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In Praise of Sylvia Beach

In Praise of Sylvia Beach


Sylvia Beach

“Sylvia carried pollen like a bee. She cross-fertilized these writers.”  French writer Andre Chamson wrote, “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 . . . “

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Sylvia Beach was born on March 14, 1887 in Baltimore, Maryland, the middle of three daughters. Sylvia first experienced Paris as an adolescent when her father worked for the American Church in Paris for two years. As a young woman, she returned to Europe to learn Spanish and Italian, work for the Red Cross, and to eventually study French Literature at the Sorbonne in 1917.  During that time, Sylvia found Adrienne Monnier’s bookshop and met Adrienne for the first time.

Adrienne’s bookshop was called La Maison des Amis des Livres, located on rue de l’Odeon on the left bank.  Although Adrienne was still in her early twenties, she had founded a bookstore that was to shape the future of book selling all over the world. Her bookstore focused on modern literature, and offered the first lending library in all of France. The store was designed for browsing, with tables and chairs that encouraged visitors to linger and walls adorned with photographs and art. Adrienne “transformed book selling into an intellectual and artistic profession” recalled Andrea Weiss.

Adrienne Monnier's bookstore

When Sylvia and Adrienne met, their lives quickly merged. The two women became life-long friends and lovers, and their work shaped the literary landscape of Paris. With Adrienne’s encouragement, Sylvia started her own bookstore in 1919, called Shakespeare and Company.  Sylvia’s store also specialized in modern literature, and catered to the growing number of English speaking readers in Paris.  Within two years, Sylvia was able to move her store to 12 rue de l’Odeon, across the street from Adrienne. With the theater nearby, a music store and the two bookstores, Adrienne dubbed their small neighborhood  “Odeonia.”  Sylvia rented rooms above her shop, but she lived with Adrienne across the street on the fourth floor.

It was an exciting time to be a bookseller and a glorious, adventurous time for literature. Paris had a vibrant community of writers producing new work for eager readers. Literary Magazines were flourishing and writers such as TS Elliot, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and Hemingway were finding new audiences. Adrienne, in fact, was the editor and publisher of her own magazine, Naivre d Argent, which introduced French readers to the work of English speaking writers, including Ernest Hemingway.

Shakespeare and Company

Sylvia and Adrienne were at the center of avant-garde literature. The two bookstores complemented each other and became a gathering place to discuss and debate new ideas. For Americans fleeing censorship and repression in their own country, Sylvia was refreshingly committed to artistic freedom; her bookstore and her philosophy were quietly radical. She nurtured her friends and customers with cups of tea on cold days, she held mail and conveyed messages for patrons, lent money, she even had an extra bed for artists who needed a place to stay – a tradition that would carry on into the next incarnation of Shakespeare and Company continuing today.

Sylvia’s appearance hid her true nature; she was small, trim, neat and buttoned up.  She did not look like the midwife of modern literature or the champion of new ideas. Adrienne, on the other hand, was known as a sensualist, an earthy, buxom woman who loved to cook and eat and wore long, heavy skirts and peasant clothing.

When Ernest and Hadley moved to Paris in 1921, it didn’t take long before Ernest discovered Sylvia and her bookstore and brought home a stack of borrowed books to show Hadley. He was moved by the generosity Sylvia had shown him when he didn’t have the money that day to join the library. It is a memory Hemingway treasures 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.” He remembers. He also noted that she had great legs.

The friendship between Sylvia and Ernest started there and continued throughout their lives. Sylvia liked Hemingway right away and saw that he was serious about writing. She was one of Hemingway’s first friends in Paris and one of his early advocates as a writer. Adrienne thought she saw in Ernest a true writer’s temperament. Together Hadley, Ernest, Adrienne and Sylvia went to boxing matches and bike races, as they explored Paris.

Sylvia’s devotion to modern literature was so deep that when James Joyce’s novel Ulysses was declared too pornographic to be published, Sylvia put her own money and reputation at risk to see it in print. It was an extraordinary project and a complex book, which Joyce continued to alter as the type was being set. Sylvia lent Joyce money as he was writing and bore all of the costs to get it published and distributed in the US where it was initially banned.  Despite Sylvia’s loyalty to Joyce and his work, she was never repaid for her emotional or financial investment.  In fact, when Joyce was offered a $45,000 contract from Random House, he forgot Sylvia completely.

“Sylvia carried pollen like a bee. She cross-fertilized these writers.”  French writer Andre Chamson wrote, “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.”

Sylvia Beach and James Joyce

When many of the Americans left Paris because of the faltering exchange rate in the 30’s, the bookstore was no longer thriving, but it managed to remain open. Loyal friends organized readings and yearly subscriptions to get Sylvia through those lean years. In 1937, Sylvia was awarded a Knight of the Legion of Honor, a gesture that meant a great deal to her.  She was often seen wearing her ribbon, even during the war.

When Paris was occupied in 1939, Sylvia chose to remain in Paris, for it was home. Along with their fellow Parisians, Adrienne and Sylvia endured cold winters and fuel shortages, food rationing and long lines during the occupation. There were blackouts and censorship of books and letters.  Sylvia’s courage during this time was astonishing.  She describes her encounters with Nazis:

“The Gestapo would come and they’d say “You have a Jewish girl – you had – in the bookshop. And you have a black mark against you.”  I’d say “Okay, okay.”  And they said, “We’ll come for you, you know.” I always said okay to them.  One day, they came.”

On another occasion, a Nazi officer stopped by the store to buy a book, which Sylvia refused to sell him. When he stopped by the second time, Sylvia enlisted her friends to move all of her books out of the shop and dismantle the bookshelves within hours.  She even painted over the sign, leaving no indication that a bookstore ever existed.

Shortly after that, she was taken in the first round up of American women in September of 1942.  More than 300 women were interned at the zoo, where they were treated fairly well. Sylvia found some humor in this situation, as the women were kept in the Monkey House, and friends who wanted to see her simply paid admission to enter the zoo and conversed with her across the hedges.

Within the month, Sylvia was moved to another camp in Vittel, France, where she stayed until the spring of 1943 with other American and English women.  This was a much longer internment, and Sylvia pleaded with friends to help secure her release.  She finally returned to Paris to wait with Adrienne for the war to be over. It was a dismal time, with few friends, and poor food rations. The books were still hidden in the apartments above the street on rue de l’Odeon and the shop was 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 remarkable day, her old friend Ernest Hemingway found his way to that 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 before he headed onto the Ritz to celebrate the end of the long war.

The bookstore never opened again, but Sylvia stayed in Paris until her death on October 5, 1962.  She died in her small upstairs apartment in rue de l’Odean, the street where she had lived most of her life, where she had watched the twentieth century unfold, and where she found “her three great loves”: Adrienne Monnier, Shakespeare and Company, and James Joyce.  She was 75 years old.

Sylvia’s courage lives on through a bookstore with the same name, opened by another American, George Whitman, in 1947. Shakespeare and Company is located at 37 rue de la Bucherie, near the Sienne, with a view of Notre Dame. Whitman’s daughter, named Sylvia Beach Whitman, now runs the store.  Readers, writers and book-lovers from all over the world still make the journey to this bookstore in honor of the quietly radical woman named Sylvia Beach, whose influence continues far beyond her own lifetime.