Gertrude Stein Mania in San Francisco

Gertrude Stein has hit San Francisco like a storm, and the same mania will probably soon affect Paris, New York and Washington D.C. as well.

Why all the fuss? Well, first because of the blockbuster exhibit, “The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art which is due to close September 6 and travel to the Grand Palais in Paris (Oct 3, 2011 to Jan 16, 2012) and then the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (Feb 21–Jun 3, 2012). Reuniting the amazing collections of Gertrude,  her brothers Leo and Michael, and Michael’s wife, the exhibit displays some 200 paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints and illustrated books,  including approximately 40 works by Picasso and 60 by Matisse, as well as works by Bonnard, Cézanne, Gris, Laurencin, Picabia, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Vallotton. In addition to the exhibit, the SFMOMA and, indeed, the whole Yerba Buena neighborhood have also been hosting a whole slew of film screenings, lectures, panel discussions, cultural programs and performances related to Gertrude and her entourage.

Just a few blocks away from the SFMOMA, at the San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum, the exhibit “Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories”, also closing September 6, concentrates more on Gertrude’s life and legacy, exploring her identities as a literary pioneer, a modernist, an expatriate in Paris and the partner of Alice B. Toklas, a celebrity and a muse to artists. Jointly organized with the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, to which it will travel after San Francisco (October 14, 2011 – January 22, 2012),the exhibition features some 100 artifacts and artworks, as well as manuscripts, letters, journals and personal belongings. Also included are film footage from Gertrude’s operas and ballets and a documentary film about Alice’s and her life during wartime. Like the SFMOMA, the Contemporary Jewish Museum has also been hosting numerous discussions, events and programs, some of them related to Gertrude’s Jewish and lesbian identities and associations.

In addition to visiting both of these exhibits, I have attended several of the San Francisco events related to Gertrude Stein. One I particularly enjoyed was at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Entitled “Paris Portraits: Stories of Picasso, Matisse, Gertrude Stein, and their Circle”, it was a one-woman show with Laura Sheppard, who read from the manuscript of Harriet L. Levy, a San Francisco writer and theater critic who moved to Paris in 1907 with her friend Alice B. Toklas. The show was followed by a lively panel discussion about Gertrude’s Jewishness and her puzzling relationship with Bernard Fay, a gay, anti-Semitic, French academic with ties to the Vichy government who ensured Alice’s and Gertrude’s protection in France during World War II and who was later imprisoned for having persecuted French Freemasons.

During this discussion, much to my amaze, I learned that Gertrude translated a book of Petain’s speeches into English, wrote the Nobel Committee recommending Hitler for the Peace Prize, supported Franco, and hated FDR. And I later read that Alice B. Toklas, following Gertrude’s death, helped finance Fay escape from Fresnes prison outside Paris by selling one or more works on paper by Picasso.

Of course, I loved the art exhibits and seeing all the artifacts, but as a history buff and an author of two books dealing with World War II, Gertrude and Alice’s “murky” past during the war and their association with GI’s following the liberation of France fascinates me. Consequently, I have started doing some research on these subjects, both by searching the Internet and by buying books or taking them out of the Berkeley Public Library whenever they are available—this being rare these days, given the Gertrude Stein mania existing in the area!

I have even written a playlet, a sort of one-woman show (which I performed in my storytelling class at Stagebridge last week) based on a 1945 Life article I quoted in my book French War Brides in America when it was published in 2004.  The story features an elderly, but still feisty,  Gertrude admonishing an audience of GI’s at the American Red Cross Center in Paris in the spring of 1945—just a year before her death from cancer at the American Hospital. Watch for it soon on my website:  http://www.hilarykaiser.com

I love the fact that Gertrude shared my love of Paris and also hailed from the San Francisco Bay Area (she grew up in Oakland), where she is the topic these days of  a lot of lively conversation at dinner parties, owing to these exhibits and to  “Midnight in Paris.¨  But she is certainly a much more complex and puzzling character than the funny and lovable American expatriate that Woody Allen portrayed in his film!

Claudine LeMoal’s “Children of Breiz”

Being a dual American-French citizen, I have been sharing my time for the past two years between Paris and Berkeley, California. As a consequence of this transcontinental life, I have come into contact with both the American community in Paris and the French community in the San Francisco Bay Area.  In both places, I have met some very interesting people with whom I seem to have a lot in common. One of these is Claudine LeMoal.

Claudine between daughters

In many ways, Claudine and I are “mirror images” of each other. Born in Strasbourg in eastern France, Claudine moved permanently to the U.S. with her mother and G.I. stepfather in 1962, the same year that my parents and I left San Francisco and moved to France. Although I only stayed for three years that time round (my father’s position at the U.S. Embassy in Paris coming to an end),  I later returned on my own and eventually married a Frenchman, raised a family, studied at the Sorbonne, and taught English and American civilization for many years in the French educational system. As for Claudine, she attended the University of California at Davis, married an American, raised two daughters and taught French and Spanish in California schools.

But what we discovered that REALLY links us is a common fascination with World War II and a desire to write about it. Claudine has written “Children of Brez,  a screenplay based on true events that occurred in a village in Brittany during the German occupation, whereas I have written books about GI.’s in France and French war brides. Having this mutual interest in the war induced us to interview each other. You will find Claudine’s recent interview with me posted on my website at: http://sites.google.com/site/hilarykaiserphd/claudine-le-moal-interviews-hilary-kaiser    

As for the interview I did with Claudine, the following article is based on it.

” Children of Brez” was inspired by a story about the brothers and sisters of Claudine’s Breton father, who died when she was three. Claudine’s mother told her the story when she was a young girl, and she never forgot it. Five years ago, after studying script-writing and doing interviews and filming in France, Claudine decided to write an original screenplay.

Claudine told me her grandmother had died at a very early age, leaving behind nine children; then her grandfather died in an accident, and the children were left to fend for themselves. This was about the time the war broke out. The children, including Claudine’s father, were living in very impoverished conditions and trying to make ends meet on the farm that was left to them. Their resources were also considerably limited by the German occupation. Since it appeared that the Germans wouldn’t be leaving, as many Bretons originally thought, some of the older children decided to help out the country and joined the underground; by doing various acts, they were actually quite influential in helping the Allies move from Normandy to Brittany. To the point that local “collaborationists” exposed them, thinking they could acquire their land or whatever their motivation was. The collaborationists actually suggested to the Germans that they go to the farm at nighttime and destroy it and probably the children, too, thus wiping out any possible “terrorists”, as they were called. Fortunately, Claudine’s father and his brothers and sisters were tipped off and were able to flee into the hills before the Germans arrived. They watched the farm burn from a distance.

This story always intrigued Claudine, and five years ago she started researching it. She first thought she was going to do a documentary and went to Brittany to conduct interviews with her aunts and uncles, but they were elderly and somewhat reluctant to talk about their experiences. So it would have been difficult to create a documentary centered on their testimonies. In the meantime, she came across a document that her aunt’s husband had gotten from a friend, a local villager. It’s a first-hand account of another story that occurred about the same time. It’s about a group of young people who had gotten together on a farm to celebrate a birthday and how, again, a collaborationist, tipped off the Germans, wrongly so, saying the young people were plotting a revolutionary attack against the Germans. So the Germans proceeded to ambush them during the birthday party in retaliation. They humiliated them and, over a period of several days, brutalized them in the local villages in the area.

This account left a great impression on Claudine. She began thinking that since both stories were generated in the same local area, perhaps they could be combined as a homogenized over-story. She took several classes in screen-writing and then began writing “Children of Breiz”, which merges both stories. Breiz is the Breton word for Brittany.

Claudine said one motivation for writing the script was to draw attention to the Breton sub-culture. According to her, Brittany is very different from other regions in France. It is Celtic in origin. It’s very traditional and, given that there’s not much industry in the area, little has changed over the years. People are still ethnocentric and clannish in certain parts of Brittany.

Claudine also thinks what happened in Brittany gives a different twist to the French experience during World War II. She said the Germans were attracted to Brittany because of its coastline and proximity to Britain. And when the Germans came to Brittany, many Bretons were actually, at first, in favor of the Germans because they thought the Germans would help them separate from France! But then they realized that the Germans had come under false pretenses and that they were being occupied and abused by the Germans. She used as an example the fact that the Germans made each Breton family give up one of their sons, whom they sent to Germany to work in German arms factories. The Germans thought the Bretons would be more loyal than Jewish workers, for example, because the Germans and Bretons were, at least at first, on good terms. But then the Bretons caught on, and many young Bretons went into hiding.

Claudine admitted that she is very proud of having both Breton (by her father) and Alsatian (by her mother) ancestries. She said that for years, the French would look down upon the Bretons and not recognize the Breton culture as an important sub-culture in French society. To illustrate her point, she said that the Breton language used to be banned from schools, and such epithets as “tête de Breton, tête de cochon” (Bretons are stubborn as pigs) were prevalent. Ever since Brittany was annexed to France back in the 17th century, Bretons have had a “separatist” streak and a desire to be autonomous They have also proudly kept up many of their traditions, such as folk dances, music, and festivals. In many ways, it is the same for the Alsatians, who have their own language and customs. Claudine mentioned that in addition to affecting her Breton relatives, World War II also had an effect on her Alsatian family. Her maternal grandfather was sent to a German concentration camp, and her grandmother lived through the bombings in the countryside and providentially escaped being killed when one fell on a nearby air-raid shelter.

Claudine thinks it is a good thing that French sub-cultures like the Breton and Alsatian cultures are beginning to be recognized in France. She would like Americans to recognize them, too. She also said that the anti-French movement in the U.S. in the 1990’s was very painful to live through. At that time, many people talked about French capitulation and collaboration during World War II. “They called the French cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” she said. Luckily, the Americans and the French seem to be “friends” again, but, as Claudine mentioned, a lot of French people still haven’t come to terms with certain things that happened in France during World War II– with the collaboration, for example. “I have a hard time forgiving what happened in Bleiz,” she confessed. “It was emotionally very difficult to find out and write about it.”

Claudine hopes that her screenplay will be made into a movie, either in the U.S. or France (she’s in the process of translating it into French) or in both, and she has started seeking a producer.  Her hope is that in addition to reaching an adult audience, her film will also be seen by teenagers. “They don’t know much about this period and can learn from the past,” she said. “I’d also like to show them that young people can make a difference if they act, are pro-active, and don’t remain passive. And I think film is such a great medium for teaching teenagers. They can learn about history by watching real people in real situations. It comes alive for them.”

Nostalgia: Paris, New Haven, Millbrook

This past month has been a time of nostalgia for me.

Watching Woody Allen’s charming new film, “Midnight in Paris”, a few weeks ago while in Berkeley, I was reminded of my own reactions to Paris when I first moved there as a teenager back in 1962. Like Woody, I was imbued with the readings of Hemingway and Fitzgerald; I knew that Gertrude Stein had called them and others “a Lost Generation” and was a friend of Picasso, Braque and Matisse; and  I became enchanted with the many monuments and beauties of the city. At 15, book in hand, I did “the Memorable Feast tour” of Hemingway’s haunts on my own long before such walking tours became popular. And after reading Fitzgerald’s biography, it was easy for me to visit the Etoile and imagine inebriated Scott and Zelda riding atop taxi cabs there at night in the 20s.

In 1962, the Orsay was a train station, and French impressionist paintings were still housed in the Jeu de Paume in the Tuilleries Gardens. There were no McDonalds or Pizza Huts in France back then, so after school my fellow classmates from “ASP” (American School of Paris) and I would congregate and play baby foot in cafés on the Champs Elysées or do our homework at the American Library, then located on the famous boulevard.

Other memories of living in Paris in the early 60s fill my mind. The Algerian war was still going on, and a plastic bomb went off in our apartment building, apparently placed by someone from the OAS, an underground movement of French generals who want Algeria to remain French, because a pro-independence politician lives in our building.. At ASP, which, at the time, was located in Madame du Barry’s hunting pavilion in Louveciennes, we listened to talks by personnel from the Embassy on the reasons for France’s anti-American sentiment and were cautioned on what to do in case of emergency. In Paris in the 60s, it could take months to get a telephone line installed; the W.C. was often on the landing instead of inside apartments; and heating was poor. There were no supermarkets and little “self-service.” My mother, who didn’t speak French, once got her hands slapped by a greengrocer when she touched the tomatoes at a fruit stand to see if they were ripe!

I also remember that since France hadn’t yet pulled out of NATO, numerous U.S. army bases dotted the French countryside. Because my father worked at the U.S.Embassy, we had “PX privileges” at did our shopping at the PX in St. Cloud or went to see American movies on the Camp des Loges base in St. Germain-en-Laye.

….

Another continent, another place and time…Two weeks ago, I went “back east” with my friend Tom to attend his 50th class reunion from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. At Yale, too, a film evoked memories, both for him and his 400 or so classmates, but also for the 350+ of us accompanying them.

“1000 Voices”, a documentary produced by Legacy Documentaries especially for the reunion, contains not only interviews with 82 alums, who were chosen to represent the 1000 members of the class, but also evocative footage and clips about the turbulent Sixties. Most of us cried watching it. The poignant stories of college camaraderie, the first-person narratives about classmates’ successes and failures, as well as the iconic images of JFK, Bobby Kennedy, MLK, Motown musicians, and Vietnam all brought back our own memories of those years.

During the weekend, we were reminded of what Yale was like in the 60s and how it has changed. An all-male university when Tom was there, Yale went “co-ed” in 1971. Today, women make up 50% of the student body, and in addition to the famous Whiffenpoofs, there is now a female singing group called the Whim ‘n Rhythms. Once practically all-white, at a time when “diversity” meant enrolling students from western or southern states, the university’s white population is  now only 45.8%,  and 10% are foreign born. There is an active LGBT community, whereas in Tom’s day at Yale, one’s sexual orientation was kept in the closet. Indeed, in a poignant scene in the film, a gay classmate tells how much pressure there was back then to be “normal.” Like most of his classmates, he went on to marry after graduation, but the consequence was that he had to go through decades of therapy trying to figure things out. It was only when he was in his mid fifties that he found the courage to divorce his wife and acknowledge his homosexuality.

Some 175 of the Class of 1961 have passed away. During a moving service one afternoon, a Jewish rabbi, a Protestant minister and a Catholic priest celebrated their memory, their widows and families, and the friendships they made while at Yale.  In break-out sessions, in private conversations, and in the photo “yearbook” given to the alums, classmates reminisced about their college days and brought each other up to date on their past and present activities. Spouses and “significant others” were also invited to share during the break-out sessions. The ambience was warm, inclusive and honest. Looking back over the years with reflexive mellowness, most of the classmates, who are now in their seventies, painted their lives and experiences in realistic terms. Illnesses, addictions, dysfunctional relationships with spouses and children, regrets, and other concerns were mentioned. But, so, too, were life’s blessings, as well as memories of professors, courses, antics, and activities while in New Haven.

Admittedly, nostalgia imbued the blue-and-white Yale reunion, just as it does “Midnight in Paris”, and, to a certain extent, both the Yale alums and Woody Allen romanticize their memories. Still, it cannot be denied that Paris of the 20s and the writers and artists of the Lost Generation had a lasting effect on Woody Allen. Similarly, it would seem that their college years at Yale greatly affected the lives of the members of the Class of 1961.

I have my own somewhat romanticized memory of Yale as well. In the mid 60s, I was invited to spend several weekends there by a classmate at Bennett College who just so happened to be the daughter of the then Yale President, Kingman Brewster. Those visits were brought back to me when we drove by the President’s House two weeks ago and then drove on to Millbrook, New York, where the buildings that used to house Bennett still stand.

I say “used to” because Bennett, a small two-year college for women founded in 1890, no longer exists. It went into bankruptcy in the 1970s and closed down completely in 1978, following attempts to survive by going four-year and amalgamating with Briarcliff College.

What a sad sight it was to see Bennett today! Whereas Yale’s Gothic-style buildings are still vibrant and alive, Halcyon Hall, Bennett’s main wooden structure, which was originally built as a 200-room luxury hotel, has been left abandoned for the past 33 years. (See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZO_4OSKS2eY for a pictorial history of the place.)

Unlike the Yale alums’, my memories of Bennett are not romanticized. I was not happy there and always felt out of place, especially as most of my classmates came from prominent families and were more interested in riding horses and dating men from Ivy League colleges than studying. I’d have preferred attending a much larger, more urban, university for my first two years of college. In fact, I only went there because they awarded me a very generous creative writing scholarship and because I wanted to be on the east coast.

Still, looking back, as often happens, I realize now that spending two years of my life at Bennett wasn’t all bad. I made three or four good friends, whom I’m still in touch with today. I remember meeting Edward Albee, Robert Graves and Betty Friedan. This is because Bennett was known for the arts and attracted visiting writers, artists and performers. I also remember that my first year there the whole college went down to New York City for a week to attend plays and concerts and visit museums. While at Bennett, I also got a chance to visit some famous universities. In addition to Connie Brewster’s invitations to Yale, I was also invited several times to Radcliffe to visit a close friend; and I went on some “blind dates” at Harvard, Princeton, West Point and “U.Va”.

Paris, New Haven, Millbrook…I’m grateful for these nostalgic memories—be they romanticized or realistic–from the past.

Smiling in Berkeley, Paris and Shanghai

Phyllis Diller once said, « A smile is a curve that sets everything straight. » I think one of the reasons I feel so comfortable here in Berkeley is because people, particularly in my neighborhood, smile in the street. Whether they’re jogging, walking their dog on a leash or their baby in a stroller, or just going from one place to another, they invariably make eye contact with me, grin and say hello. And I do the same. What a difference a smile makes! There’s a human connection.  It’s good for my moral. It brightens my day.

Unfortunately, it isn’t the same when I walk down a street in my neighborhood in Paris. In France, smiling at strangers in the streets isn’t usually done, so most Parisians go around town with a neutral expression on their faces. They avoid your gaze and continue down the street without acknowledging you. Over the years, I, too, have acquired that neutral expression, that mask of non-recognition of the other when I’m living there. And it’s hard for me because I’m basically a friendly person with a broad, toothy smile that rarely leaves my face, even when I’m crying inside. But, as I tell American expatriates with whom I do cross-cultural training, you have to be careful in Paris. Parisians don’t smile at you because you’re a foreigner; they don’t smile at strangers; they don’t smile at each other.

It’s not only because Paris is a big metropolis and therefore, like New York or London, not so “friendly” as smaller places.  It’s also because not smiling is, in my opinion, part of French culture.  For many Americans, smiling is a polite gesture. Not so for the French. For many French people, smiling at a stranger in the street is a type of “come on” with sexual innuendos. Or it’s an invasion of privacy, since if you’re smiled at, you have to respond. Or it’s ‘hypocritical’: Why wear a smile when you don’t want to? they ask.

Of course, not all French people are non-smilers; some do smile, although usually not in the street. There are also regional differences. In the south of France, for example, people tend to be more “Mediterranean”, more outgoing and friendly, and they smile more. I’ve also noticed that French people who’ve traveled abroad often come back impressed by the smiling friendliness of other cultures; they may then attempt to smile more or at least to be less cynical about those who smile or about the meaning of a smile.

Personally speaking, I have often found that, in addition to establishing human contact, smiling is also a very efficient means of communication.  When you don’t speak the language, for example, as I didn’t in Shanghai when I was living and working there last year, smiling replaced words.  Chinese shopkeepers, cashiers, concierges, and I often smiled at each other, used gestures, and made ourselves understood. And I think the fact that we could share smiles helped me make ready friends with the little girls in the Chinese orphanage where I volunteered. Even with non-smiling Parisians, smiling to French policemen and bureaucrats has helped me obtain directions, information and help.

Smiling can assure,  inspire, embrace, open doors, resolve, and spread. Smiling is infectious.

Published in: on March 26, 2010 at 4:14 pm  Comments (2)  
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