Sep 3, 2007

Gertrude Stein, genius

Reese Kwon reviews Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice by Janet Malcolm, the story of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.

In the book, Malcolm endeavors to find out how a "pair of elderly Jewish lesbians survived the Nazis." The answer isn't pretty, says Kwon.
Bernard Faÿ, a Frenchman who was the wartime head of the Bibliothèque Nationale and an adviser to Marshal Pétain, was a longtime friend and admirer of Stein, despite his anti-Semitism. His devotion to Stein was vigorous, nearly abject; before the war, he helped Stein find lecturing posts, he translated and promoted her writing, and he wrote her letters that emitted “an almost palpable odor of oily flattery.” During the occupation, he played an instrumental role in protecting and providing for Stein and Toklas. He interceded repeatedly with authorities to help the two women survive, making sure that they were kept fed and warmed. And when Stein was required to wear a yellow star, he walked at her side. (Meanwhile, he was responsible for sending hundreds to their deaths, and thousands more to jail; after the liberation, he was sentenced to a lifetime of hard labor for his zeal as a collaborator.)

It remains unclear whether or not the two women knew of his activities during this time. What is perfectly clear is that, after the war, Stein and Toklas made concerted efforts to help Faÿ during his trial, throughout his imprisonment, and, quite possibly, in his escape from a prison hospital. They wrote letters, tried to interest others in his cause, and may have sold a Picasso to help raise funds for Faÿ. In a characteristic letter, Toklas argued on Faÿ’s behalf to Carl Van Vechten: “He has been in Fresnes prison since the liberation accused of hating communists (who doesn’t) acting against the masons (who wouldn’t in France) hating the English (the large majority of Frenchman do) hating the Jews (is he alone?).”

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