“Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ, and the Vichy Dilemma” by Barbara Will— The Strange Truth

Will, Barbara. “Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ, and the Vichy Dilemma”, (Gender and Culture Series), Columbia University Press, 2011.

The Strange Truth

Amos Lassen

All of a sudden it seems evident that Gertrude Stein, a lesbian and a Jew became involved in a very strange intellectual project which, in effect, saved her and Alice B. Toklas’s lives from death at the hands of Nazi Germany.

In 1941, Stein began translating the speeches of Marshal Phillipe Petain, head of state for the collaborationist Vichy government into English. She continued doing so until 1943 and she translated those speeches in which the Vichy policy barring “Jews and other foreign elements” from being public and calling for France to make peace and reconcile with the Nazis that were occupying the country.

When I was a graduate student, I concentrated on Stein and I felt it was quite natural to do so. After all we were both Jewish and gay and loved literature. However this discovery about the woman I so cherished has upset me greatly. Stein received protection from Bernard Fay, director of the Bibliotheque Natonale during the Vichy regime and he oversaw the repression of French freemasons. It was Fay who convinced Petain to leave Stein alone during the war and he then encouraged her to do the translations of Petain’s speeches so that Americans could read them.

The relationship between Fey and Stein was powerful especially since they shared many political and aesthetic ideas. They were both considered intellectuals and as we read we get a new look at modernism and fascism and we find ourselves questioning why so many in the intellectual community  moved in the direction of fascist thought.

Not only does the book provoke thought, it is gorgeously written that is a wonderful read. I found myself unable to close the covers once I began and this is somewhat rare when reading nonfiction. Yet the book is also quite disturbing—at least it was for me and it made me want to know more. Stein was famous for being Stein—her writing was never fully accepted by American intellectuals; she was something of a curiosity and I hope that this aspect of her life will not cause her to be disregarded. However, I must admit I was disheartened to learn this about her. Stein had some talent but she is actually more famous for who she knew than for what she wrote. Have I changed my opinion of her? —Yes, I have and I am not happy. The story is quite complex and Stein surrounded herself with the people that mattered—this time they happened to anti-Fascists yet at the same time, she relied on Fay, a facist, for protection. Stein was able to draw the best from him but in doing so; we see the worst of her.

There have been rumors about Stein’s dancing with fascism and here it is laid bare for all to see. I suppose most shocking for me is the photograph of Stein giving the Hitler salute and I had to wonder how a Jew and a lesbian could possibly do such a thing even for self-preservation. Will shows how Stein was a self-hating Jew who chose to become the friend of a royalist Roman Catholic. Was it just that they shared a number of values and interests which drew them together and they were not all political nor idealistic? I never doubted Stein’s genius as a thinker but I most definitely question the choices she made. She died of cancer before Fay was discredited and sent to prison for the very ideology he so championed and his life ended in disgrace. Stein did not have to see this.

 Janet Malcolm first told us about this aspect of Stein’s life in articles in “The New Yorker” and later in her book, “Two Lives” but evidently it did not sink in. In fact it actually took the new Stein exhibit in San Francisco this year to bring the issue to public knowledge and quite naturally there has been outcry. Outcry or not, the book contains the proof and everything is documented in some 70 pages of footnotes.

Another interesting aspect we learn is that Fay was an anti-Semite and a homosexual and I cannot help but wonder if the likened sexuality is what originally brought the two together. That Stein was a self-hating Jew, I have already stated but I did not say that after her lover’s death, Toklas converted to Roman Catholicism.

 I also found it interesting that in one review I read by Jill Meyer, she referred to the relationship between Fay and Stein as “Stein’s ‘alleged’ collaboration with French Vichy officials during WW2, when she and her companion, Alice B Toklas, were living in France”. The very same reviewer said, “This review is also one of the few I’ve written without having quite finishing [sic] the book. I hope to return to it sometime, but not too soon”. Now wait just a second—how can one review a book and then give it five stars and then admit that she had not finished the book? Yet she also said that she may return to it one day but is in no hurry to do so and then give it five stars!!! This very same reviewer is one of the top 500 reviewers for Amazon so I suppose the above statement also speaks for the quality of Amazon reviewers. If she had finished the book and looked at the notes, she would have discovered that nothing is alleged and the facts are there. She further states that “Neither Stein nor Fay come across in Will’s book as anything but odious individuals, living completely unsympathetic lives both before and during WW2. (Stein died of uterine cancer in 1946; Fay, younger than Stein by 19 years, lived another 20 or so years)”.I cannot help but wonder what this reviewer was thinking—Stein and Fay came across as odious because they were. Did this reviewer forget that 6,000,000 Jews were lost to the world during the Nazi regime? Did she not know that a million homosexuals were put to death? The collaboration between Stein and Fay with the Vichy regme is so shocking that the word odious is nowhere near strong enough to describe it. Once again Amazon rewards stupidity while truth stares in its face.

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