A young girl from New Jersey became an important influence on some of the great writers of the twentieth century. She came to France in 1905 with her father, who was a minister in the American Church in Paris. She had worked as a secretary in war-torn Belgrade for the Red Cross during the Great War. Afterwards, she opened a bookstore that would become one of the most important gathering places for expatriates. She was also ready to serve tea, receive mail, critique works or, when the time seemed right, delve into publishing. The young American carved her niche in the Paris of her day. It was a turning point in French literary history.
The first location was at 8, rue Dupuytren; the larger one at 12, rue L’Odeon was opened a year later with financial help from her mother and sage advice from Adrienne Monnier. It was to that location that people of literary passions went. That was 1919 and it became an intellectual social center. It has remained so for years. The window always featured a specific writer, like Joyce or Eliot, to attract customers.
Adrienne also had a bookstore called Les Amis des Livres on the same tiny street. Sylvia featured English books and Adrienne featured French. She introduced Sylvia to the ‘literati’ in the Surrealist circles and included her at her poetry soirées with great authors. Ideas and discussion flowed. Their relationship was a collaboration of ideas and outlooks that lasted over 40 years.
The Crowd, as the expatriates were known, included the Crosbys, Hemingway, Joyce, Fitzgerald and Stein. But people like composer-musician George Antheil and T.S. Eliot were there too. They mingled with Archibald MacLeish and Katherine Ann Porter. Sylvias lifelong intimate relationship with Adrienne Monnier gave her insight into literary ideas and the Paris Crowd.
Sherwood Anderson came in one day and introduced himself to Sylvia. His newest book had been featured in her shop window. She in turn introduced him to Gertrude Stein. Later, Hemingway found himself in the store trading stories of his war experiences in Northern Italy. He had a letter of introduction to the Stein apartment. Sylvia showed him the way. Others in her circle included Ezra Pound and James Joyce, ee cummings, and John Dos Passos.
Through the efforts of Sylvia, James Joyce had published Ulysses, a book that some thought to be obscene. Sylvia went ahead with her plan and toiled thanklessly for Joyce over many years. The first copies arrived in Paris in 1922 on the day of Joyce’s fortieth birthday. Joyce became famous but Sylvia showed no profit.
By 1928, he was the literary idol, worshipped by many and hated by some. Now, over six years later, Sylvias dinner party for him brought Joyce and F. Scott Fitzgerald together. He had been one of Joyce’s fans but was intimidated by the Irish writer. Finally, drumming up the courage, Fitzgerald fell to one knee and kissed Joyce’s hand. “I am so excited,” he said, “I could weep.”
The publishing of Ulysses may have brought her a degree of fame, but Joyce was the big winner. Sylvia found Joyce to be an ungrateful prima donna. Today, those few original copies that came off the press in Dijon are worth a small fortune. For many, Ulysses is the best or most important book of the twentieth century.
During the Twenties a young American composer, also from New Jersey, rented the studio apartment above Sylvia’s shop; his name was George Antheil. He was an energetic composer who had to work without a piano because Sylvia, his landlady, objected to the noise. But other friends helped him stage his work, especially Ezra Pound, who thought himself a composer but was not.
The culmination of Antheil’s work in Paris was the astoundingly futuristic “Symphonie (Ballet) Mechanique.” It employed multiple pianos wired together with a background of wind instruments and giant airplane propellers blowing out over the audience. Men’s wigs flew away. But there had been a tradition of mechanical devices that were used with symphonic music. Even Satie’s “Parade” employed an airplane motor, a dynamo, Morse code apparatus and typewriters.
When Antheil first performed his mechanical works, a riot broke out. People shouted and threw chairs. Ezra screamed from the balcony. Antheil fired a pistol in the air to quell the uprising and screamed, “silence, imbeciles!”
But nevertheless, fistfights broke out. It was bedlam. The next day the newspapers reported that the concert was one of the most successful ever. At least people were moved by the small man’s efforts. Aaron Copeland said of him, “George had Paris by the ear.” It was a memorable night and Sylvia and Adrienne were very proud. Everyone knew they had been somewhere special.
But while Sylvia Beach helped and befriended Antheil, it was Joyce with whom she worked most closely. He soon became the toast of Paris.
Hard times hit in the thirties, but the store remained active as people like Eliot, Gide, and Valéry gave readings and raised money to help. That lasted until WWII, when the Germans took over France. Sylvia Beach was forced to close her doors, and she had been the cement that kept many of the expatriates together. In 1938 she was awarded the Legion of Honour, for her contribution to the Arts in Paris. During the war she went into hiding and refused to leave Paris but was put into a detention camp for six months.
Sylvia Beach returned to Paris after the war and died in October 1962. Shakespeare and Company still exits in another form, however. No longer on the rue de L’Odeon, it is now in kilometer zero on the tiny rue de la Bucherie (#37), facing the Notre-Dame Cathedral.
Other Addresses; 93, Boul. St Michel (Foyer des Etudiantes)
Adrienne’s 7, rue de L’Odeon
Residence with Adrienne, 18, rue de L’Odeon
Books of Interest:
Sylvia, Beach. Shakespeare and Company. James Laughlin, Introduction. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1959
Noel Riley, Fitch. Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: A History of Literature. Paris in the Twenties and Thirties. New York: W.W. Norton, 1963