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!

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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.