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by Dusty Sklar
MODERNIST INNOVATOR, TASTEMAKER and (by her own admission) artistic genius Gertrude Stein was beloved by many. She had a warm, charming persona that almost never failed to delight people. She delighted historian Bernard Fay (1893-1978), a fellow American intellectual with whom she had several things in common. Both were gay (Hemingway referred to him as Bernard Fairy). Both were expatriates living in Paris. And both were drawn to fascism, which, in Stein’s case, especially given her Jewishness, is rather surprising.
They met in Paris in 1926. Fay swore that he “read eagerly everything” that she had written. He became what she described as one of “the four permanent friendships” of her life.
In 1934, Fay was due to deliver a lecture on “Democracy and President Roosevelt” at a dinner meeting in Paris. Detained and unable to appear, he persuaded Stein to read his lecture for him. Afterwards, during the question period, she came out with this political observation: “Republicans,” she declared, “are the only natural rulers” in America. “When a Democrat gets in, he only does so because of the singular seductiveness which he possesses.”
That same year, she stunned a New York Times Magazine reporter with the suggestion, probably ironic: “I say that Hitler ought to have 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.”
PUBLISHER JAMES MCLAUGHLIN, as a very young man, recalled a 1934 visit during which Stein and Fay “got on the subject of Hitler, speaking of him as a great man, one perhaps to be compared with Napoleon. I was stunned. Hitler’s persecution of the Jews was well publicized in France by that time, and Miss Stein was a Jew.”
Stein shared with Fay an intense dislike of FDR. In 1936, she wrote a series of articles for the Saturday Evening Post in which she painted the New Deal as profligate and paternalistic. This aroused readers’ ire, but she persisted in her beliefs, writing later in Everybody’s Autobiography: “the young ones said I was reactionary and they said how could I be who had always been so well ahead of everyone and I myself was not and am not certain that I am not again well ahead as ahead as I ever have been.”
A question, indeed, which occurs to us as well.
In 1937, Stein entertained the young journalist, Eric Sevareid, who later recounted the meeting in his memoir. “She could not think politically at all. Thus she assured me: ‘Hitler will never really go to war. He is not the dangerous one. You see, he is the German romanticist. He wants the illusion of victory and power, the glory and glamour of it, but he could not stand the blood and fighting involved in getting it.’ ”
Among the mystifying details of Stein’s life was her admiration for Marshal Petain, which began in World War I. Her understanding was that he had, by clever devices, prevented the mutiny of the French troops. By 1940, she was praising Petain’s dictatorship for countering the “softness” and “weak vices” of the French. Stein felt it vital for artists to work in undisturbed serenity in a climate of political stability. On the day, in 1940, that France fell to the Nazis, she published a book in which she wrote, “I cannot write too much upon how necessary it is to be completely conservative that is particularly traditional in order to be free.” When Petain came to power stressing honor and “peace” in “daily living,” she exulted: “Petain has achieved a miracle,” and enabled the French “to make France again.”
When Petain signed the armistice with Germany that year, Fay offered himself to the Vichy government, which was collaborating with the occupying Nazi forces, and was made the director of the Bibliotheque Nationale, France’s national library. He was also put in charge of the persecution of Freemasons, of whom nearly a thousand were sent to concentration camps and nearly six hundred were shot.
In 1941, Fay suggested to Stein that she translate a set of Petain’s speeches into English. They ran to 180 pages and contained anti-Semitic tirades. In her preface to the translation, Stein compared Petain to George Washington as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of countrymen.” She was disappointed that her translation was never published in America. (After her death, the manuscript volumes were turned over to the Yale Library.) In a brief preface, she speculates that the attack on Pearl Harbor might make Petain’s action more plausible to Americans.
Petain was responsible for the death and deportation of nearly eighty thousand French Jews. Did Stein ever change her good opinion of him? She had once confessed: “So many points of view about him, so very many, I had lots of them, I was almost French in having so many.” As the Nazi occupation wore on, she developed an antipathy to the Vichy bureaucracy and a mistrust of petty officialdom. She didn’t understand why civil servants didn’t realize that Germany could not win the war. She said in 1943, “And now, everybody knows except the public servants they are still believing what they are supposed to believe nobody else believes it, not even all their families.” Now she became a champion of freedom. People wanted “to be free, not to be managed, threatened, directed, restrained, obliged, fearful, administered, they want none of these things they all want to feel free.”
DURING THE WAR, Fay was able to protect not only Stein but her domestic partner, Alice B. Toklas, and Stein’s valuable art collection, which was nearly confiscated but finally saved. They stayed out of Paris, living in the countryside, throughout the fighting.
Following the liberation, Fay was tried as a collaborator and condemned to prison for life. Stein wrote a letter on his behalf during his trial, and Toklas helped facilitate his escape to Switzerland in 1951 when Fay managed to escape from prison. (Fay was eventually pardoned by President René Coty in 1959.)
Eric Sevareid was in Paris as a war correspondent when the Allies arrived. He came to visit Stein and Toklas, and later wrote in his memoir, Not So Wild a Dream, that Stein did most of the talking. She had “a faint tone of sorrow that Petain had turned out so miserably, and she said it was when he let the Germans round up the young men for service in Germany that people really turned against the old man. Laval was unspeakable.” She gave Sevareid her new theory that Hitler was “essentially a 19th-century person” and his war had destroyed the 19th century finally and irrevocably. Sevareid reminded her of her theory before the war, that Hitler was not a threat because he was a “German Romanticist” who might want the illusion of power but would hardly stand the blood and fighting involved in getting it.
Stein paused for just an instant, then went on with her argument as if she had not heard Sevareid’s reminder.
Dusty Sklar is the author of Gods and Beasts: The Nazis and the Occult, as well as numerous stories and articles. To read her article about Einstein and Zionism, click here. To read her article about Henry George and Zionism, click here. To read her article about Einstein and Freud, click here.