Sylvia Beach: Legendary Paris Bookseller and Publisher

Sylvia Beach (1887 – 1962) was the legendary owner of the legendary bookshop Shakespeare and Company the meeting place for all of literary Paris in the 1920s, and the publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922. This musing on her active years in literary Paris is excerpted from Everybody I Can Think Of Ever: Meetings That Made the Avant-Garde by Francis Booth, reprinted by permission.

Beach wrote her own résumé towards the end of her life in a letter dated April 23, 1951, to the American Library in post-war Paris, when she donated the remaining books from Shakespeare and Company to them.

“I am the daughter of the late Rev. Sylvester Woodbridge Beach who was pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey:

Opened an American bookshop-lending library on the left bank, Paris in 1919 – called Shakespeare and Company: which was rather famous as a result of writers. Some of those who were connected with it from the beginning and as you might say grew up with it, were Robert McAlmon, Ernest Hemingway, Thornton Wilder, Scott Fitzgerald, Archibald McLeish, Kay Boyle – to name only a few: their elders were Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Ezra Pound.

Shakespeare and Company brought out James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922, which had been suppressed in the United States, Ireland, and England.”

Beach’s partner, Adrienne Monnier, had her own, French-language, bookshop across the street, La Société des Amis du Livre [The Society of Friends of the Book]. Monnier published her own French-language literary magazine Le Navire d’Argent [The Silver Ship] and published the French translation of Ulysses. It was not just writers who haunted Sylvia’s bookshop: the American composer Virgil Thomson ‘often loafed at Sylvia Beach’s shop, where I had the privilege of borrowing books free;’ Thomson contrasts the two women in his autobiography.

“If angular Sylvia, in her boxlike suits, was Alice in Wonderland at forty, pink and white, buxom Adrienne in her grey-blue uniform, bodiced, with peplum and a long full skirt, was a French milkmaid from the 18th-century.”


Adrienne Monnier

Adrienne had her bookshop on the Rue d l’Odéon first; that was where she met Sylvia, who had moved from New Jersey to Paris via Spain in 1917.

Beach had found a reference in the National Library to a volume of verse by Paul Fort and was told the book could be purchased at A. Monnier’s bookshop at Rue d l’Odéon. She did not know the district but set out across the Seine to find it. As soon as she entered the street it reminded her of the colonial houses in Princeton, where she had grown up.

She peered in through the shop window, excitedly looking at the “shelves containing volumes in the glistening ‘crystal paper’ overcoats that French books wear while waiting, often for a long time, to be taken to the binders,” In her autobiography, Shakespeare and Company, Beach described their first meeting.

“At a table sat a young woman. A. Monnier herself, no doubt. As I hesitated at the door, she got up quickly and opened it, and, drawing me into the shop, greeted me with much warmth. This was surprising in France, where people are as a rule reserved with strangers, but I learned that it was characteristic of Adrienne Monnier, particularly if the strangers were Americans.

I was disguised in a Spanish cloak and hat, but Adrienne knew at once that I was American. ‘I like America very much,’ she said. I replied that I liked France very much. And, as our future collaboration proved, we meant it.”

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Everybody I can think of ever - meetings that made the avant-garde

Everybody I Can Think of Ever on Amazon U.S.*
Everybody I Can Think of Ever on Amazon U.K*

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Beach was still standing by the open door when the wind blew her hat into the middle of the street. Adrienne rushed after it, “going very fast for a person in such a long skirt. She pounced on it just as it was about to be run over, and, after brushing it off carefully, handed it to me. Then we both burst out laughing.”

Sylvia describes Adrienne at that time as “stoutish, her coloring fair, almost like a Scandinavian’s, her cheeks pink, her hair straight and brushed back from her fine forehead. Most striking were her eyes. They were blue-grey and slightly bulging, and reminded me of William Blake’s. She looked extremely alive.” They started to talk about books, immediately became friends and later lovers, a partnership that lasted until Adrienne’s death and survived Sylvia opening her own bookshop across the street.

Another New Jersey native, the poet William Carlos Williams first met Adrienne when he visited Shakespeare and Company in 1924 while on a trip to Paris with his wife; he found her “extremely cordial.”

“Adrienne Monnier, a woman completely unlike Sylvia, very French, very solid, whose earthy appetites, from what she told us, made her seem to stand up to her very knees in heavy loam, came in from across the street to make our acquaintance. Somehow we got to talking of Breughel, whose grotesque work she loved – the fish swallowing a fish that itself was swallowing another.

She enjoyed the thought, she said, of pigs screaming as they were being slaughtered, contempt for the animal – a woman toward whom it was strange to see the mannishly dressed Sylvia so violently drawn. Adrienne gave no quarter to any man.

Once, when Bob [McAlmon] in a taxi had taken her in his arms and kissed her, she sunk her teeth into his lips so that he expected to have a piece torn out before she released him. A woman, however, of unflinching kindness.”

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Sylvia Beach

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Gertrude Stein

One of Shakespeare and Company’s earliest visitors was art collector and avant-garde writer Gertrude Stein. In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, speaking in her partner Alice’s voice, she describes how they first encountered it.

“Someone told us, I have forgotten whom, that an American woman had started a lending library of English books in our quarter. We had in those days of economy given up Mudie’s, but there was the American Library which supplied us a little, but Gertrude Stein wanted more. We investigated and we found Sylvia Beech [sic]. Sylvia Beech was very enthusiastic about Gertrude Stein and they became friends. She was Sylvia Beech’s first annual subscriber and Sylvia Beech was proportionately proud and grateful.”

But Sylvia wasn’t always so hospitable or so welcoming to strangers, preferring to protect the people she already knew. One writer who got Sylvia’s cold shoulder was Morley Callaghan, a Canadian writer who had been a reporter with Ernest Hemingway in Toronto.

He had gone to Paris knowing Hemingway was there but not knowing how to contact him. He knew of Shakespeare and Company and Sylvia Beach. In That Summer in Paris Callaghan tells the story of how he went there, hoping she would put the two writers in touch again. She didn’t.

“Approaching the desk, I introduced myself and wondered if she could give me Hemingway’s address. Without batting an eyelash, she told me she wasn’t sure whether Hemingway was in town, nor if he were, whether she would be able to locate him before she heard from him. But if I would leave my own address she would make an effort to see that it was passed on.”

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Joyce and Beach

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James Joyce and Ulysses

Callaghan suspected Beach was not going to pass his details to Hemingway and he was right. She was so protective of her flock that one day, when James Joyce was in the back of the shop, the Irish writer George Moore appeared, looking for him. She told him she didn’t know where Joyce was. Joyce was very upset; he had never met Moore and very much wanted to.

Beach remembers, in Shakespeare and Company, her first meeting with Joyce in the summer of 1920, when her bookshop was in its first year; Beach had had A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in the window of her shop not long before and she loved Joyce’s writing. They met at the apartment of a poet friend, André Spire, at 34, Rue du Bois de Boulogne. Joyce had not been invited or expected but her host whispered to her: “The Irish writer James Joyce is here.”

“I worshipped James Joyce, and on hearing the unexpected news that he was present, I was so frightened I wanted to run away, but Spire told me it was the Pounds who had brought the Joyces – we could see Ezra through the open door. I knew the Pounds, so I went in.”

Before the formal meal Sylvia talked to the wives of Ezra Pound – Dorothy Shakespear – and Joyce – Nora Barnacle – but not to the great man himself; Spire sat them all down for supper before she had a chance to meet him. Afterwards she went into “a little room lined to the ceiling with books.”

“Trembling, I asked: ‘is this the great James Joyce?’
      ‘James Joyce,’ he replied.
       We shook hands; that is, he put his limp, boneless hand in my tough little paw – if you can call that a handshake.

He was of medium height, thin, slightly stooped, graceful. One noticed his hands. They were very narrow. On the middle and third fingers of the left hand, he wore rings, the stones in heavy settings. His eyes, a deep blue, with the light of genius in them, were extremely beautiful. I noticed, however, that the right eye had a slightly abnormal look and that the right lens of his glasses was thicker than the left.

His hair was thick, sandy-colored, wavy, and brushed back from a high, lined forehead over his tall head. He gave an impression of sensitiveness exceeding any I had ever known. His skin was fair, with a few freckles, and rather flushed. On his chin was a sort of goatee. His nose was well shaped, his lips narrow and fine-cut. I thought he must have been very handsome as a young man.”

“What do you do?” Joyce asked her. She told him about her bookshop; he seemed amused by both her name and the name of the shop. “Taking a small notebook out of his pocket and, as I noticed with sadness, holding it very close to his eyes, he wrote down the name and address. He said he would come to see me.” He did, and the rest is history.

But publishing Ulysses didn’t only drain Sylvia Beach’s energy, time, and money; because of Ulysses’ supposed salaciousness, she also got a reputation as a publisher of erotica. Other publishers approached her, including Jack Kahane of the Obelisk Press, which specialized in the salacious, printing racy, English-language books in Paris for ex-service personnel to take back to Britain and America where they would have been banned.

“Mr. Kahane used to drive up in his convertible Voisin, a sort of glass-enclosed station wagon, for a chat with his colleague at Shakespeare and Company. He would ask, ‘how’s God?’ (meaning Joyce). He admired me ‘no end’ for my discovery of such an ‘obscene’ book, as he termed it, as Ulysses, and never relinquished the hope of persuading me one day to let the Obelisk Press take it over.”

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Henry Miller and Anais Nin

Henry Miller & Anais Nin
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Henry Miller & Anäis Nin

Writers also approached Beach directly, hoping she would do for them what she had done for Joyce. Henry Miller met Jack Kahane, his first publisher, though Sylvia Beach. Beach had first met Miller in her shop when he approached her about the publication of Tropic of Cancer; she suggested that Miller approach Kahane.

Beach remembered that Miller and “that lovely Japanese-looking friend of his, Miss Anaïs Nin,” came in to see if she would publish ‘an interesting novel’ that he had been working on. She told him that Kahane’s Obelisk Press published mainly “the spicy kind of books,” and she didn’t, even though, after Ulysses everyone thought she did.

According to Beach, Kahane was “fond of a certain forthright sexiness,” works that combined “literary and sex value” and might be interested. He was. Kahane’s logo was an obelisk standing on a book, the phallic implications of which were unlikely to have been coincidental.

Miller was not the first writer of racy literature to approach Sylvia Beach after the success of Ulysses, which was mainly known by hearsay; most people hadn’t actually read it and only knew it by its sordid reputation. DH Lawrence approached her, as did the roguish, sexist Frank Harris.

“Writers flocked to Shakespeare and Company on the assumption that I was going to specialize in erotica. They brought me their most erotic efforts. And not only that; they insisted on reading the passages that couldn’t, they thought, fail to tempt a person with my supposed tastes. For instance, there was the small man with whiskers who drove up to the bookshop in a carriage – a barouche and pair hired for the occasion to impress me, as he afterward confessed.

His long arms swinging apelike in front of him, he walked into the shop, deposited on my table a parcel that had the look of a manuscript, and introduced himself as Frank Harris. I had liked his book, The Man Shakespeare. I had also liked the volume on Wilde, and especially Shaw’s preface about Wilde’s gigantism. So had Joyce.

I asked Harris what his manuscript was about. He undid the parcel and showed me a thing called My Life and Loves, which he assured me went much further than Joyce. He claimed he was really the only English writer who had got ‘under a woman’s skin.”

He really hadn’t. Sylvia sent Harris to Jack Kahane, who published My Life and Loves, which is an awful work. But, through Sylvia Beach’s introduction Kahane also published Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, though not without some ‘help’ – financial and possibly sexual – from Anaïs Nin.

According to Kahane’s son, Maurice Girodias, later the publisher of “dirty books” himself, Miller sent Nin to Kahane to seduce Kahane into publishing it; he had already made her seduce his literary agent. Henry was Anaïs’s pimp, said Girodias. “But at least he was a literary pimp.”

Miller sent her to Kahane “in person, duly perfumed, and instructed her to go the whole way if called upon to do so.” We don’t know what happened when they met, neither of them recorded it. But either way, Kahane simply didn’t have the resources and in the end it was Nin’s money rather than her sexual willingness that got Miller’s Tropic of Cancer published by Obelisk in 1934, with a preface by Anaïs Nin.

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Shakespeare and Company

Shakespeare and Company in present day Paris is in name only;
not the same establishment started by Sylvia Beach

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Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway, like many impoverished writers in Paris, used Sylvia Beach’s bookshop Shakespeare and Company as a lending library. He remembers it as a “lovely, warm, cheerful place with a big stove in winter, tables and shelves of books, new books in the window and photographs on the wall of famous writers both dead and living.”

“Sylvia had a lively, very sharply cut 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 and at the line of the collar of the brown velvet jacket she wore. She had pretty legs and she was kind, cheerful, and interested, loved to make jokes and gossip. No one that I ever knew was nicer to me.

I was very shy when I first went into the bookshop and I did not have enough money on me to join the rental library. She told me I could pay the deposit any time I had the money and made me out a card and said I could take as many books as I wished.

There was no reason for her to trust me. She did not know me and the address I had given her, 74 Rue Cardinal Lemoine, could not have been a poorer one. But she was delightful and charming and welcoming and behind her, as high as the wall and stretching out into the back room which gave onto the inner court of the building, were the shelves and shelves of the richness of the library.”

Ernest and Sylvia’s friendship lasted for many years. Much later, Hemingway’s son Bumby (Jack) knew and liked her too; like Joyce, Bumby thought her name was amusing; he called her Silver Beech. Even in those later years, when he was on one of his many trips with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway said he knew it would be “okay to spend more money than he had” because he could always get a loan from Sylvia. Behind every male writer is a literary lady letting him have his say.

More about Sylvia Beach

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Contributed by Francis Booth,* the author of several books on twentieth-century culture:

Amongst Those Left: The British Experimental Novel 1940-1960 (published by Dalkey Archive); Everybody I Can Think of Ever: Meetings That Made the Avant-Garde;  Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in the Mid-Twentieth Century Woman’s Novel; Text Acts: Twentieth Century Literary Eroticism; and Comrades in Art: Revolutionary Art in America 1926-1938.

Francis has also published several novels: The Code 17 series, set in the Swinging London of the 1960s and featuring aristocratic spy Lady Laura Summers; Young adult fantasy series The Watchers; and  Young adult fantasy novel Mirror Mirror. Francis lives on the South Coast of England. He is currently working on High Collars and Monocles: Interwar Novels by Female Couples.

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*These are Amazon Affiliate links. If a product is purchased by linking through, Literary Ladies Guide receives a modest commission, which helps maintain our site and helps it to continue growing!

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