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Sylvia Beach - An American In Paris

This past fall I read Americans in Paris: Life and Death Under Nazi Occupation by Charles Glass. Meticulously researched, the book described the collaboration, resistance, and survival stories of several Americans during the Occupation. Of all the fascinating Americans Glass discussed, I felt an instant connection to one, and have been mildly obsessed with her ever since…

Sylvia Beach Photo Source:

The Woman
Nancy Woodridge Beach was born on March 14, 1887 in Baltimore, Maryland.  She spent much of her childhood and young adult life living throughout Europe. Her first encounter with Paris came at a young age when her father, a pastor, was appointed assistant minister of the American Church in Paris, as well as director of the American student center. As a young adult she spent time in Spain and even served a stint in Serbia in the Red Cross. Although her birth name was Nancy, she would become known to the world as Sylvia Beach.  It was during the Great War when Sylvia returned to Paris to stay.
Sylvia studied literature at the Sorbonne but it wasn’t her studies that kept her in Paris. The predominant reason she stayed was most likely due to her meeting Adrienne Monnier, a French bookstore owner.  Sylvia visited Monnier’s bookshop, La Maison des Amis des Livres, (The House of the Friends of Books) at 7 rue l’Odéon and the two became immediate friends. Monnier was plump and dressed much like a hybrid of a peasant and a nun (think Maria von Trapp in the “Doe a Deer” scene of The Sound of Music).  The two eventually became lovers and lived together until 1955 when Monnier tragically committed suicide.

 Adrienne Monnier Photo Source:
Monnier’s bookshop was unique, as was her attitude about buying books. In the documentary Paris Was a Woman, Andrea Weiss states that Monnier “transformed bookselling into an intellectual and artistic profession.” Monnier believed you should never buy a book until AFTER you had read it, so she essentially loaned out books and relied on people’s honesty to return or buy them. Sylvia loved this idea, and being an American, she noticed that there was no equivalent to Monnier’s store for the rapidly growing English-speaking expatriate population of Paris. With this in mind, and with Monnier’s encouragement, Sylvia Beach opened a bookstore that would eventually land across the street from Monnier’s, Shakespeare and Company.

 Beach & Monnier Photo Source:

The Bookshop
The years in between WWI and WWII produced some of the literary giants of the 20th Century. These writers of the “Lost Generation” flocked to Paris’s Left Bank literary scene. Monnier and Beach passionately fanned the flames of that movement. Literary greats like James Joyce, Ernest Hemmingway, ts eliot, and Ezra Pound frequented Shakespeare and Company’s literary salons. 

Beach & Joyce in front of Shakespeare & Co Photo Source:

Although thriving, it was not until 1922 that Sylvia Beach and Shakespeare and Company gained eternal fame. The Irish author James Joyce was struggling to find anyone to publish his work entitled, Ulysses. Deemed obscene, American and English publishers rejected the work time after time. Beach so fervently believed in Joyce and the quality of Ulysses that she literally went bankrupt publishing the book for him. Unfortunately, when Random House came knocking, Joyce grabbed their fat $45,000 contract and left Beach behind in the literary dust without so much as a penny in return. A protective Monnier wrote Joyce a letter asking him to “never return.” The Left Bank literary community rallied behind Beach by asking the French government to subsidize the bookstore, and authors like ts eliot and Paul Valéry held benefit readings to raise money to keep Shakespeare and Company afloat (Weiss).

 Beach & James Joyce Photo Source: Corbis Images

The War
Even though, Shakespeare and Company survived the Great Depression, it would not survive Nazi Occupation.  During the first two years of the Nazi Occupation of Paris (1940-1942) Beach faced the same hardships that native French did. Food shortages, blackouts, rationing, fuel shortages (both petrol and heating oil) and censorship were routine. Many of Beach’s books (and Monnier’s for that matter) were not appropriate according to Nazi regulations. To avoid the destruction of her books, Beach chose to hide her collection in a vacant apartment above Shakespeare and Company at 12 rue de l’Odéon. Conditions were deplorable. Business had come to a screeching halt and much like the rest of Paris, Beach was hungry, cold, and frail. However, things were about to go from bad to worse for Beach and other Americans after December 7, 1941.

 Happier Days - Monnier, unknown, Beach & Hemingway Photo Source:

On December 11, 1941, only four days after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and three days after the US declared war on Japan, Germany declared war on the United States. This meant that Sylvia Beach and other Americans were now enemies of the State. German police had their eye on Sylvia Beach. Glass quotes Beach in his book:

The Gestapo would come and they’d say, ‘You have a Jewish girl – you had – in the bookshop. And you have a black mark against you.’ I’d say ‘Okay, okay.’ And they said, ‘We’ll come for you, you know.’ I always said okay to them. One day, they did come.

That day was September 24, 1942. The Germans arrested Beach in the first round up of American women. She was one of approximately 350 American women interred in the zoo at the Jardin d’Acclimatation in the Bois de Boulogne. Beach’s group was put in the monkey house where, Beach joked, “we were the only monkeys.” (Glass)

 Jardin d'Acclimatation - Bois de Boulogne Photo Source:

While serving her time in the zoo, Beach and the other American women were humanely treated. Both the Red Cross and the YMCA monitored the prisoners and made certain those in need received medical care. The prisoners were permitted to walk in a confined area and would make their way over to a hedged area where loved ones would wait on the other side to share news. It wasn’t long before the loved ones figured out that they could see their imprisoned friends by paying zoo admission!

Within a month, the Germans moved Beach to an internment camp at a former resort in Vittel, France. Friends worked tirelessly writing letters and pulling strings to obtain Sylvia’s release. Their work paid off in March 1943 when she was released. Unfortunately, conditions in the camp were better than those in Paris. But Sylvia returned to her Adrienne to weather together the rest of the Occupation.

 Vittel Internment Camp at Liberation Photo Source: Corbis Images

When Paris was finally liberated on August 26, 1944, it was none other than Ernest Hemingway and his “Hem Division” who made a beeline to Shakespeare and Company.  Glass quotes Monnier’s description of this glorious moment as she viewed it from the window above:

Sylvia ran down the stairs four at a time and my sister and I saw little Sylvia down below, leaping into and lifted up by two Michelangelesque arms, her legs beating the air. I went downstairs myself. Ah, yes, it was Hemingway, more a giant than ever, bareheaded, in shirtsleeves, a caveman with a shrewd and studious look behind his placid eyeglasses.

Hemingway asked the women what he could do for them, and they replied, “Liberate us!” Ever so gallantly, he and the Hem Division obliged by taking care of some nearby snipers. After four long years of Nazi Occupation, peace had finally made its way back to Paris.

 Ernest Hemingway (far right) Liberating France Photo Source:

After the war, Sylvia Beach was never able to reopen Shakespeare and Company as she had hoped.  Personal tragedy struck on June 19, 1955 when she found her closest confidant and love, Adrienne Monnier, in a coma from a barbiturate overdose. Monnier died the next day. Despite these obstacles, Beach went on to join the board of the American Library in Paris, and even donated 5,000 volumes from her American literature collection. (Glass) Sylvia Beach spent her remaining years in her rue de l’Odéon apartment in her beloved city of Paris. She died there on October 5, 1962 at the age of 75. 

The Legacy
In 1947, an American named George Whitman met Sylvia Beach at reading at his own Paris bookstore, Le Mistral. Even though Beach’s bookshop no longer existed, Shakespeare and Company, a name Whitman called “a novel in three words” had clearly influenced him. (Glass) While he was “too shy” to ask Beach’s permission when she was alive, Whitman did summon up the courage to pay homage to a tremendous woman by renaming his bookstore Shakespeare and Company in Beach’s honor. Shakespeare and Company is located today in the 5th Arrondissement at 37 rue de la Bûcherie where the literary spirit of a time gone by is kept alive by Whitman’s daughter – Sylvia Beach Whitman. 

 Shakespeare and Company, Paris Photo Source: Melville House Publishing

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Americans in Paris: Life and Death Under Nazi Occupation by Charles Glass (2010) - Penguin Press, NY

Paris Was a Woman (1996) Documentary Written by Andrea Weiss, Directed by Greta Schiller 


Charlotte said…
Hi Jennifer, I was touring around the web looking for some information about Sylvia Beach, as I off to Paris next week and wanted to visit her old haunts. I work at a bed & breakfast inn on the Oregon Coast called the Sylvia Beach Hotel. We have 20 rooms named after different authors, no technical accourtrements in the rooms, and two cats who wander where they will. The hotel is in a 100 year old victorian hotel building on a bluff above the Pacific Ocean...quite lovely and dramatic most days. I have worked there for 23 years. The owners, Goody Cable and Sally Ford, wanted to honor Sylvia Beach as a unsung literary hero for all her work and support of authors while owning Shakespeare and Co. They found this old building that was for sale and spent almost 2 years raising funds and renovating. We have changed 5 authors since we opened. If you are curious, check out Facebook groups under Sylvia Beach Lovers...there are lots of pictures of rooms, the cats, guests and the ocean. Our website is Have you read "Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation" by Noel Fitch Riley? Thanks for this wonderful website with all the info. Best Charlotte
bertholdback said…!v=1129703
you might appreciate this one..
Such a sweet blog! I tripped across by accident, looking up Sylvia Beach. Hope you don't mind, I put a reference and link to your blog in my article. Maybe get you some traffic? (cannot promise much!) Looking forward to spending more time on your blog!

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