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" All of you young people who served in the war...you are all a lost generation."
— Gertrude Stein
Between the World Wars, America’s “Lost Generation” flocked to Paris: F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Cole Porter, Man Ray, Josephine Baker and many others less famous who were disillusioned by America’s participation in a war that killed and wounded so many yet ultimately settled nothing; the repression and censorship of the arts; and the rising tide of violence at home caused by the Ku Klux Klan in the South and Prohibition-spawned organized crime in the cities.
In Paris, rents were cheap, alcohol was legal, and art and literature flourished. It was a society which was more tolerant of people of color and gays and lesbians, where being part of a bohemian subculture or having socialist political views weren’t regarded as suspiciously as they were stateside.
Today, March 14, is the 129th anniversary of the birth of Nancy Woodbridge Beach, who became Sylvia Beach (1887 – 1962).
She was the second of three daughters born to Sylvester and Eleanor Beach in Baltimore, Maryland. She disliked the name Nancy, and renamed herself Sylvia.
Her father, a Presbyterian minister, was descended from several generations of clergymen, and her mother’s parents had been missionaries in India. In 1901, the family moved to France upon Sylvester Beach's appointment as assistant minister of the American Church in Paris and director of the American student center. In 1906, the family returned to the United States when her father became minister of the First Presbyterian Church of Princeton, New Jersey.
Sylvia was adventurous, spending two years in Spain, then volunteering during World War I as an agricultural laborer in France, and later for the Balkan Commission of the Red Cross in Serbia. One of her letters home from Belgrade describes a springlike day ruined by the “bomby” air.
In 1917, at the age of 30, she moved to Paris to study French literature at the Sorbonne. Doing research at the Bibliothèque Nationale, Beach found a mention of the bookstore La Maison des Amis des Livres in a literary journal.
Located at 7 rue de l’Odeon on the left bank, the bookstore had been founded in 1915 by Adrienne Monnier while she was still in her early twenties, after brief stints as a teacher and a typist at a publishing house. The bookstore carried modern French literature, in a relaxed setting which encouraged browsing and lingering over books at tables and chairs scattered among the shelves. Monnier also offered subscriptions to her lending library, a first in France.
When Sylvia Beach walked into Adrienne Monnier’s bookstore, it was one of those fated meetings. Beach found Monnier unexpected — a plump young woman wearing, as Beach describes, attire that looked like a cross between a peasant’s dress and a nun’s habit “with a long full skirt … and a sort of tight-fitting velvet waistcoat over a white silk blouse. She was in gray and white like her bookshop.” Although Beach was dressed in a Spanish cloak and hat, Monnier knew immediately that she was American. Adrienne declared, "I like Americans very much." Beach responded that she liked France very much. They were kindred spirits, who became best friends and lovers and lived together for 36 years until Monnier’s suicide in 1955.
With Adrienne’s expert help and encouragement, and seed money from Beach’s mother, in 1919 Sylvia opened her own bookstore, specializing in modern English-language literature. Shakespeare and Company’s customers weren’t wealthy, so Beach lent books for a small fee, in addition to selling them. She referred to her patrons as her “bunnies,” playing on the French word for subscriber, “abonné.”
In her memoir, Shakespeare and Company, Beach says she picked "my partner Bill" because she felt he was always "well-disposed to my undertaking; and, besides, he was a best seller." She said the toy soldiers stationed in a small oak wall cabinet near the entrance "stood guard over the House of Shakespeare."
By 1921, she had moved Shakespeare and Company into 12 rue de l’Odeon, across the street from Adrienne’s bookstore. Beach also rented the rooms above her shop, but lived with Monnier on the fourth floor above La Maison des Amis des Livres.
Their bookstores were at the center of avant-garde literature in Paris, gathering places for free-wheeling discussions and readings by new authors. Ex-pat Americans quickly discovered Sylvia’s store, where she offered hot tea and a warm stove to friends and customers in winter, held their mail and passed on messages, even provided a bed upstairs for authors who temporarily needed a place to stay.
Shortly after Beach’s store moved to rue de l’Odeon, Ernest and Hadley Hemingway arrived in Paris. Ernest Hemingway soon found his way to Shakespeare and Company, and brought home a stack of borrowed books to show Hadley. He was touched by Sylvia’s generosity in lending him the books even though he didn’t have the money that day to subscribe to the lending library. He remembers Beach in A Moveable Feast: “She was kind, cheerful and interested, and loved to make jokes and gossip. No one I knew was ever nicer to me.” She was one of his first friends in Paris, and an early advocate of his writing.
French writer Andre Chamson said: “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.”
The novelist Katherine Anne Porter described Beach as, “a thin, twiggy sort of woman, quick-tongued, quick-minded and light on her feet,” adding, “Her nerves were as tight as a tuned-up fiddle.” Beach suffered from migraine headaches for much of her life, especially in the stressful times to come.
She and Monnier gave very popular dinner parties in keeping with their bohemian status. Inviting Bryher (pen name of Annie Winifred Ellerman) to a reception, Beach wrote: “You know it won’t be at all formal, never is in our house, and people don’t dress up here. I never wear an evening gown no matter what they invite me too — haint got none.”
Beach introduced Sherwood Anderson to Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald to James Joyce. She describes a reading in her bookstore, given by Hemingway and Stephen Spender, during which beer and whiskey were “displayed on the table in front of the boys, of which they were partaking freely.” The sight of this made Joyce get up and leave. It “made him too thirsty,” she writes, “to stand it any longer.”
Joyce was an early patron of her store, and already well known as the author of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). But publishers wouldn’t touch Ulysses — after being published in a periodical, portions were declared obscene in 1921 in the United States.
Beach told Joyce that, despite her utter lack of experience as a publisher, she would publish the novel herself, which she did in 1922. She had to borrow money to keep her store afloat while printing it; fought with printers to give Joyce more time to revise; helped smuggle copies to readers in the United States. and organized protests of pirate editions of the novel in the United States.
She coined the term Bloomsday to describe the day on which the novel is set, and wrote to Marianne Moore, then the editor of The Dial, trying to place advance sections of “Finnegans Wake” in that journal.
“What a dark age we are living in and what a privilege to behold the spectacle of ignorant men solemnly deciding whether the work of some great writer is suitable for the public to read or not!”
Beach was scathing about the censorship of Ulysses. “What a dark age we are living in and what a privilege to behold the spectacle of ignorant men solemnly deciding whether the work of some great writer is suitable for the public to read or not!” she wrote a friend. She deeply admired Joyce’s work, but she was also a savvy businesswoman. “Ulysses is going to make my place famous,” she wrote to her older sister in 1921.
It was an extraordinary and complex project. Joyce made alterations even as the type was being set. Sylvia lent him money to live on while he continued to write. But when Joyce was later offered a $45,000 contract from Random House, he forgot Beach completely.
In 1925 Monnier, with input from Beach, became the editor-publisher of a literary magazine, Naivre d Argent, which introduced French readers to the work of English-language writers. The first edition contained a French-language translation, made jointly by Monnier and Beach, of T. S. Eliot's poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
In the lean years of the 1930s, when many Americans left Paris because of the faltering exchange rate, the bookstore was no longer thriving, but Beach managed to keep it open because her loyal friends organized readings and annual subscriptions. In 1937, Beach was awarded the Ordre National de la Légion d'honneur, a gesture that meant a great deal to her. She was often seen wearing her ribbon, even during the war.
“I am a citizen of the world!”
— Sylvia Beach
In 1939, the Nazis occupied Paris. Beach stayed. With the rest of Paris, she and Adrienne endured fuel shortages, food rations, blackouts and waiting in long lines. And censorship of books and letters.
The Gestapo kept an eye on the American bookseller. A German officer stopped by the store to buy a book, but Beach refused to sell to him. When he came back a second time, she got help from her friends to move all of her books out of the shop into her rooms upstairs, and dismantled the bookstore in a matter of hours. She even painted over the sign. Shakespeare and Company disappeared.
There was a roundup of American women in September 1942, and Beach was interned with more than 300 others at the zoo in the Bois de Boulogne. She found it amusing that they were kept in the Monkey House. Friends were able to visit her by paying admission to the zoo, and could talk with her across a hedge.
But within a month, she was moved to Vittel France, to a converted hotel holding American and English women, where she was kept until the spring of 1943, when friends were able to secure her release, She and Adrienne waited for the end of the war together in Paris, enduring short food rations, and missing their many absent friends. Shakespeare and Company remained closed.
When Paris was finally liberated in August of 1944, rue de l ‘Odeon was one of the last quarters to be freed. On that memorable day, Ernest Hemingway, in uniform, found his way to the old cobblestone street.
As Sylvia remembers: “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.”
Hemingway stayed long enough to make sure that Sylvia was safe, then headed to the bar at the Ritz to celebrate the end of the war.
Her bookstore never re-opened, but Sylvia Beach stayed in Paris until her death on October 5, 1962. She died at the age of 75 in her small upstairs apartment in rue de l’Odeon, the street where she had lived most of her life. Paris had given her three grand passions: Adrienne Monnier, Shakespeare and Company, and Ulysses.
Sources and Further Reading:
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