San Francisco has been in a frenzy of Gertrude Stein adulation this summer. I came back to the city from a long absence just in time for a production, by Ensemble Parallele, of the opera "Four Saints in Three Acts", with a libretto by Stein and music by Virgil Thomson. I took in the exhibit of paintings from the personal collections of Stein and her two brothers, splendid and important works by Matisse, Picasso, and nearly everybody else active in Paris in the early decades of the 20th C. There is no doubt that the Steins were influential and insightful patrons of modern art. I also saw the "Five Rooms" exhibit at the SF Jewish Museum, depicting stages in the life of Gertrude Stein chiefly through photographs, drawings and paintings of the woman in all her vigorous presence. But before I got back to SF, I'd gotten a kick out of Woody Allen's 'grandmotherly' portrayal of Queen Gertrude in his film "Midnight in Paris". And so, thought I, why not follow up by trying once again to READ Stein?
That hasn't been such a success. Not quite a debacle ... I can fix my eyes on a page or two of Stein's words without flinching, but I don't admire her literary craft. The woman herself is so much more fascinating than her books or poems. She was an indefatigable self-promoter, a narcissist of gargantuan grandeur, a monument in herself of the cultural history of her century. The title of this review -- Pigeons on the Grass Alas -- comes from the libretto of "Four Saints in Three Acts". It's also the title of a novel by Wolfgang Koeppen, written in the 1950s, which I've read recently and admired very much. For some obscure reason, that line seems rich in implicit emotion to me, but I have to confess that I couldn't hear it, couldn't pick it out, from the singing in the opera on stage. Honestly, I couldn't pick out more than a dozen words as sung, and upon reading the libretto in this volume, I can't quite grasp what Stein and Virgil Thomson thought they had in common. The 'affect' of the language and the swelling tenor of the music seem totally disparate.
Stein is an icon. She's been virtually beatified as a founder/pioneer of "gay" liberation and of 'bohemian' freedoms at large. But she wasn't quite as generous and grandmotherly as Woody Allen portrays her. She could be vindictive and manipulative on a grand scale. She parted ways with her brother Leo with a harsh unforgivingness, and she 'dumped' Pablo Picasso decisively as soon as the painter's reputation began to dwarf her own. Despite her conspicuously daring lifestyle, she was a sour social conservative. Here's what wikipedia says about her politics:
""Stein was politically conservative, though the nature of her opinions is debated. According to Janet Malcolm's Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, Stein was a life-long Republican and vocal critic of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal. She publicly endorsed General Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War and admired Vichy leader Marshal Philippe Pétain, translating some of the latter's speeches into English. These unpublished translations included a favorable introduction in which she compared him to George Washington. Some have argued for a more nuanced view of Stein's collaborationist activity, arguing that it was rooted in her wartime predicament and status as a Jew in Nazi-occupied France. Prior to World War II she made public her opinion that Adolf Hitler should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. "I say that Hitler ought to have the peace prize, because he is removing all the elements of contest and of struggle from Germany. By driving out the Jews and the democratic and Left element, he is driving out everything that conduces to activity. That means peace.... By suppressing Jews... he was ending struggle in Germany," (New York Times Magazine, May 6, 1934). Stein at 1938 comment on Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky: "There is too much fathering going on just now and there is no doubt about it fathers are depressing,""
The "Five Rooms" exhibit recounts the plain fact that Stein was protected by the Vichy administration, allowing her to continue living in France during World War II despite her Jewish heritage. But then, that exhibit also follows her post-war connections with and admiration for the American soldiers, with whom she actually traveled into conquered Germany.
Altogether, an extraordinary, contradictory character was Gertrude! One could make a hobby of trying to make sense of her ...