see it in a publication not known for demagoguery.

Saint_Etienne says:

Well, maxiguess, I do agree that the whole interview in context means something else! (thanks again for the link)

So, it seems that Mr. Ellenzweig has mischaracterized Gertrude Stein’s views on this point. I presume that he was using a clipped quotation that had already been taken from its context in some book. At any rate, I think he should amend the article and maybe state the source.

J. Arnon says:

Allen, most educated people know that Jew hatred was pervasive in Europe until recently. You wirte as if this was someting most of us didn’t know.

There were also many Jews who also became Jew haters in order to escape from its effects themsleves. Gertrude Stein was on of those many Jews.  A;lso many modernists like Eliot and Pound used antisemitic themes in their writign.

To my mind Stein was a vile woman who after the war she should have been tried alongside Ezra Pound for treason.

JacobArnon says:

Cesera, Picasso was never in danger during the occupation and he did not risk his life to help Jews or others threatened by the Nazis.

As an anti fascist he was all talk.

Hershl says:

We have a long history of self-hating Jews, Jews who do not hesitate to aid our enemies and defame our people and homeland, Israel.

Peter Beinart, Amy Goodman, Noam Chomsky and many other names come to mind.

There is a special place in hell for traitors to their own people and family.

 ”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.”
Oh come on, you are giving her a  pass because she was gay.

This is what your article is really about, isn’t it?

docnoir says:

A balanced and reasoned view of the conservative right leaning faction of the GLBTQ community. We have them and are not immune from the seductions of the right, i.e. Log Cabin Republicans. In ny own case, as a secular Jew with no love of Nazis I had to come to terms with Romaine Brooks’ disagreeable politics. A right leaning conservative, like her lover Natalie Barney she took the wrong path during the second World War. A hero in the Great War she was totally against war and loved Italy. She felt that England and the rest of Europe betrayed Italy in WWI. and were about to do it again. She also thought Italy would not get involved–why is beyond me. Like her friend Stein-she was a royalist and not too sophisticated politically. We have to try and understand why people we might admire as artists failed as people and in their moral fiber. Pound, Chesterton, Morandi, etc. Only then can we understand what is otherwise incomprehensible.

Eden19567 says:

A brilliant article. 

I was disappointed in the end to the article–it feels like the writer just lost the courage of all she had written.  During the war they were not “trying and hoping to live”–they could have done that with much more certainty by leaving, as so many others did. No, they were doing something else. They were throwing their lot in with the Nazis, and I see no reason why they should be let off the hook for that any more than anyone else who chose to do that. But one point that I would like to make, that also does not reflect well on
Stein, is that her massive art collection was not left to Alice, but to a museum. Alice was allowed to have the in art in her flat but could not sell any of it, and this was why she lived decades in absolutely dire poverty,
going hungry at times according to accounts. The legal battles were about, as I recall, whether Alice was taking proper care of them to preserve them and it was decided that she wasn’t, so she lost even the right to have them during her life. But it was the fact that she couldn’t sell them, which was all Gertrude’s doing, that was crucial. Gertrude was more concerned
about her own “fame” than about what would happen to Alice if she died
before her. A more selfish, less honorable person is hard to imagine. To judge someone as a person, for crucial decisions, is not the same as to write them off as an artist.

Jacob Arnon says:

  ”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.”

This is too sentimental for my taste.

Antisemitism is about what people do and not about who they are.  If the Chief Rabbi went crazy and decided to join an antisemitic pogrom he would be as antisemitic as any Cossack. 

The same with two old Jewish ladies if they embraced Hitler they are as guilty as the old man Ezra Pound. 

getjune says:

“the same as any other pair of old Jews merely trying and hoping to live”

This  could be addressed to all the others who stood by and let the Nazi agenda progress to the exterminations  not onlyof  the Jews and gays with whom these two were identified, but with all those who were declared not desirable or who chose to speak out.

This pair were not only as bad as all the others who stood by and did nothing, but in fact were worse with  their assistance in promoting the Nazi agenda. 

Since the author brought up her capacity to hate, for whom does she reserve that “honor”?

prairiejew says:

Wonderful. Thank you.

Roque Nuevo says:

Amazing that people here see this article as  some black propaganda for the TP movement. I never would have occurred to me. That is, Stein, Franco and Hitler are still dead. The parallels between 1930s Nazis, ie, racist, warmongering occult nationalists, and the TP, ie, Constitutional originalists, classical Liberals and mainly isolationists, doesn’t exist. People must be so worked up either attacking or defending Obama that it taints even their appreciation of a historical piece about 30s culture and politics.

People here are missing the whole point, that is, the author’s point, which is, “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.”

One imagines that the parallels between the Stein/Toklas 1930s cowardice in the service of anti democratic movements feeding off “polite” social antisemitism (as the author puts it) and today’s cowardice in the service of anti democratic, ie, Islamic, movements ie, and “polite” rancid thirdworldish leftist antisemitism, which has decreed that the Arabs are “occupied” and have a “refugee problem”, would be apparent for all. That would be the only analogy with today’s world that one could admit, even if the article is entirely devoted to writing about history.

AllenLowe says:

so Alice Toklas was in poverty after Stein died? Well, why didn’t she go out and get a job?

Allen Ellenzweig wonders rhetorically, on the heels of Stein’s translations of Marshall Pétain’s speeches, why James Joyce was never recruited to translate Mussolini. In fact, James Joyce went out of his way to criticize fascism, anti-Semitism, and intolerance, as did his young protege Samuel Beckett–who was later honored for his service to the French resistance. With respect to Joyce, it is ironic that though an Irish Catholic, his writing is conspicuously and effusively more Jewish than Gertrude Stein’s! In a sense, this might have contributed to her own self-hatred: Stein, like Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf, came to resent Joyce for what they each perceived to have been his ability to embody the avant-garde cachet of High Modernism once Ulysses came to be recognized as the preeminent English-language novel of the era. Perhaps since Joyce was so prominently philo-Semitic, both in his writing and his personal life, Stein embraced her self-wounding, self-effacing anti-Semitism out of spite?

Nonetheless, I think the most enduring insight in this article is the recognition that though Stein never addresses her own Jewishness, nor her lesbianism, in her writing, we as readers can’t help but consider both of these facts as we evaluate her work, whether historically (significant), artistically (fascinating), or ethically (catastrophic). Part of her power as a writer, for those with the patience to struggle with her work, is her effort to deprive language of its ability to signify: language becomes a play of sounds, a play of associations, a play of rhythm, in lieu of a play of meanings–just as paint in abstract art becomes not a means toward representation, but the thing itself in the work of art, or music becomes dissociated from melody and harmony in contemporaneous works of modern music. There is no author in the English language during the first half of the 20th century who carries these experiments further or interprets the task of the writer more radically than Gertrude Stein. One can’t help but consider that NOT talking about Jewishness and NOT talking about lesbianism are an important part of Stein’s motivation as a writer. We cannot identify where these affiliations manifest themselves in her work, yet they animate every aspect of her project.

This is why Stein’s writing matters and why she should not be dismissed merely as a self-hating Jew or a paradoxically closeted (in plain sight, as Ellenzweig aptly puts it) lesbian. There are plenty of people, then and now, with deplorable politics. There are plenty of Jews who wish they were something else–just ask Henry Kissinger! There are plenty of people who make bad choices during war and other extreme circumstances. But only Gertrude Stein wrote like Gertrude Stein–and that’s the reason why we should continue to think about her and honor her achievement.

Boychic says:

With the exception of the tea party reference which was misplaced and gratuitous, this is a terrific article. I am always amazed by people obsessed with their contemporary political persuasions to insert them into historical situations for no other reason than to propagandize. The editors should have been more careful. This piece did not need such a discordant note, whatever one’s political bias. 

why were so many german jews so anti-semetic that they allowed this evil man to gain their supprt?  just asking….

she must have loved ayn rand also.  another nutsy jew who forgot about history & whose only theme was; “greed is good!”

Margaret Friedman says:

My husband and I just saw the fantastic Stein show at the Met.  Our friend Gilbert who was with us passed a copy of Allen’s article.  It was the perfect filter for the show, and makes profound points.  I felt teary-eyed at the end of the article.

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Auntie Semitism at the Met

Gertrude Stein’s ties to Nazis, revisited at the museum, shouldn’t eclipse her nurturing of young artists

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