My loves were Adrienne Monnier, James Joyce and Shakespeare and Company — Sylvia Beach
Literary Paris between the wars owed a great deal to “those two bilingual sirens” — Cyril Connolly
Sylvia Beach was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister whose wanderings from parsonage to parsonage finally established him at the Presbyterian Church of Princeton University (later, he became president of Princeton).
Sylvia was disgusted by her slapdash education and constant movement. She had a fear of replicating her mother’s miserable marriage. What to do? At the spinsterish age of 28, she proceeded to France to volunteer during World War I. All the men were at the front, so agriculture and nursing fell to women. Sylvia did both.
And Adrienne? A lifelong Parisian, she’d worked as a teacher, translator and literary secretary. She was also a woman of grand appetites: passionate intellect, ardent culturalist, gourmet cook, determined lesbian, brilliant essayist, protector of the arts. With all the abandoned storefronts and money provided from a familial transit accident, Adrienne was able to open her dream book shop in 1915 — plus the first French subscription lending library.
People needed a new bookshop, as almost all closed when the men went east. There on the Left Bank, at La Maison des Amis des Livres (House of the Friends of Books) you could browse, read books, take tea, and always discuss literature and artistic ideas.
One blustery Parisian day in 1918, Sylvia walked into Adrienne’s bookstore. She felt this was it, where she was meant to be. They became fast friends and, quickly, lovers. Sylvia moved into Adrienne’s apartment above the bookstore.
Sylvia decided that she must open an Anglophone version of the Francophone bookstore. And so, Shakespeare and Company came alive in 1919 with some financial support from her mom and Adrienne’s assistance with advice and navigation of red tape and prejudice.
Shakespeare and Company became the home away from home for all expat or visiting American writers, artists, and whoever showed up on the shores. They found fellowship, writings, books, cots if needed, mail delivery, a sense of home, and a lending library, complete with (still-extant) cards. Sylvia even let the penniless Ernest Hemingway pay his library subscription fee whenever he got some future money. They became great friends, and she talked up his work.
Expats said that Americans landing in Paris would do two things immediately: First, order an alcoholic drink, which could not be done in Prohibition-era America; then, trek to the shrine of Shakespeare and Company and maybe purchase a forbidden copy of James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”
Why there? Things changed drastically when Sylvia met Joyce in 1921.
Joyce lamented to Sylvia, “It’s being completely suppressed and will never come out now.”
Why? The New York-based lesbian couple Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap had been arrested and imprisoned for publishing excerpts of it in their magazine “The Little Review.”
They were convicted under the Comstock Act of 1873, which demanded that anything “obscene” or appealing to prurient interests must be confiscated and destroyed, particularly when shipped to U.S. ports or through the mail.
The Comstock Act remains on the books today and is factoring in attempts to destroy the ability to secure an abortion via mailings of the drug mifepristone. Comstock himself used to salaciously count on his fingers the number of people he had driven to suicide due to the arrests, trials, imprisonments, confiscations and degradations of personal good names.
Meanwhile, Sylvia had agreed to publish this unwieldy masterpiece, even though she had never published anything before — bad enough that the manuscript was already 600 pages. But Joyce was constantly revising and adding to the thing even as the proofs came from the printers. And he kept dunning sums from Sylvia that were proving ruinous to her precarious bookstore. Shamelessly, Joyce would even send his children to ask for funds.
Adrienne helped with reading the proofs at night and dealing with the printers by day. She tried to get Sylvia to deny the escalating demands, but Sylvia sold her car, gave up planned vacations, and released her assistant to finance Joyce.
Eventually, after agonizing month after month, there was the holy book, the 240,000 word, impenetrable book. And when Joyce found a U.S. publisher years later, he stiffed Sylvia for any monies, despite her holding the international copyrights. But, the masterpiece had arrived. Modernism had triumphed over Romanticism, and nothing would ever be the same.
Sylvia and Adrienne had lived together for 17 years, but Sylvia never lived with her again until forced by the war, because in 1937, Adrienne moved in with the young Gisele Freund, a stateless German Jewish socialist lesbian agitator, while Sylvia had gone to the States for health treatments (Gisele, the only survivor from her student group in Germany, eventually fled to South America).
Yet the Parisian and the American remained lifelong companions. Adrienne continued to run her beloved store. Unfortunately, Sylvia paid for living her authentic life when the Germans came to town on June 14, 1940. All the “wrong” racial types were dismissed from positions and from schools. Parisians depopulated the city, walking away and leaving their dogs in the streets.
According to “No Modernism Without Lesbians” by Diana Souhami, “Sylvia Beach was American, she was lesbian, she befriended Jews, published ‘Ulysses,’ traded in ‘noxious and unwanted literature’ and opposed and derided this army of men.” Sylvia had to register weekly with the Nazis. Jews were forced to do so daily.
One day, a Nazi officer demanded the copy of “Finnegan’s Wake” displayed in the bookstore window. She refused to sell it, and he said he would return for all of her stock. Terrified, she was able to dismantle the entire shop within hours, with her remaining Parisian friends carrying basket after basket of books up to a vacant fourth floor walkup down the street. By afternoon, her store was shuttered, the sign even painted out.
Naturally, the Nazis came for her. In August 1942, along with other “alien” women, she was trucked to an abandoned zoo, then out of the city to a railway station, sealed into a cattle car and transported to Vittel, one of the ‘showcase’ concentration camps where inmates received mail and visits from the Red Cross (her Jewish friends were herded further east and never heard from again).
Adrienne, meanwhile, had been going mad in Paris, trying to find anyone, anything, to help get Sylvia out. She finally appealed to “Jacques Benoist-Mechin, who had translated excerpts of Ulysses into French …had welcomed the German occupation, was a collaborator, a fascist, an SS general and an ambassador in Paris for the enemy … [After a six-month internment], he secured Sylvia’s release on health grounds,” Souhami writes.
Sylvia returned to Paris and basically hid until Liberation — ironically, one secured by her good friend Ernest Hemingway. According to an interview with her, a Jeep-riding Hemingway “stopped to check in on us … he asked, ‘what do you need?’ We cried ‘liberate us, liberate us’ because the enemy was still firing from the roofs, especially Adrienne’s. He brought his men up on the roof, we heard a great deal of shooting going on, and then the shooting stopped forever.”
After the War, Adrienne returned to her bookstore, but Sylvia did not reopen hers.
In 1954, Adrienne became afflicted with a loud, incessant ringing in her ears. Within a year, she was dead, committing suicide rather than continuing to live with the torment.
Sylvia got by on small sums from writings and offerings from friends and family. Upon her death, her papers et al. went to Princeton, as did her ashes. There is even a street called Sylvia Beach Way there.
But a Paris with no English language bookstore? The “endearing eccentric” fellow American writer George Whitman opened a bookshop in the 1950s and welcomed a new generation of writers. Now, there’s a rechristened Shakespeare and Company. Whitman’s daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman, owns it, loves it and tries to keep the feel of the original shop. All manner of travel operators include the shop on their itineraries, even a Viking cruise into Paris. You can get a drink, then buy a copy of “Ulysses” or just browse.