Sylvia Beach was born at Princeton,
March 14, 1887 - a date she habitually amended in her passport to 1896. The daughter of Sylvester
Beach, a Presbyterian
minister, she was christened Nancy,
after her grandmother, but preferred Sylvia. In 1901, Sylvester became assistant
minister of Paris’s American Church. Sylvia lived in Paris
from 1902 to 1905, and spent two years in Spain. She volunteered during World War I, but while
Ernest Hemingway and Harry Crosby drove ambulances, she was assigned to
agricultural work in Touraine.
After the war, she gravitated to Adrienne
Monnier’s Maison des Amis des Livres (the House of Friends of Books) on rue de
l’Odeon. Monnier, the bohemian daughter of a well-connected literary family,
dressed in fitted velvet vests that drew attention to her pretty heart-shaped
face, and voluminous ankle-length skirts that disguised her overall dumpiness; from
a distance, noted one writer, she seemed to be standing knee-deep in loam.
Sylvia, by contrast, was short, trim and severe, a furious smoker, with – as
Hemingway noted – excellent legs.Beach with Ernest Hemingway and two assistants, 1928. Hemingway is bandaged, having pulled down a skylight onto his head, necessitating nine stitches. Adrienne Monnier with James Joyce.
Sylvia during her war service as agricultural worker.
Despite their physical differences, the two women were instantly attracted to one another. Beach later wrote "My loves were Adrienne Monnier and James Joyce and Shakespeare and Company”;
ironically, all three would, in some way, betray her.
Monnier, her sister Juliette, and Sylvia (at rear) in April 1934 at a Paris fun fair.
Through Adrienne, Sylvia met such writers as
André Gide, Paul Valéry and Jules Romains, and borrowed books from her lending
library. When it seemed she must return to the US,
she proposed setting up a New York
branch of Maison des Amis des Livres. Instead, her mother gave her $3000, which,
with the franc devalued after the war, was enough to open an English-language
bookstore in a former laundry on rue Dupuytren, around the corner from rue de
l’Odeon. Sylvia called it Shakespeare and Company, and commissioned a hanging
sign of Shakespeare which also became the shop’s trademark.
After 1918, Americans flooded into Paris, where – as
Hemingway explained in a 1921 Esquire article
– one could live on as little as $1000 a year. Sylvia’s shop and lending library flourished,
and in May 1921 she moved her shop to 12 rue de
l’Odéon, just across the street from Adrienne. The two small rooms,
with a tiny apartment above, became a centre of expatriate literary life,
particularly when Beach branched out into publishing in 1922, initially with James
Accommodating the demands of Joyce and his
book kept Beach near bankruptcy for the next decade, and contributed to her
poor health. Friends helped her apply for a government grant.
When it was refused, Andre Gide formed the Friends
of Shakespeare, members of which alone were admitted to readings. Subscriptions kept the shop afloat.
She and Adrienne also moved in together in
1921, sharing a 4th floor apartment at 18 rue de l’Odeon.
Lobby and staircase at 18 rue de l'Odeon.
literary greats visited them there. On one notable occasion in 1928, Scott and Zelda
Fitzgerald dined with James Joyce. Fitzgerald was too much in awe of Joyce to approach him directly, so Sylvia arranged a small dinner. Fitzgerald
greeted his hero by dropping down on one knee, kissing his hand, and
declaring, "How does it feel to be a great genius, sir? I am so excited
at seeing you, sir, that I could weep." Fitzgerald immortalised the event in a crude
sketch on the flyleaf of a first edition of The
Great Gatsby. It shows him on his knees to Joyce, who's represented by just a moustache, spectacles and a halo. Sylvia and Adrienne are mermaids.
The apartment above the shop was lent or
rented to various people, including American composer George Antheil. In
1937, Adrienne became romantically involved with the young photographer Gisele
Freund, who had taken many of the best-known portraits of Joyce, as well as
Sylvia and Adrienne. Sylvia moved back into the shop apartment, and later to a
bigger one in the same building.
and Adrienne in the shop, about 1937. The photographer is Gisele
Freund, soon to replace Sylvia in Adrienne's affections - which may
explain their expressions, respectively hostile and smug.
The shop remained open until 1940, when
Sylvia angered a German officer by refusing to sell her only copy of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. When he threatened to
confiscate her stock, close the shop and intern her, Sylvia’s friends locked the wooden shutters,
painted out the name, then, using laundry baskets, transferred the contents to a vacant apartment two floors above.
Sylvia was later interned for six months, but
survived the war and, though in poor health, was able to welcome Hemingway when
he arrived in 1944 at the head of his ad hoc platoon of cameramen and journalists.
Except for a symbolic “liberation”, the shop never re-opened. Its stock, including the lending library, was
acquired in part by the American Library in Paris, and by George Whitman, proprietor
of the Mistral Bookshop, opposite Notre Dame. When Sylvia died in 1962, she “bequeathed” him the name Shakespeare and Company, under which he
and his daughter Sylvia Beach Whitman continue to trade. Some books from the
library remain at the shop.
John Baxter with Sylvia Beach Whitman, FestivalandCo, 2008.
In 1955, Monnier, increasingly troubled by
an inner ear infection that caused delusions, committed suicide. The following
year, Beach published Shakespeare and Company, a rambling and not
terribly reliable memoir. (The
authoritative text on the period and their relationship is Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: A History of Literary Paris in the
Twenties and Thirties by Noel Riley Fitch.)
Sylvia in front of the rue Dupyteren shop with James Joyce, 1920s
Sylvia in Paris in 1962, shortly before her death. The same year, she also attended the inauguration of a Joyce museum in the Martello tower in Dublin where he set the opening passages of Ulysses.
The wooden Directoire facade of the shop was removed after the
war. Subsequently, it housed a Chinese gift store, a jeweller and, currently, a boutique for womens’ clothes. The only indication of its history is a small
stone tablet between the floors noting that Ulysses
was published there.
Sylvia is buried in Princeton Cemetery. Her papers are archived at Princeton University.
SOME SYLVIA BEACH ITEMS FROM MY COLLECTION.
first appeared as a serial in The Little Review,
but editor Margaret Anderson desisted when US courts declared the novel obscene. The April 1919 issue containing
In 1925/6 it was serialised without permission in Samuel Roth's Two Worlds Monthly.
The second issue of Two Worlds Monthly, dated only 1926, and containing the second episode of the serialisation.
Prospectuses for the first printing of Ulysses. and for the first French
edition .The change of address on the former is in Sylvia's own hand. Supporters like Robert McAlmon would circulate through the cafes of Montparnasse with these leaflets, badgering people to order advance copies.
Two examples of the Shakespeare and Company editions of Ulysses, the 8th (left) and 5th (right). Of the first eleven printings, the 4th, 5th and 6th were bound in white with blue lettering. The remainder have the more familiar blue wraps lettered in white, specified by Joyce to echo the colours of the Greek flag.
Sylvia also published Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress,
an anthology of essays on Ulysses,
written by Samuel Beckett, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot and others, and including two letters from "G.V.L Slingsby" and "Vladimir Dixon" - actually Joyce. This copy of the cheaper edition - there is a large-paper printing, limited to 95 copies - is inscribed by poet Harry Crosby, publisher of the Black Sun Press. The inscription reads "Here is the book I mentioned you [sic] Terribly sorry we can't come for cocktails on Wednesday as we are leaving tomorrow (Tuesday) for the Moulin hope you didn't play our grubstake yesterday at Chantilly why don't you sign your name to your letters? Harry". The references to the race course at Chantilly and to a grubstake strongly suggest the recipient was Harold Stearns, who made his living writing about horse-racing and betting with money supplied by friends.
The rarest of Beach's Joyce publications is this tiny booklet of lyric poems, published in 1927. Only 5 inches by 7, and printed in pale aqua boards, it's notoriously fragile.
Poem by James Joyce in praise of Sylvia Beach, after Shakespeare.
Books about Beach and Monnier.