March 14, 1887– Sylvia Beach:
“I am a citizen of the world.“
“In those days there was no money to buy books. I borrowed books from the library of Shakespeare & Company, which was the bookstore of Sylvia Beach at 12 Rue de l’Odéon. Sylvia had a lively, sharply sculptured face, brown eyes that were alive as a small animal’s and gay as a young girl’s, and wavy brown hair that was brushed back from her fine forehead. She was kind, cheerful and interested, and loved to make jokes and gossip. No one that I ever knew was nicer to me.“
I recently overheard someone I barely know refer to me, along with old and bald, as “bookish”. I had always held that “bookish” meant a cardigan wearing, dotty eccentric person living in a small space with their books and seven cats named: Twain, Dickens, Proust, Tolstoy, Poe, Fitzgerald, and Rum Tum Tigger.
I suppose I actually am a bit bookish, with my hundreds of books stacked around the house. Reading has been a major force in my life, even before I could read. I have always loved to spend time and money in a bookstore. It is hard to grasp that books might be on the way to becoming a thing of the past.
I am certain many of my friends on social media have reading devices, but I do not own one. I cannot fathom the idea of reading a magazine or book without feeling the pages and the weight in my hands. You might know that Portland, Oregon is the home of what I believe is the very best bookstore on our pretty spinning blue orb: Powell’s City Of Books, a spot visited by both tourists and locals with equal passion, and open during the plague although it has canceled all events.
Born on this day, to a Presbyterian pastor and his wife in a small town in Princeton, New Jersey, Nancy Woodridge Beach changed her name to Sylvia when she was a teenager. Her father was associate pastor of the American Church in Paris and young Sylvia dreamed that she would someday live in the City of Lights forever. During World War I, she and her sister volunteered for the Red Cross in Europe. Beach stayed, never returning to the USA, living the rest of her life abroad.
Beach is one more of the best known figures of the many Paris American expatriates in the first part of the 20th century. She owned and ran a bookstore, Shakespeare & Company in Paris. The store was the first English language bookshop on Paris’ Left Bank. Shakespeare & Company was a literary center, lending library, and publishing company that flourished between the two World Wars. Her frequent visitors included: Janet Flanner, Gertrude Stein, Natalie Barney, Andre Gide, Ezra Pound, D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, Thornton Wilder, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, and F.Scott Fitzgerald. Beach introduced writers and artists to each other and ensured that writers had pocket money and reading material.
Beach was the first publisher of James Joyce‘s masterpiece Ulysses (1922), when no one else would touch it and American publishers considered it obscene and too radical.
When those nasty Nazis invaded Paris in 1940, Beach refused to leave her books, as she had been ordered to do. A German officer came to her shop asking, in English, to purchase the copy of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake in the shop window. Beach refused. The officer, in a rage, told her that the next time he returned it would be with a brown-shirted squad who would confiscate her entire collection. The German officer left, and Beach promptly boxed up her entire collection, hid it away, and painted over the Shakespeare & Company sign. The Germans did return, and while they did not get any of her books, they did get her. She was sent to a concentration camp where she stayed for the next six months, surrounded by French Jewish prisoners who would all end up in Auschwitz. Hemingway, who was with the Allied forces when they liberated Paris, went personally to liberate Shakespeare & Company.
Beach wrote it all down and immortalized her store and the expatriate literary circle and the whole Nazi experience in an exciting, excellent memoir, titled, of course, Shakespeare & Company (1956).
The great love of Beach’s life was Adrienne Monnier, a Frenchwoman who owned her own bookshop called La Maison des Amis des Livres, literally across the street from Shakespeare & Company. The two lesbians were at the center of avant-garde literature. Their 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, Beach 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.
Beach and Monnier lived together from 1920 to 1936, when Monnier’s affair with some other French woman caused them to separate. In true lesbian fashion, they soon reconciled, broke up, got back together again, and then remained together until Monnier’s death in 1955.
Shakespeare & Company never re-opened again after the war, but Beach stayed in Paris until she left this incarnation in 1962. She died in her small upstairs apartment where she had lived most of her life, where she had watched the 20th century unfold, and where she found the three great loves of her: Monnier, Shakespeare & Company, and James Joyce. She was 75 years old.
Though Beach lived all of her adult life abroad, she is buried, not in Paris, but in a Princeton cemetery with her family. Her papers were donated to the Princeton University Library.
There exists on the incomparable Oregon coast, the Sylvia Beach Hotel, a sort of large B&B with a literary theme, no phones, no TV, no Wi-Fi, and rooms named: The Emily Dickinson, The Charles Dickens, The Mark Twain, and The Ernest Hemingway. I hear it’s lovely, but please, don’t make me stay there. I am terribly afraid of B&Bs. The idea of taking breakfast with strangers is not my cup o’ tea. I wish the Sylvia Beach Hotel featured rooms such as: The Friedrich Nietzsche, The Franz Kafka, The Sylvia Plath (minus an oven), or The Edward Gorey, now that would certainly make for an especially interesting stay.