Monday, March 14, 2022

Sylvia Beach—From Preachers Daughter to Patron Saint of Bookstores

A caricature of Sylvia Beach.

Sylvia Beach made her mark in wildly exciting post-World War I Paris when Americans and other English speaking expatriates flocked to the city for a taste of la vie boheme as a bookstore proprietor, center of social and intellectual life for a generation of writers, and almost accidentally as the publisher of the most notorious book of the 20th Century.

She was born in a Presbyterian parsonage in Baltimore, Maryland on March 14, 1897.  Her father, the Rev. Sylvester Beach, was the son of missionaries to China and the most recent in a long line of Calvinist clergy.  The second of three daughters the very bright young girl was raised in every way to be a respectable American lady.  And she might well have become one had not her father accepted an appointment as assistant minister at the American Church in Paris and director of the American Student Center in 1901.

The young girl fell in love with the city and the culture.  The family remained in the City of Lights until her father took up new duties as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Princeton, New Jersey in 1905.  But she could not be kept home.  She returned to Europe on several visits and even lived for two years in Spain.  When World War I broke out, she volunteered with the International Red Cross and served in Eastern Europe with its Balkan Commission.


                                Beach as a young woman in Paris.

In 1917 as the cannons still roared on the Western Front, Beach returned to Paris to study French literature.  Not long after she was naturally drawn to La Maison des Amis des Livres, the unusual bookstore opened by Adrienne Monnier a 7 rue de l’Odéon.  At a time when most Paris book venders were either rudimentary stalls peddling haphazardly whatever came their way or chaotic warehouses of old and used volumes, Monnier had carefully shelved her collection of the best and most forward contemporary work.  The store doubled as a lending library—the first in France—so that impoverished writers could read and keep up with the latest trends in literature.  She provided comfortable chairs, sofas, and writing desks encouraging visitors to sit and peruse the books—and engage in conversation.  She provided coffee and a kind ear.  Since its opening in 1915 it had quickly become a home away from home for the most cutting edge writers in Paris.

When Beach walked through the door, she fell in love.  Not only with the shop, but with the proprietor.  Monnier was 25 years old at the time—five years younger than the American—an earthy, sensuous woman in cropped hair, a peasant’s shirt, and long, already old fashion skirts.  They took to each other immediately and spent their first afternoon together excitedly talking about books and writers for hours.  They were soon lovers, life partners, and collaborators—a close relationship that endured until Monnier in ill health committed suicide in 1955.

Through Monnier and the bookstore, Beach was soon introduced into a circle of the most innovative writers in Paris including André Gide, Paul Valéry, and Jules Romains all of whom staged readings at the shop.

Beach was soon inspired to consider opening a branch of La Maison des Amis des Livres in New York City to introduce Americans to modern French literature in much the same way as the famous Armory Show had introduced impressionists, expressionists, cubists, and other modern artists.  Her mother supplied her with $3,000 to finance the venture.  But rents in New York proved exorbitant and, if the truth be known, Beach could not bear to part with Paris or Monnier.

Instead, she took the money and opened her own shop in Paris to complement Monnier’s.  Her’s would be an English language bookstore catering the growing expatriate communities filling Parisian cafés taking advantage of the favorable exchange rate for the Franc that made the city one of the most affordable big cities in the world.  The bookstore would also introduce French intellectuals to the best contemporary English language writing, especially American writing.


Beach celebrating her bookstore Shakespeare and Company.

Beach opened Shakespeare and Company in November of 1919 at 8 rue Dupuytren while she continued to live with Monnier in a fourth floor apartment over the French bookshop.  The new store was a success and soon a busy expatriate center.  In 1922 Beach was able to move the shop to larger quarters at 12 rue de l’Odéon directly across the street from La Maison.

The street the two shops shared also housed a theater and two comfortable and inexpensive cafés making the small neighborhood a hub of Left Bank life.  Among those attracted to the store and its generous, engaging proprietor were Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley, James Joyce, Ford Maddox Ford, and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.


Beach with Adrienne Monnier, left,, and Ernest Hemingway at the store after he injured his head in an accident.

Hemmingway spoke for many writers in A Moveable Feast, his memoirs of his days in Paris when he wrote, “She was kind, cheerful and interested, and loved to make jokes and gossip. No one I knew was ever nicer to me.”  Beach was convinced from the beginning that Hemmingway was an important writer and encouraged him in every way—including letting the impoverished writer borrow freely from her lending library without paying the customary membership fees.  She also often fed him and loaned him money.  

French writer Andre Chamson summed up Beach’s importance in the emerging literary scene:

Sylvia carried pollen like a bee. She cross-fertilized these writers. She did more to link England, the United States, Ireland, and France than four great ambassadors combined. It was not merely for the pleasure of friendship that Joyce, Hemingway, Bryher, and so many others often took the path to Shakespeare and Company in the heart of Paris, to meet there all these French writers. But nothing is more mysterious than such fertilizations through dialogue, reading, or simple contact.

Hemmingway may have been a special friend and protégé, but of all the writers who hung out at her shop she cared most deeply about Joyce.  The Irish writer had arrived in Paris from Zurich where he had passed the war years in 1920 at the invitation of Ezra Pound who wasted no time in introducing him to Beach.  Beach in turn introduced him to Hemmingway and the pair became the most unlikely drinking buddies imaginable.

Beach with James Joyce in the shop decorated with posters celebrating the controversies about Ulysses.

Joyce was struggling mightily to get his magnum opus, Ulysses.  No English language publisher would touch the supposedly obscene work Beach with backing by Monnier, decided to publish the book herself under a Shakespeare and Company imprint.  It was published in 1922 to both acclaim and alarm.  A second English edition by Harriet Shaw Weavers Egoist Press was published later that year but was seized by American postal authorities and 500 copies were burned by English customs agents.  Beach kept new editions of her imprint in stock despite taking a beating first by bootleg copies in America, then by Joyce who finally got a legitimate publisher in the U.S. in 1932.  The financial losses from the enterprise, did not, however, disrupt her supportive relationship with Joyce, who Beach considered with Monnier and Paris to be one of the three great loves of her life.


A pre-publication announcement of  Ulysses.

In 1925 Monnier took her own flyer as publisher with her literary magazine, le Navire d’Argent which published not only the most advanced French writers, but translations by English language writers like Hemingway.  Beach collaborated closely in the effort.  Together the produced the first translation into French of T. S. Eliot’s notoriously difficult The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.  Another issue of the magazine was devoted entirely of American writers including Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, and E. E. Cummings.  Publication of the magazine had to be suspended after only a dozen issues because Monnier could not afford its losses anymore.

The worldwide Depression, a dramatic shift in exchange rates which made Paris a much more expensive city, and rising political tensions caused many of her expatriate customers to flee the city in the 1930’s.  The only Americans coming to Paris now were the wealthy on their Grand Tours or on shopping binges at the city’s fashion houses, people by in large uninterested in literature and disdainful of the Left Bank in general.  By 1936 Beach was in despair that she might have to close the shop.

André Gide came to her rescue.  He organized a club of writers and called Friends of Shakespeare and Company. About 200 members paid 200 francs a year to attend special readings at Shakespeare and Company by the most famous literary figures of the day.  The celebrated authors participating drew great attention to the shop—as well as more French customers.  And, as tensions rose in Europe, a parade of American correspondents and writers trooped through the store that had famously nurtured Hemmingway.

In 1937 Beach was thrilled to be made a Chevalier légion d’honneur (Knight of the Legion of Honor) by her beloved adopted homeland.  She considered it the highest honor of her life and proudly wore the ribbon even after German occupation when it was dangerous to do so.

Most Americans fled Paris in advance of the Nazis.  Not Beach.  It was her home and she refused to abandon it, for which her friends and neighbors greatly admired her.  But she knew the risks she was taking and that eventually she would run afoul of the occupiers.  Still, she kept her shop open even when she was visited with a stern warning for employing a Jewish shop girl.

Beach with her long-time lover and business partner Monnier shortly before she had to close down Shakespeare and Company during the Nazi occupation of Paris. 

She knew her time was running short when the U.S. entered the war.  In the summer of ’42 she refused to sell a book to a Nazi officer.  She realized that her time was up.  Summoning her army of friends, she stripped her store of its books, dismantled the bookshelves, and even painted over the sign in a single day.  The books were laboriously hauled to an apartment where they were safe through the war.

In September Beach and 400 other American women were rounded up and interred at the monkey house of the Paris Zoo, of all places.  She did not find the confinement particularly onerous as her many friends could visit and talk with her simply by paying admission to the zoo.  But after being held there for more than a month she was moved to much harsher confinement in Vittel.  She remained there until the following spring when influential friends in Paris finally secured her release.

She returned to Monnier who had somehow kept her shop open.  Together they endured the hardships of occupation as the Germans cut food and fuel supplies to the city.  They were often literally starving.

On August 23, 1944 Beach was roused by loud shouts from the street.  She would recall:


I heard a deep voice calling: “Sylvia!” And everybody in the street took up the cry of “Sylvia!” “It’s Hemingway!  It’s Hemingway!” Cried Adrienne.  I flew downstairs: we met in a crash. He picked me up and swung me around and kissed me while people on the streets and in the windows cheered.

War correspondent Hemingway had somehow placed himself in command of a unit of the French Resistance and entered the city just ahead of the Allied armies.  Before his famous “liberation” of the Bar of the Ritz Hotel, he had rushed to the rue de l’Odéon to personally liberate Beach.

Beach was never able to reopen her store.  She continued to help Monnier at her shop.  But Monnier’s health was failing.  Despondent, she committed suicide by an overdose of sleeping pills on May 25, 1955.  Beach was devastated.

Beach's memoirs of the bookstore and its denizens was published in the U.S. in 1960.

Perhaps to relive her life with Monnier, Beach wrote and published her memoirs of the heady days between the wars, Shakespeare and Company, in 1956 with profiles of all of the many famous figures she had known.

Late in life Beach recorded recollections of Hemmingway and Joyce in interviews.

Beach remained in Paris until her death on October 5 1962.  Her remains, however, were shipped home to be buried with her family at Princeton Cemetery in New Jersey.  Princeton University became the repository of her papers.

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