Remembering Sylvia Beach, the Literary Lesbian Who Took Paris By Storm

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Sylvia Beach was a cultural visionary. A writer, translator, publisher, and, mentor, Sylvia was a woman of many talents. As a patron of the arts, mentoring James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia brought out the best in the writers she nurtured. Sylvia Beach is most widely remembered for founding the Shakespeare and Company bookshop in 1919, a cultural space that continues to make waves a century later.

Image via the Princeton University Library

Born in March 1887, Sylvia Beach was the middle daughter of Reverend Sylvester Woodbridge Beach and Eleanor Thomazine Orbison. She grew up in her father’s parsonage in Baltimore, and first came to Paris when her father took on a position with the American Church there for two years. For Sylvia, this was the beginning of a life-long love affair with the French capital. After working with the Red Cross, picking up Spanish and Italian during her travels across Europe, Sylvia returned to Paris – where a community of American lesbian migrants flourished. Sylvia, like many other women, found greater freedom far from home. At the age of 30 she enrolled at the Sorbonne, where she studied French Literature.

During her studies, Sylvia came across La Maison des Amis des Livres – a bookshop on the left bank that hosted France’s first modern lending library. Its founder and owner, Adrienne Monnier, was the great love of Sylvia’s life. This iconic duo became fast friends, romantic partners, and a continuing source of inspiration not only to one another but the Parisian cultural scene.

In 1919, Sylvia followed in Adrienne’s footsteps by opening Shakespeare and Company. The ‘Company’ was in reference to her subscribers – borrowers of the lending library service. Gertrude Stein was among Sylvia’s first customers. Whereas La Maison des Amis des Livres was mainly geared towards French locals, Shakespeare and Company served the vibrant community of American immigrants living in Paris.

On top of being a bookshop and library, Shakespeare and Company became a publishing house when James Joyce – then considered highly controversial – could find nowhere else to print Ulysses. Only Sylvia Beach had the courage to publish a book we now view as a classic. Upon its release in 1922, Ulysses was a great success – which brought Shakespeare and Company into the public eye. But Joyce then signed with a mainstream publishing house; and it is rumored that Sylvia went into debt as a consequence, having bankrolled Ulysses’ publication herself.

Shakespeare and Company is now considered a literary landmark, with thousands upon thousands of daily visitors. People make pilgrimages from all around the world. And yet, in the years after it first opened, there were times when Sylvia relied on money from her more affluent relatives to keep the doors open. The success of Shakespeare and Company – a lesbian-run literary hub – was never guaranteed. Combining a library, bookshop, and publishing house was bold and imaginative.

Before Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier, people were not typically encouraged to spend time browsing in bookshops. Sylvia furnished Shakespeare and Company with comfortable armchairs thrifted from a flea-market. In winters, she put on a stove to keep customers warm. Bookshelves lined the walls, the open plan of the shop echoing the homey structure of a living room. There was even a small bedroom where hard up writers could sleep until they got back on their feet. It is no exaggeration to say that Sylvia and Adrienne were the beating heart of the Parisian literary scene.

As the Second World War began to tear Europe apart, Sylvia’s family encouraged her to return to the States. She didn’t want to leave Adrienne, her great love, or close Shakespeare and Company, her life’s work. So Sylvia remained in Paris throughout the German occupation. In 1941, a German officer asked to buy the copy of Finnegan’s Wake from the window display. A woman of great principle, Sylvia refused to sell anything to him.

The officer threatened to confiscate everything Sylvia owned, including the contents of Shakespeare and Company – the means by which she made a living. In the following hours, Sylvia and a loyal group of friends moved everything into an upstairs apartment and painted over the shop’s sign. This was, for many years, the end of Shakespeare and Company. For this act of resistance, Sylvia Beach spent six months in an internment camp. When Sylvia was released, many people encouraged her to re-open Shakespeare and Company. She decided against it, but wrote a book documenting the shop and surrounding community.

Male accounts of Sylvia’s life and cultural significance tend towards straightwashing, euphemistically referring to Adrienne as her “friend” or “companion.” But Sylvia and Adrienne were lovers for decades, a relationship which changed the course of literature and the culture of bookselling. Adrienne was diagnosed with Meniere’s Disease in 1954; although it’s not fatal, this illness affects the inner-ear, causes vertigo, and results in hearing loss. Adrienne was miserable, and died by suicide the following year. She and Sylvia had lived together for a total of 36 years.

Towards the end of her life, Sylvia had little money and carried the loss of Adrienne with her. Yet she was celebrated for her contributions to literature, and later pursued a relationship with Camilla Steinbrugge. Sylvia died in Paris in 1972, aged 75.

But Sylvia’s legacy lives on. In 1951, an American named George Whitman opened a bookshop in the left bank of Paris; he called it Shakespeare and Company as a way of honoring and continuing Sylvia’s work. And when George’s daughter was born in 1981, he named her Sylvia Beach Whitman. This second Sylvia Beach is the current proprietor of Shakespeare and Company.