Scene4 Magazine: An Invitation to Gertrude Stein's Tea Party | Karren Alenier | November 2011

by Karren Alenier

Scene4 Magazine-reView

November 2011

Fear, ignorance, and resistance to change often top the list in motivating reactionary political beliefs. Just look at today's members of the so-called Tea Party, an ultra conservative movement taking inspiration from American revolutionaries fighting the British over a tea tax. But what about Gertrude Stein, an American experimental writer making France her home during the first half of the twentieth century including World War II? Barbara Will, author of Gertrude Stein, Modernism, and the Problem of Genius, invites her readership in her latest study Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ, and the Vichy Dilemma to consider the surprising politics of the Modernist poet Gertrude Stein and her French academic friend Bernard Faÿ.  

Stein's reactionary political beliefs, despite being Harvard educated, led her to support and promote Philippe Pétain, the Nazi-backed leader from July 1940 to August 1944 of the Vichy Government in France.  Surely her support cannot be attributed to either fear or ignorance. And unwillingness to change hardly fits Stein as an avant-garde writer and thinker who directly influenced many prominent American writers, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thornton Wilder.

Will's book, unlike Janet Malcolm's Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, does not traffic in sensationalism. While Malcolm shrugs over Stein's WWII behavior, Will digs in. With accessible vocabulary and fluid writing style, Will steers her investigation with research in Stein's hard-to-read notebooks, Stein's WWII writings, new archival artifacts such as unpublished letters written by Stein and Faÿ, judicial data on Faÿ, and citations from a long list of recent scholarly work.  


Central to Will's thesis about Stein's political actions during WWII is the friendship with Faÿ. Unlikely Collaboration opens with what Will considers the two most important points of commonality in the Stein-Faÿ friendship: both were awarded medals of honor from the French government for their service in World War I. But more importantly, both revered Philippe Pétain, the French general who, in 1916, stopped the German offensive at Verdun.


Before World War II, Bernard Faÿ was a respected historian, professor, and journalist. In 1932, he was the youngest person ever elected to the Collège de France, an organization that operates as a national think tank teaching teachers and giving free public lectures to capacity crowds. At the Collège, he held the inaugural chair in American civilization. Achieving this honor involved years of political alignment and fortitude—Faÿ was nominated in 1929. Stein coached Faÿ during this long nomination period and strategized with him how to link her writing to his. For example, in his introduction to his translated excerpt of her novel The Making of Americans.   

What were Faÿ's political beliefs? Like Pétain, he wanted a return to the ideals of the eighteenth century where royals reigned, the Catholic church dictated moral standards, and people were connected to the land that at once expressed their patriotism and a work ethic that deferred to elite control. For anyone on the French reactionary Right, the motto of the French revolution—liberté, égalité, fraternité —was supplanted by Pétain's famille, travail, patrie (family, work, fatherland). Additionally Faÿ was adamantly against Free Masonry, a belief that was fueled by his anti-Semitism.

Faÿ's conservative and reactionary politics are what secured his position as head of the Bibliothèque Nationale during the years of the Vichy Government. As the general administrator for not only the national collection of books but also France's cultural heritage, Faÿ could exert significant influence over cultural matters including the classification and inventory of archives and objects confiscated from French Freemasons. This involved Nazi oversight and the outing of many Jews.  On the other hand, he planned to spend 200 million francs to house Gertrude Stein's future books and build collections in music, business, and geography (Will cites a letter Faÿ wrote to Stein about this plan).

If Faÿ was a Nazi agent, and Pétain a tool of the Nazis, why would Gertrude Stein support Pétain and translate thirty-two of his speeches into English, thereby effectively aiding the Nazi war effort?  Some speeches detailed Vichy policy of prohibiting Jews from public positions of power.  Others expressed hope of a French reconciliation with Germany.  Probably few knew, least of all Stein, but Will discovered that Faÿ was VM FR1 (Vertrauensmann Französisch, "Trustworthy Frenchman #1"), a codified agent of the Nazi government. Certainly, Stein's behavior seems, considering Hitler's declared goal of pursuing the "final solution," like suitable fodder for Lewis Carroll's Mad Hatter, stuck at the 6 p.m. tea hour to avoid a death sentence by the Queen of Hearts.


What kind of Jew was Stein? She was an assimilated American Jew, born in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Daniel and Amelia (Keyser) Stein. Her father emigrated at age eight in 1841 with his family from Germany and her mother was from a large German Jewish family that had settled in Baltimore, Maryland, before the Stein family arrived in the United States. Stein was familiar with Jewish rituals and traditions, but was not observant. Will cites a college essay written by Stein in 1896 in which she wrote, "race-feeling" must not inhibit being a "true and loyal American," that being Jewish was a "private concern" associated with "kinship." Judaism was not part of her public persona, but she was not a self-hating Jew and she never repudiated her Judaism. Will ends Unlikely Collaboration with an anecdote from a family member of Faÿ: while he was successful in converting Toklas, his greatest regret and failure was his inability to convert Stein to Christianity.

So if privately Stein considered herself Jewish, why did she decide in 1939 to stay in France, despite repeated urgings by family, friends, and the American consulate to return to the United States?  In Gertrude Stein's world, life was all about talking and listening, but to whom did she listen and what were her innermost thoughts? Was she merely selfish, not wanting the disruption that would be caused by her leaving France, the country she called home for most of her adult life?  Was she simply loath to live under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, an American president whose social policies did not mesh with hers? Was she in denial about her safety? Or was she reckless, fearless, and rather cunning when it came to survival skills.   


As Jews and lesbians (though not open about their sexuality), Stein and Toklas were easy targets for Hitler's henchmen. Still, they chose to sit out the war years in the Bugey region of southeastern France, part of the Rhone Valley not far from Geneva, Switzerland, and not many hours from the German border. Stein established herself in this area in the early 1930s with significant back door help from Faÿ who was tasked by Stein to manipulate the career of a former renter of the property she occupied when the man wished to move back. Despite Faÿ's affinity for Nazi Germany, he was devoted to this American intellectual of Jewish background, and during World War II, protected her, her partner Alice Toklas as well as Stein's art collection left behind in her Paris apartment.   


Will gives us a glimpse into how the friendship between Stein and Faÿ began and progressed. Composer Virgil Thomson said in his memoir that he introduced Faÿ to Stein. Thomson, Faÿ, and Stein all held degrees from Harvard, making them members of an elite American club. While Toklas, in her What is Remembered, writes that she and Stein learned about Faÿ from surrealist writer René Crevel, she backed up the composer, saying it was Thomson who took them to meet Faÿ. However, Will points to a letter published in The Flowers of Friendship: Letters Written to Gertrude Stein from Faÿ dated May 26, 1926, inviting Stein to tea and making no mention of Thomson.  

Initially Stein's friendship with Faÿ was hampered by her jealous inner circle of that time, including Ernest Hemingway who brushed off Faÿ in a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald by calling the Frenchman Bernard Fairy. However, in several years, Stein's inner circle of artists she mentored (e.g. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson) changed to include a group more decidedly homosexual or bisexual (e.g. Janet Flanner, Natalie Barney, Carl Van Vechten, Hart Crane, Paul Bowles, Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, and Bernard Faÿ) who came to venerate her and pay respect to her domestic partnership with Toklas. At this time, Faÿ, using Catholic honorifics, called Stein, Saint Gertrude and referred to her salon as the chapel of Our Lady.

Together Faÿ and Stein indulged in what Will characterized as "ancien régime role playing." At Faÿ's social teas held in his country home in the Loire Valley, Stein "channeled" Benjamin Franklin and Faÿ dressed in breeches and gaiters to play the lord of the manor. Will states that except for one particularly unpleasant but seemingly minor run in with a friend of Faÿ's named Colonel Jean-Jacques Rousseau Voorhies, Faÿ "brokered" behind-the-scenes arrangements in cities and towns all around the United States to ensure the success of Stein's American lecture tour in 1934-1935. Faÿ coached Stein who was terrified that the tour would devolve into a Barnumesque melee on the scale of Oscar Wilde's lecture tours. One only has to note the dedication of her 1935 book Lectures in America—"To Bernard who comfortingly and encouragingly was listening as these were written"—to understand the importance Stein placed on her intimate friendship with Faÿ.


Putting aside her exceptional experimental writing achievements, as we must also do with other Modernist writers as Ezra Pound, W. B. Yeats, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, and others who supported anti-democratic leaders and governments, the critical question is what kind of person was Stein and does it matter in how we regard her work? The complexity of Gertrude Stein's behavior makes it difficult to presume psychological interpretations, including her provocative 1934 statement delivered in an interview to the New York Times Magazine that Hitler should be awarded a Nobel Prize. She said, "Hitler should have received the Nobel Peace Prize because he is removing all elements of contest and of 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."   

What were Stein's political beliefs? She was a staunch Republican supporting the expected platform of laissez-faire capitalism, minimal taxes, small government, patriotism, and a strict adherence to the United States Constitution but she also held the reactionary belief that the best U.S. government occurred under George Washington in the eighteenth century. What was important to her was preserving the actions of what she called "daily living," (e.g. writing, gardening, walking) which dovetailed well with Pétain's promotion of return to the land. Anti-Roosevelt, Stein was against the socialist programs enacted by this three-term American president who led the United States out of the Great Depression. She said that Roosevelt was responsible for modern American decadence and, for this kind of statement, she aroused momentary attention from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Will gets the skin of Stein's contradictory profile by suggesting how dependent Stein was on her brother Leo, her partner Alice, and her friend Bernard Faÿ, that her dependency was linked critically to her emotional view of herself as the baby of her family. On the other hand, Will also shows how Stein viewed and conducted herself as a male persona and leader among men. Take, for example, after the war, her invitation to American soldiers to come visit her at home and then her embrace of the celebrity invitation from the American military to tour Germany in 1945.


These interactions with the American military were a fortuitous way to diffuse concerns that Stein was a wartime collaborator. After all, Stein held onto her reactionary beliefs as evidenced in post war writings. For example, in Brewsie and Willie, a short novel delivered through the dialogue of two American G.I.'s voicing Stein's fears that America [by spending on social welfare programs] would "go poor" and Americans would abandon their pioneering spirit to seek mind-numbing jobs in factories and to become "yes men." Also Stein remained loyal to Faÿ, even after he was sentenced to life at hard labor in prison for collaborating with the Nazis.


In today's precipitous climate of financial woes, in many ways comparable to the Great Depression of the 1930s, Americans on the Right and the Left have been voicing their anger at the federal government. Tea Partiers, aligned with the American Republican Party, rail against Democratic President Obama for his $300 billion plus jobs program that they say will not only increase taxes on the wealthy but also bankrupt America's future. On the Left, Occupy Wall Street protestors complain about the failure of the Feds to reign in bailed out stockbrokers and bankers who have now locked down money and therefore jobs. Stein never worked at a paying job a day in her life and lived off a modest stipend from her father's estate. Nevertheless, she was invested in the image of the rugged individual, living off the land, who would never be dependent on the government. In Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ, and the Vichy Dilemma, Barbara Will skillfully analyzes and digests what went on between Stein and Faÿ within the context of their politically tumultuous time. It makes one think about what is going on today. The bottom line is that we are all invested in our money and what we do to live. More tea, anyone?


Photos - Yale Collection of American Literature,
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

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©2011 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2011 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier
Karren LaLonde Alenier is the author of five collections of poetry and, recently, The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas
and she is a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
For Prior Columns In This Series Click Here
For her other commentary and articles, check the
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November 2011

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