There is a long roll call of artists with ethics that range from the questionable to the monstrous. In Janet Malcolm’s fascinating new study of the writer Gertrude Stein and her partner, Alice B. Toklas, Malcolm explores the question of whether or not Stein ought to be added to that list. Combining biography with literary exegesis, Two Lives asks how two elderly Jewish American women survived the Nazi occupation of France. The answers that Malcolm uncovers, and the further questions those answers provoke, are troubling, absorbing, and ultimately ambiguous.
Stein, born in 1874 in Pennsylvania, was an exceptional woman and self-styled genius. Malcolm writes that Stein was captivated by “the issue of superiority–of who was a genius, as she put it, and who wasn’t.” Despite this passion for superiority, or perhaps partly because of it, Stein and Toklas never lacked for friends. Stein’s charm was “as conspicuous as her fatness,” says Malcolm, and accounted for “the way people were always practically lining up to be of service to her.” In “thin, plain, tense, sour” Alice B. Toklas, whom she met in Paris, Stein found her ideal helpmeet, one who cooked, made calls, took care of household chores, and so on, providing a lifelong service that was “unending and evidently ungrudging.” Toklas’s labors enabled Stein to focus on her art. As Stein wrote in Everybody’s Autobiography, not quite jokingly, “it takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing.” Other key friends also took on caretaking roles. Carl Van Vechten, a writer and photographer and eventually Stein’s literary executor, was one such friend; in letters, he dubbed Stein “Baby Woojums,” himself “Papa Woojums,” and Toklas “Mama Woojums.” Strangers, too, often popped up to offer their help if and when Stein was in need.
That Stein’s, and by extension Toklas’s, good fortune continued through the Nazi occupation is less easily explained by charm and reputation. Friends strongly recommended that the two women smuggle themselves out of France and into Switzerland, but they stayed, and, despite everything, remained safe. Such behavior is consistent with Stein’s “long-standing way of handling all serious unpleasantness”—that is, to “pretend it isn’t there.”
What is even more baffling than their decision to remain in France is the notion that they understood almost nothing—or behaved during the war and to the ends of their lives as if they understood nothing—of the person most responsible for keeping them safe. 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?).”
Were Stein and Toklas really so unaware? It’s hard to imagine they were. Stein translated Pétain’s wartime speeches into English, and, startlingly, continued this work even after his edicts were issued and deportations begun. In Wars I Have Seen, Stein remembers her surprise and fear at hearing, from the liberating American armies, “what had been happening to others” (in the concentration and extermination camps). Her language here is extraordinarily vague, considering the circumstances. Malcolm leaves ambiguous exactly what Stein and Toklas did and did not know, and by the end of Two Lives, it is not clear how genuine their self-professed innocence is, or to what degree they can be held culpable for aiding and abetting Faÿ. But, to any serious observer of the situation, the idea that Stein and Toklas bear at least a modicum of guilt must seem unavoidable.
There is a famous (if possibly apocryphal) story that, before Gertrude Stein was taken into the operating room for the stomach cancer that would kill her, she asked Toklas, “What is the answer?” When Toklas didn’t answer, Stein asked, “In that case, what is the question?” Stein was one of the tutelary spirits of modernism, and almost all of her unique and probing sensibility is reflected in that question. It’s doubly shameful, then, that she proved unwilling and unable to acknowledge the moral condition of her own life. Surely, even for a “genius,” that is not a proscribed avenue of inquiry.