The Chronicle Review

Wars They Have Seen

How an unlikely friendship with a Vichy collaborator complicates our understanding of Gertrude Stein

Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Gertrude Stein relaxes with Bernard Faÿ, who later was a Vichy bureaucrat, at her home in the village of Bilignin, France, in 1937.
October 23, 2011

When Janet Malcolm published her book Two Lives four years ago, she set out to find the answer to a nagging question: How had Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas—foreigners, lesbians, and Jews—somehow managed to survive World War II in a rural enclave in southeastern France? En route to answering her query, Malcolm portrayed a writer whose politics were much more complicated than some might have expected.

Stein, she wrote, had gone beyond the right-wing musings of the late 30s—her support of Franco and disgust with Roosevelt, her appalling suggestion in 1934 that Hitler be awarded the Nobel Prize. In 1941 she had undertaken the noxious project of translating into English the speeches of Philippe Pétain, the octogenarian hero of World War I who led the collaborationist Vichy government in 1940, a regime that served as a virtual puppet of the victorious Nazi forces. To be sure, plenty of patriotic Frenchmen and women, stung by France's military downfall and eager to find a savior figure, supported Pétain in the immediate aftermath of the French defeat, but what has remained difficult to reconcile is the fact that Stein continued doggedly in the role of would-be Vichy propagandist well after Pétain's anti-Semitic edicts had been issued and the real nature and sinister consequence of his dictatorship had became evident.

Malcolm's book may have come as a shock to readers who treasured the abiding picture of the gnomic yet unquestionably progressive writer, but to Stein scholars the facts had been known at least since Richard Bridgman's 1970 biography, Gertrude Stein in Pieces, which briefly touched on the Pétain project. Then, nearly a quarter of a century later, Stein's Vichy connections received extended treatment in two publications.

In a 1996 issue of the journal Modernism/modernity, a graduate student named Wanda Van Dusen published for the first time the text of Stein's introduction to Pétain's speeches, an essay comparing the ancient Méréchal to George Washington and beatifying the hero on a white horse who had arrived "miraculously" to rescue France. That same year, in an appendix to The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder, the celebrated Stein scholars Ulla E. Dydo and Edward M. Burns laid out in patient detail the author's dubious involvement in the Pétain project and with the Vichy bureaucrat Bernard Faÿ, who probably used his influence as an insider with Pétain to greenlight the translation. What's more, Burns and Dydo revealed that it was the collaborator Faÿ who had acted as a protector within Vichy of Stein and Toklas, intervening on their behalf to make sure the two were never threatened. It was the apparent unfathomability of this relationship that attracted the attention of Malcolm: "What drew the Royalist anti-Semite to the Jewess in funny clothes?"

Now a pair of books—Barbara Will's Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ, and the Vichy Dilemma (Columbia University Press, 2011) and Antoine Compagnon's Le Cas Bernard Faÿ: Du Collège de France à l'indignité nationale (Gallimard, 2009)—have revisited the relationship of Stein and Faÿ, offering the fullest account to date of their professional and personal ties. Complemented by the work of other experts on Stein who are paying closer attention to the neglected writing of her later career, and historians like John L. Harvey, who has examined the trans-Atlantic historiography of the first part of the 20th century, they have zeroed in on the rise and fall of Bernard Faÿ, the Frenchman with the obscurely punctuated last name.

It was Faÿ who helped arrange Stein's triumphant lecture tour in the United States in 1934 and 1935, a campaign that solidified her status as a literary star following the popular success of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Faÿ played a no-less-significant role in Stein's reception in France, sculpting her novel The Making of Americans down from 1,000 pages into a manageable—and publishable—quarter of that size and giving the difficult work an elegant translation, as he did with The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, while championing her work in such unlikely places as the notoriously anti-Semitic journal Je suis partout.

In their focus on Faÿ, the work of Will, Compagnon, and others has contributed to a growing body of work that situates the Stein of the late 1930s and 1940s more problematically—but much more realistically—in the roiling world of European politics on the cusp of World War II. Both books show just how lucky Stein was to retain for posterity the beatific image we still have of her. But both also contribute to our deeper understanding of what collaboration meant not just to Stein but also to Faÿ.

In fact, it is the wonderful and horrible career of Faÿ—who just a decade after Stein's American tour would receive a life sentence with hard labor for the crime of collaboration—that dominates the two books' pages. Both reveal that in the mid-30s, Faÿ was perhaps the more famous of the two in the States. His career was nothing short of remarkable and his descent jaw-dropping. The popular press once dubbed him "the unofficial ambassador of France to the New World," and his essays on French-American relations regularly graced the opinion pages of The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, appearing in the former with an analysis of the prospects for Europe as late as 1940.

A dapper cosmopolitan who walked with difficulty after a childhood bout with polio, whose Gallic manners, boundless energy, and considerable connections in the worlds of letters, academia, and government charmed and impressed seemingly everyone: Whatever we imagine a willing collaborator to have looked like—the ferociously anti-Semitic Céline, the venomously pro-Nazi Robert Brasillach, executed by firing squad at the end of the Occupation, it doesn't look like Faÿ. (Astonishingly, even today, and in the face of the devastating record Compagnon presents of Faÿ's wartime guilt, his book garnered a savage review in the Times Literary Supplement last October from the Oxford historian John Rogister, who accused him of presenting a "one-sided picture." In the subsequent storm of correspondence published in the TLS, it became clear that Rogister, too, had a difficult time accepting that Faÿ's actions under the Occupation had led to the death and deportation of his fellow Frenchmen.) A homosexual aesthete with a master's from Harvard and a degree from the Sorbonne, Faÿ was a friend to Stein, Virgil Thomson, and Paul Bowles during their time in France in the 30s, a man whose standing amid the Left Bank expats was so established that he wouldn't have been out of place in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris.

 Born in 1893 to a large, well-to-do family described by Thomson as "a tribe of bankers and solicitors, ultra-bourgeois by financial position and ultra-Catholic through their mother," Faÿ taught in the United States at Columbia, Kenyon, and the University of Iowa, where he established a reputation as a popular historian as well as a keen promoter of modernist literature and music. His biographies of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington were best sellers in the United States, remaining in print for years to come.

Most formidably, the dissertation Faÿ completed at the Sorbonne, L'Esprit revolutionnaire en France et aux États-Unis à la fin du XVIIIème siècle, a study of the "revolutionary spirit" in America and France between 1770 and 1800 that produced a "friendship of ideas" between the intellectual vanguards of both, captured a significant award from the American Historical Association and would have won the 1926 Pulitzer Prize in history—it was the leading vote getter on the ballots of the awarding committee—had it not been written in French.

The authority of his thesis played a significant role in Faÿ's ascendancy not just in the United States but in France as well, where in 1932 he was elected to the Collège de France as holder of the newly created chair in "American Civilization." At age 39, he was the youngest ever to receive such an eminent appointment, obliquely memorialized by Stein in her play Lynn and the College de France, where Faÿ appears in the dual characters of Beatrice Glory and Henry Clay. Yet at the Collège de France, Faÿ was hardly the Great Compromiser—his growing hostility toward those he thought too cozy with the Popular Front government and his gravitating toward the protofascist Rassemblement National Pour la Reconstruction de la France, the assembly of right-wing intellectuals who rallied against what they saw as decadent elements in the French nation, earned him enemies at the institution leading up to the war.

Faÿ traveled frequently in the latter half of the decade to lend his support to the ultranationalist vision of the federalist "New Europe" movement, a prospective idea of a European "world order" that fascinated fascist and Nazi intellectuals and promised a future government rejecting parliamentary democracy. But to many, he was still a prestigious voice of American-French friendship, a lone figure amid the many intellectuals who polemicized against what they saw as the cancer of American power and the dangerous soullessness of mass democracy. Longer than most, Faÿ continued to support Roosevelt and more generally to voice pro-American positions in his writings for the French press, a stance that made him unique.

Faÿ's career was full of such paradoxes. Even his version of extremism, which would eventually lead to his disgraceful collaboration and the sentence of indignité nationale, seems oblique. Will and Compagnon make it clear that what led Faÿ to commit his crimes was less the noxiousness of anti-Semitism than an obsessive hatred of Freemasonry, which came under renewed assault by the extreme right in the 1930s. Faÿ detested Freemasonry as the secular antithesis of the royalist Catholic state he idealized. "A monstrous parasite, Freemasonry has grown larger out of our debasement," he wrote in the 1930s, a view that would be echoed in his contributions to journals of the far right throughout the decade. It was also a view that he would be able to translate into action in his role as a Vichy official in the first few years of Pétain's regime.

What exactly were Faÿ's crimes? Appointed general administrator of the Bibliothèque National in August 1940 after the dismissal of his Jewish predecessor, Julien Cain, Faÿ oversaw the institution's incorporation of the archives and holdings of the nation's Masonic lodges, and he eagerly set out to classify and inventory the records. By 1941 he was publishing the results of his research in an official Vichy journal, making public the names of some 14,000 Masonic "dignitaries" of the 170,000 who had been identified in the files  he collected. This information had deadly consequences: During Faÿ's trial, in 1946, prosecutors counted 6,000 Freemasons who were questioned or placed under surveillance during the war, 989 who were deported to concentration camps, and 549 who were killed, either by firing squad or through deportation.

Faÿ maintained that his actions were far removed from these results. The documents presented by Will and Compagnon prove otherwise. Faÿ actively participated in both the compilation of these files and their subsequent publication. He zealously toured France in 1940 giving speeches (often in confiscated lodges) on the nefarious influence of Freemasons, and he launched propaganda efforts such as the film Forces Occultes ("the mysteries of Freemasonry unveiled for the first time on screen") and a large exhibition he mounted in Paris that same year, which drew more than a million visitors to the Petit Palais to lay eyes on Masonic ritual objects, furniture, and books under a banner proclaiming that "here you find out about your real enemies, the cause of your misfortunes and calamities."

If it hadn't been so murderous, Faÿ's war against the Masons would seem almost campy. As both Will and Compagnon document, his Masonic extremism was unorthodox even for collaborators. When Pétain's powers waned after 1942, persecution of the Freemasons was no longer near the top of the French government's list of awful things to pursue, and hardcore collaborators saw Faÿ as an untrustworthy, oddball obsessionist (one denounced him publicly as a "Jesuit disguised as a librarian"). Arrested at his desk at the Bibliothèque National in 1944, he was tried and sentenced in 1946, lucky, as Will writes, to escape the death penalty, but one of only eight Vichy officials to draw the sentence he received. Faÿ served five years of incarceration until he escaped from a prison hospital near Fresnes, aided by a visitor dressed as a nun, and fled for the Swiss border. Still loyal to the man who had been so important to Stein, Toklas played a key role in financing the plot to free him, selling a Picasso print from Stein's collection to help underwrite the operation.

Faÿ remained in Switzerland for years, until his pardon, in 1958. Remarkably, he found solace and community among a small group of royalist ultra-Catholics who took haven in the Swiss town of Fribourg, so filled with intellectual extremists it was nicknamed Vichy-sur-Léman.

Bernard Faÿ is a difficult figure to square in a number of ways. He led a mysterious life and carried out many of his activities in secrecy—perhaps no surprise for a man who was obsessed with secret societies himself—making it difficult to know exactly what he was up to at various moments in his career. Both Will and Compagnon—himself a professor with dual appointments at Columbia and the Collège de France—have pursued the historical and judicial records to the extreme, yet many of Faÿ's personal relationships remain murky. His chauffeur and apparent lover, William Gueydan de Roussel, a Germanist who was hired by Faÿ at the Bibliothèque National, was a Gestapo agent, and like Faÿ was given an official serial number by the Germans as a "trustworthy Frenchman." Yet the exact nature of his relationship with the figure he was closest to in his life, save Stein, remains unclear.

For that matter, Faÿ's influence on Stein's views, and vice versa, has also tended to be conjectural, with some writers, like Malcolm, expressing frustration over understanding the "perverse project" of the Pétain translation and many chalking up Stein's vocal support of the Maréchal to the expediency of survival. By contrast, Will documents how closely many of the themes that emerge in Stein's later writings, such as the fixation on the 18th century as a sort of prelapsarian moment of political greatness, dovetail with Faÿ's own interests. Will's reading is important for examining a period previously considered somewhat marginal in Stein's career, a period that remains out of reach to students and general readers. Will points out in conversation that even Wars I Have Seen, Stein's fascinating and popular reckoning of her wartime experience and the backbone of Malcolm's book, has been out of print since 1984, and a recent effort to republish it at a major university press failed because of lack of interest.

The late memoir isn't unique in this respect—Stein's popular and problematic wartime articles on life in France, written for The Atlantic and other publications, are hard to locate, and even post-Autobiography book-length works like Mrs. Reynolds are difficult to find. Though the 1998 Library of America edition of Stein's late work valiantly brought back several titles, a sizable amount of her wartime writing, including the plays she wrote for children in the early 40s, is accessible only to the most determined bibliophiles.

That marginality—both intrinsic to the arc of Stein's career and inherent in the difficulties of keeping her late work in print—makes it harder to understand the impact of her political views on her writing. John Whittier-Ferguson, an associate professor of English at the University of Michigan who has also written extensively on Stein's later work, expressed a similar concern. "Most people don't have enough reference points around her late writing from the war to engage with why it might matter to figure this out," he says. "All those late works—Wars I Have Seen, Paris France, Brewsie and Willie, or Mrs. Reynolds, her amazing, bizarre, allegorical novel about Hitler and Stalin—until they have those texts, they don't have much to index it to in their heads."

Even more difficult is the fact that Stein's politics don't quite coalesce in the same way as with other modernists on the right. "With Ezra Pound or Wyndham Lewis, the story about their politics has been told and worked over more consistently and for longer," says Whittier-Ferguson. "The narrative we have to tell ourselves about Stein's politics is not really yet formed, which makes it harder to say what you're going to do with this material on politics when she doesn't seem to do much with it in her own texts. Glance at it, look off to the side, what do you do with that? But that's what makes it very interesting, and challenging."

In illuminating the life and times of the collaborator Bernard Faÿ, both Will and Compagnon shine light on Stein in all her problematic complexity. At a moment when interest in Stein is gathering—witness the two excellent exhibitions of work from her art collection on view this summer at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and at San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum, the restaging of her opera Four Saints in Three Acts in the same city, even the success of Malcolm's book—perhaps readers will want to dig deeper as well about the less salubrious side of Stein's modernism and the character who played such an important role for her.

That would certainly be a surprising relief for Will. "When Janet Malcolm's book appeared," she says, "I thought, damn, I've been scooped." But her own effort and that of others show that where Stein is concerned, we've only just begun to fathom the depths of this writer.

Eric Banks, a writer based in New York, is a former editor of Bookforum.