On this day…14 March

On 14 March 1887 Sylvia Beach was born.

Daughter of a Presbyterian minister, Sylvia Beach opened Shakespeare and Company, a bookshop that became synonymous with the publication of Joyce’s Ulysses.

Sylvia Beach was born Nancy Woodbridge Beach in Baltimore, Maryland, where her father was a Presbyterian pastor. The family moved to Bridgeton, New Jersey, for fourteen years, and then to Paris in 1902, following her father’s appointments as a minister. The family moved again in 1905 to Princeton, New Jersey, but Sylvia (as she now chose to call herself) was back in Paris in 1907 and again in 1911.

During the first war she lived for two years in Spain and returned to Paris in August 1916 to live with her sister Cyprian. In 1919 she went to Serbia for six months to work with the Red Cross and saw first-hand some of the devastation of the war. When she returned to Paris, she considered opening a bookstore of French authors, first in New York, and then in London (until Harold Monro advised her against it).

By this time Beach had become friendly with Adrienne Monnier (1892-1955), owner of the Maison des Amis des Livres bookshop at 7 rue de l’Odéon, and later the two became partners and lovers. Monnier found a shop for Beach at 8 rue Dupuytren and, with financial assistance from Beach’s mother, Shakespeare and Company opened there on 17 November 1919. The shop was both an English-language bookshop and a lending library, and Beach also lived in a room at the back of the shop. The shop moved to its more famous address at 12 rue de l’Odéon, across the street from Monnier’s shop, in the summer of 1921.

Beach and Joyce met for the first time on 11 July 1920, shortly after Joyce arrived in Paris from Trieste. At the end of March 1921, after Joyce heard that his Ulysses had been banned in the US, Beach offered to publish the book. She organised the printer and solicited subscriptions from around the world to help cover the costs of the first edition. Beach herself collected the first two copies from the railway station on the morning of 2 February 1922, Joyce’s fortieth birthday. She delivered one to Joyce for his birthday and the other was placed in the window of Shakespeare and Company to announce the book’s publication.

Shakespeare and Company also published Joyce’s Pomes Penyeach in July 1927, and Our Exagmination round His Factification for Incamination of ‘Work in Progress’ in May 1929. Beach had invested a great deal in eleven printings of Ulysses under the Shakespeare and Company imprint, but she got little profit from it. The Great Depression added to her difficulties and in 1931 she told Joyce that an American edition of Ulysses would force her to shut her shop and rear chickens! Even so, in 1932 she relinquished her rights in Ulysses. After that, Paul Léon took over the role of Joyce’s factotum that Beach had fulfilled for ten years, and she and Joyce became more distant.

During the 1930s Beach was forced to sell many of the manuscripts and books that Joyce had given her in order to survive during the Depression years. She remained in Paris after the Nazi invasion of the city but in December 1941, after she refused to sell her last copy of Finnegans Wake to a German officer, she was threatened with having all her books confiscated. In just a couple of hours, the stock was removed, the shelves were dismantled, the name over the shop was painted over, and Shakespeare and Company ceased to exist.

Beach was arrested by the Nazis in August 1942 and was interned for six months. After the war, aged fifty-eight, Beach decided against re-opening Shakespeare and Company. She earned some money as a translator, and American publishers Harcourt, Brace commissioned her to write her memoirs which were published in 1959. She also made an agreement with the State University of New York at Buffalo to sell all the material she still held concerning Joyce’s Ulysses. This brought in more than $55,000 to the then seventy-two year old, allowing her to live well for the rest of her life. The University also awarded her an honorary doctorate in recognition of the work she had done for so many writers in Paris between the wars.

In June 1962 Beach came to Dublin and on 16 June she dedicated the Martello Tower at Sandycove as the James Joyce Museum. She died on 5 October 1962, and was cremated. Her ashes were buried in Princeton the following year.


Sources & Further Reading:

Beach, Sylvia: Shakespeare and Company, New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1959.

Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – New and Revised Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Fitch, Noel Riley: Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation – A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties & Thirties, London: Souvenir Press, 1983.