Sylvia Beach — Shakespeare & Company, Paris

“…a good-sized, pleasant, uncommercial-looking bookstore.”

Sylvia Beach. Image: Legacy Project Chicago

In the afternoon we went to Shakespeare and Co., Sylvia Beach’s famous bookshop on the rue de IOdéon. Shakespeare and Co., which had published Joyce’s Ulysses, was simply a good-sized, pleasant, uncommercial-looking bookstore. There was one rather large book-lined room, with another smaller one adjoining. At the desk sat a woman whom I knew, from pictures I had seen, to be Miss Beach. She was a fair handsome woman in a severe suit, in her forties, I would have said; an Englishwoman; and in her manner there was something a bit severe and mannish. Yet she was an American…Morley Callaghan

Sylvia Beach was born Nancy Woodbridge Beach, on the 14th March 1887, in the smart New Jersey town of Bridgeton. Her father was a Presbyterian pastor who took his family on a visit to Paris in 1901, where Sylvia fell in love with the city at once.

With the outbreak of the First World War, in 1914, Sylvia moved back to Europe and became a Red Cross nurse in Serbia, where she met her partner and lover, Adrienne Monnier. After two years with the Red Cross, Sylvia and Adrienne moved to Paris in 1916 and founded Shakespeare & Company in the aforementioned rue de I’ Odéon.

Hemingway with Beach outside Shakespeare & Co. Image: leftinparis

The shop immediately became a focus for ex-pat American, British and Irish authors. In 1922, as Morley Callaghan informed us earlier, Sylvia published James Joyce’s Ulysses (Ernest Hemingway actually helped Joyce with the final drafts) to both acclaim and ridicule.

Hemingway made his first visit to Shakespeare & Company soon after arriving in Paris, but decided not to show Sylvia his letter of introduction from novelist Sherwood Anderson, but instead asked her what books he should read. Sylvia suggested he start with Turgenev, and then move on to D.H. Lawrence, which he did. He actually bought books too, which was a rarity in such a philanthropic organization as Shakespeare & Company.

Ernest Hemingway and Hadley loved her bookshop, mainly because it was warm, and you could linger there unmolested for hours, and as Hemingway’s biographer, Carlos Baker, describes it:

“ The shelves were crammed with books and the walls were crowded with photographs of the famous, both dead and alive. Sylvia herself had a sharply sculptured face, brown eyes ‘as gay as a young girls,’ and brown hair which she wore ‘brushed back from her fine forehead.’ She was usually dressed in a brown velvet jacket. ‘She had pretty legs,’ thought Ernest, ‘and she was kind, cheerful, and interested, and loved to make jokes and gossip.’ He would often say later what he had first felt in that spring of 1922: ‘No one that I ever knew was nicer to me.’ ”

Compare Hemingway’s thoughts on Sylvia Beach to those rather cooler memories of Callaghan, who soon gave up on the place and never returned, whereas Hemingway, in 1944, after liberating the Ritz Hotel Bar, went straight round to Shakespeare & Co to see how Sylvia had fared.

Unlike Callaghan, Hemingway never walked away from Shakespeare & Co, which had become, for him, something of a second home, to the extent that he gave the bookshop’s address as his own. Sylvia was very attached to the aspiring novelist, often asking his advice about authors she ought to publish, which included Frank Harris’s sexually explicit autobiography. Go ahead, replied Hemingway, “ it’s a damn fine piece of fiction.” As far as I can make out Sylvia Beach never took Hemingway’s advice, with Harris self-publishing in 1922, or thereabouts. It was then published commercially by the Obelisk Press in Paris later in the ‘20s. Like James Joyce before him, Harris’s book was banned in the US and UK until the 1960s.

Image: wikipedia

Throughout those early years in Paris Hemingway (when not away covering wars) spent most afternoons in Sylvia’s bookshop, reading and often writing, and building his ever growing circle of friends.

In 1925, Sylvia Beach received a letter for Hemingway from Scribner’s (Hemingway was in Austria), which turned out to be an offer from Max Perkins to publish his next book. Hemingway had already done a three book deal with Horace Liveright. What to do? There can be no doubt that Hemingway would have asked Beach’s advice, which must have been to go with Scribner’s, which he did.

Sylvia Beach also brought Hemingway in to help with the editing of Joyce’s new work, Finnegan’s Wake (a portion of which was to be published in the 2nd edition of This Quarter magazine) which included liaising with Joyce’s printer, and spending sleepless nights going through Joyce’s messy pages of text where, with no punctuation, all the words deliberately collide into each other, before setting off to Spain and the bullfights.

Image: Index of Modernist Magazines

And then the 1920s came to end, and all those Americans left and headed back home. Then came the depression, with Sylvia and her bookshop falling on hard times, and it was only with the generous help of the English writer ‘Bryher’ (otherwise known as Annie Winifred Ellerman, Robert McAlmon’s wife, and the lover of the poet Hilda Doolittle), that the shop was able to stay in business. But it was never going to be the same.

Beach with James Joyce. Image: Daily Telegraph

I have written previously of Hemingway and Mary visiting Sylvia in 1944. A meeting that probably went something like this:

A few days after that meeting with Picasso, and after an early breakfast in Hemingway’s room at the Ritz, Ernest and Mary headed toward the Luxembourg Gardens where they enjoyed listening to a French military band play a selection from Carmen. Then, after a coffee in the small café under the plain trees, they headed for the rue de Fleurus, which connects with the rue Guynemer that borders the western side of the gardens. Half way up the rue de Fleurus, on the left hand side, is number 27, and here Ernest and Mary stopped and rang the bell of Gertrude Stein’s apartment. There was no answer. They tried again. Still no answer. After a while an elderly lady came out of a small dress shop opposite and told them that Miss Stein and Miss Toklas, having endured the hard years of German occupation, had, on a whim so to speak, taken a small house in the country, but where she did not know.

“ Perhaps Miss Beach at Shakespeare and Company could help, no?”

Ernest and Mary made their way back across the Luxembourg Gardens, past the gallery, and, after two left turns and a right, down to her bookshop, Shakespeare & Company, at 12, rue de I’Odéon. After looking in the window for a moment or two, they stepped inside. Sylvia Beach was sitting at her desk reading; she didn’t look up.

“ Yes, what can I do for you?” she asked.

“ Do you have any books by Ernest Hemingway?” asked a smiling Ernest.

“ Yes, we…” Sylvia Beach looked up with an even bigger smile. “Hemingway. Hemingway, my dear, oh, how lovely to see you.”

Sylvia Beach ran from behind her desk like a schoolgirl greeting a long lost and much loved younger brother, flinging her arms about Ernest’s neck and kissing him repeatedly on both cheeks.

“ Mon cheri, oh, mon cheri, it has been such a long time, and you left us all alone to cope with the filthy Hun. How dare you, oh, how dare you, you dreadful, unprincipled beast?”

The words came thick and fast now.

“ They closed me down, Hemingway, closed Shakespeare and Company down. How dare they, how dare they? One morning a very small and very brutish German officer came in and demanded to buy a copy of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake — demanded! Have you ever heard of such a thing? I told him I only had one copy left and that it was not for sale, not to him, not to anyone. Not for sale he screamed, do you know who I am, madam? Do you know who I am!? Naturally I didn’t know who he was, how could I? No. I have no idea who you are, nor do I wish to, I responded. But do you know who I am, sir? I am Sylvia Beach, who, in the nineteen twenties, knew D.H. Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway, Ford Maddox Ford, Morley Callaghan, Scott Fitzgerald — well, who didn’t I know, Hemingway — and that I was the first to publish Joyce’s Ulysses when no one else would touch him. Do not come into my shop, whoever you are, I said, and demand anything from me. Do you hear me, sir? Well he went quite silly then, acted like a little boy, started knocking books off the shelves, and then told me the shop was now closed until further notice. Good, I responded, then I won’t have to deal with the likes of you will I, even if you do read James Joyce, who, I told him, would not want his books read by the rapists of Poland, Belgium and France. With that he slapped me twice in the face, and then marched out and placed an armed guard in front of the shop door. Of course the guard was a pussy cat — a Zane Grey fan too — and over the next few days Adrienne and I were able to move all the stock into the apartment, with business pretty much continuing as usual. We moved back in here last week. Did I do well, Hemingway?”

Hemingway enveloped Sylvia in a huge hug, lifting her clear off the ground until she squealed for mercy.

“ Dear Miss Beach you did very well, very well indeed. Could I have expected anything else? No, indeed I could not! Now I would like to introduce you to Mary Welsh, the next Mrs Hemingway.”

Sylvia Beach looked Mary up and down.

“ Mary, my dear girl, welcome to Paris. Do you think you will be the last Mrs Hemingway?”

“ Yes.”

“ Good. I think you ought to be. See to it Hemingway. Now, my dears, come through and I shall make tea and you can tell me all the news about the war, but I have to say I’ve heard some rather disquieting things about you, Hemingway, very disquieting indeed. Things that a writer should not be doing.”

Sylvia Beach boiled a kettle of water on a small paraffin stove in a private room that looked out over the small back garden of her shop. When the kettle eventually boiled she poured a little of the water into a dark brown teapot to warm it. She then tipped the water back into the kettle, and then, after putting three heaped teaspoons of dark Indian tea (precious tea she kept hidden behind a first edition of Dr Johnson’s Dictionary) into the now warm teapot she poured the boiling water over the tea leaves, secured the teapot lid, and savoured the aroma of gently smouldering rosewood that now issued from the spout of the pot. After a few minutes of allowing the tea to brew Sylvia then poured the rich steaming liquid into three delicate, flower-decorated bone china tea cups. It was a ritual she carried out most days, and one Hemingway remembered from his first visit. He would have found the dark amber liquid almost drinkable too had Sylvia not — in the English fashion — then added milk, far too much milk, and sugar. What Hemingway and Mary drank was a warm, sweet beverage that bore little or no relationship to the delicious anticipation of its earlier aroma.

“ Would you like a biscuit, Hemingway? Scottish shortcakes.”

“ Cookies? No, no thanks, Miss Beach.”

“ Mary?”

“ Oh, yes Please.”

“ Where, in God’s name, did you get cookies from, and tea, and milk, and sugar for chrissakes?”

“ One has friends, Hemingway. And they are such simple pleasures don’t you think?”

“ Yes they are, but it’s usually the simple pleasures that are the first to go in war.”

“ You are quite right. Let me just say that many people showed a kindness toward me that I had not expected, not at all. Now, Hemingway, what is this I hear about you becoming a soldier with your own private army when you should have been reporting the war like the writer you are?”

Hemingway could find no answer. He just looked at Sylvia Beach as if she were a stranger, and not the gifted, generous woman who had helped him to become a writer. She was right though, he thought, she was right.

“ Do you still have that copy of Winner Take Nothing, Miss Beach?” he asked.

“ I do, Hemingway, one moment.”

Sylvia left the room to return just a few seconds later with a slim volume she handed to Hemingway.

Hemingway read from the flyleaf of the book.

“ To Miss Beach, in memory of Spain, 1937, Ernest Hemingway.”

Hemingway then took a fountain pen from his top pocket and added to the inscription:

‘Lu et approuv. I sure as hell do. August 1944.’

He was probably not referring to the tea. *

With the German Occupying Forces closure of Shakespeare & Company in 1940, Sylvia, Adrienne, Gertrude Stein, and her lover, Alice B. Toklas, became instrumental in helping hundreds of Jewish refugees escape to Britain. It was one of those many silent and selfless things that happen during wars.

Gertrude Stein & Alice B. Toklas. Image: Pinterest

In 1951 George Whitman (who claimed to be the poet Walt Whitman’s grandson) set up his bookshop, which he called Le Mistral, at 37 rue de la Bucherie, which quickly became the home of another set of ex-pat British and American writers, such as Lawrence Durrell — an old friend of Henry Miller — the beat poet Alan Ginsberg, and the novelist, William Burroughs, who used to read his work out loud on the pavement outside Whitman’s shop.

George Whitman —The other Shakespeare & Co. Image:

By the mid 1950s Sylvia Beach had had enough and gave up the business, allowing Whitman to use the name Shakespeare & Company.

Sylvia Beach died in 1962; and there can be no doubt that Beach’s shop , and her kindness and friendship to so many aspiring writers in the 1920s was pivotal in helping to shape the future of 20th century literature.

When I was last in Paris I spent most of one afternoon in Whitman’s place.

Sylvia Beach’s old place had become a very smart shop selling Chinese ceramics.

Sylvia Beach by Paul-Emile Becat

Read: Shakespeare & Company, Paris : An Interview with Sylvia Whitman by Rishabh Chaddha (Top Writer in Books & Art) — Medium


Morley Callaghan — That Summer in Paris (Consul, Manchester, 1963); Carlos Baker — Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story (Wm. Collins, London, 1969); Ernest Hemingway — A Moveable Feast (Arrow Books, London, 2004)…

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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