Americans in Paris: Sylvia Beach, Founder of the Influential Bookshop, Shakespeare & Company

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Americans in Paris: Sylvia Beach, Founder of the Influential Bookshop, Shakespeare & Company
In Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, where many of his erstwhile Parisian compatriots were subjected to often exorable criticisms, Sylvia Beach remained unscathed. Hemingway wrote, “No-one that I ever knew was nicer to me.” George Whitman, a friend of Sylvia Beach, who opened his own bookshop in 1951, La Mistral, in Rue de la Bucherie, renamed it Shakespeare and Company in her honor (1964). When Whitman’s only child was born in 1981, he named her Sylvia Beach Whitman. Sylvia Beach Whitman still runs Shakespeare and Company, overlooking Notre Dame cathedral, six years after her father passed away. Such was the esteem and affection in which Beach was held, both during her life and after, that her many kindnesses and sheer hard work helping writers (and musicians) promote their work to a wider public, were rewarded by the fierce loyalty of not only her many friends but also an impressive literary elite of the time. The original Shakespeare and Company was opened in rue Dupuytren in 1921 by this quiet, unassuming American. Small and slender, Sylvia had– according to Hemingway— “a lively, sharply sculptured face, brown eyes that were as alive as a small animal’s and as gay as a young girl’s, and wavy brown hair that was brushed back from her fine forehead and cut thick below her ears.” Hemingway also approved of her pretty legs, writing that she was, “kind and interested, and loved to make jokes and gossip.” Sylvia first saw Paris in 1902 when her father, the Reverend Sylvester Beach, came to assist the Reverend Thurber with the Presbyterian ministry for Americans in Paris. He was accompanied by his wife Eleanor and their three daughters, Holly, Eleanor (who called herself Cyprian) and Nancy, who preferred to be called Sylvia. The Reverend Sylvester Beach’s piety did not rub off on his wife Eleanor who encouraged her daughters to travel and imbued in them her own love of Europe, and for Sylvia in particular, her love of Paris. After three years, the Beach family returned to Princeton. In 1907, Sylvia returned to Paris and then on to Italy where she studied for a year. Her mother Eleanor, unhappy in her marriage, and always eager to be back in Europe, made several trips back to France, without her husband but with her daughters. Cyprien was by then a successful actress in France and Sylvia, staying with her in her apt in Port Royal, decided to help the war effort by joining the Volontaires Agricoles in the Touraine, picking grapes and grafting trees. The hard work, side by side with the strong, no nonsense women of the Touraine, suited Sylvia’s character (she could never shake off her Victorian upbringing, although the piety and religious beliefs of her father left her unconvinced and conflicted). It also suited her strong desire to be useful to the very best of her ability. As yet, Sylvia had no vocation, though she was interested in journalism and poetry, multilingual, and a more than proficient writer. Openings for translators or journalists in war-time France were few and far between. A chance meeting in the rue de l’Odéon would not only change Sylvia Beach’s life but also influence the lives of scores of English-speaking writers in Paris. On the Left Bank, No 7 rue de l’Odéon was the home of Adrienne Monnier’s bookshop, ‘La Maison des Amis des Livres’ and one windy afternoon in 1918, Sylvia impulsively entered the welcoming warmth of Adrienne’s bookshop. There was an instant rapport between the two women that was to last a lifetime which inspired Sylvia, finally, to find the vocation she had been longing for and a soulmate for a partner. Before making her decision to open a bookshop, Sylvia and Holly traveled to Serbia to work as secretaries and translators for the Red Cross in a country still devastated in the aftermath of the war. The experience made a feminist of Beach as women had no say in Red Cross decisions and in general were held in low esteem. It was during this period that the idea of opening a bookshop crystallized. New York was too expensive, London was discounted on the advice of Harold Monro who owned the Poetry Bookshop, and Paris, combined with the lure of Adrienne Monnier, became the inevitable choice. It was Adrienne who had found the shop which had formerly been a laundry, around the corner from rue de l’Odéon, in the small rue Dupuytren. With the help of $3,000 from her mother, Beach paid six month’s rent and transformed the bleak premises into a warm and welcoming environment replete with antique furniture from flea markets, sack cloth covered walls and a profusion of paintings and drawings. A wood burning stove heated the shop and the small kitchenette beyond. There was no bathroom. Beach had always envisaged that the bookshop would also be a lending library and finally on November 17th, 1919, Shakespeare and Company opened for business. The bookshop was an immediate success with Americans in Paris but what Beach had not accounted for was the support of Adrienne’s illustrious French friends and clientele. André Gide, Léon-Paul Fargue, Valery Larbaud and Jules Romains all flocked to Shakespeare and Company, enchanted by the atmosphere of the bookshop and the range of English and American literature on offer. It wasn’t long before James Joyce entered Sylvia Beach’s bookshop and almost single handedly consumed the next ten years of her life. Joyce, who had found it impossible to get Ulysses published, found his saviour in Sylvia Beach. She not only took on the herculean task of publishing his vast work but also became his editor, banker, secretary and unpaid factotum, taking on his family’s problems of finding accommodation and doctors, liaising with prospective international publishers and editors and organising subscription lists to finance the publication of his book. Shakespeare and Company became his post office and bank and…

Lead photo credit : Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare & Company

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After some dreary years in the Civil Service, Marilyn realized her dream of living in Paris. She arrived in Paris in December 1967 and left in July 1969. From there she lived in Mallorca, London, Oman, and Dubai, where she moved with her husband and young son and worked for Gulf News, Khaleej Times and freelanced for Emirates Woman magazine. During this time she was also a ground stewardess for Middle East Airlines. For the past 18 years they've lived on the Isle of Wight.


  • Mayra Cuellar
    2019-10-02 14:20:51
    Mayra Cuellar
    Marilyn thank you for this article. I am currently living in Paris, doing my share of investigating on the places that make me feel grateful to be alive, Shakespear & Company being one of them.. I would love to have had the honor of going when Sylvia and Adrianne were present. To be able to have sleepless nights talking about existence, love, and human despair with these great minds.. Anyway, dreaming out loud. Thank you for this article.