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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 513

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This is the grave of Sylvia Beach.

Born a preacher’s daughter in Maryland in 1887, Nancy Beach changed her name to Sylvia as a young woman. She came from a long family of missionaries and ministers and other than growing up in her father’s parishes in Maryland and New Jersey, in 1901, the family moved to France when her father was named the assistant minister of the American Church in Paris, the oldest explicitly American Protestant church founded outside the United States, all the way back in 1814.

Beach fell in love with France. She was there until 1905, when her father moved back, but as a young woman, she spent a bunch of time in Spain and worked for the Balkan Commission of the Red Cross. Near the end of World War I, she decided to settle in Paris and study literature. There, she walked into a bookstore and met a woman who ran it named Adrienne Monnier. They fell for each other immediately, became lovers, and remained a couple for 36 years, until Monnier’s suicide. Guided by Monnier, Beach entered French literary society, where she became a major figure, meeting the many leading contemporary writers of the day. Beach then decided to open the English language equivalent of Monnier’s great bookstore, to serve the growing expat population in Paris. This became the legendary Shakespeare and Company, which opened its doors in 1919.

Shakespeare and Company became a huge part of the Paris literary scene, especially because Beach was willing to take risks. When James Joyce couldn’t get Ulysses published in an English speaking country, Beach took it on and did it herself. This alone made her a literary legend. However, Joyce completely screwed over when the book got big and he switched to another publisher, leaving her in debt for all the work she did. This plus the Great Depression made the future of the bookstore pretty sketchy, but a fundraiser led by André Gide in 1936 saved it. What finally did close the shop was World War II, when the fascists shut it down. In fact, Beach was interned in a concentration camp for six months before she was released. She was able to hide her books before this though. Ernest Hemingway hoped to get it reopened in 1944, but that never happened. Still, Beach was probably the most important American in Paris in the interwar years, or at least as important as Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. Because she didn’t write much herself, she doesn’t get the fame than the writers, but she is the person who connected writers from the U.S., U.K., Ireland, and France, all of which who produced large numbers of legendary writers during these years, of which many spent years in Paris, hanging out with Beach and whoever else wandered in.

Beach certainly never got rich. In 1956, she published her memoir of the Paris interwar literary scene, also titled Shakespeare and Company. In the literary scene, the book made a splash, but not to the point where she anything more than moderately comfortable. She died in Paris in 1962. In 1964, the American George Whitman renamed his bookstore Shakespeare and Company, which is today run by his daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman.

Sylvia Beach is buried in Princeton Cemetery, Princeton, New Jersey.

If you would like this series to cover other bookstore owners, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. George Whitman is in Paris, if you want to send me back there (and I know you do!) and Gifford Clifford Noble, of Barnes and Noble, is in Valhalla, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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