AS THE FIRST GERMAN SOLDIERS took control of Paris that morning, Sylvia Beach was waiting in Adrienne Monnier’s fourth-storey apartment in the rue de l’Odéon. Adrienne’s window commanded a clear view to the north, where the tiny street crossed the tree-shaded boulevard Saint-Germain. A column of German Army trucks and motorcycles appeared, along with troops riding and marching past. Sylvia called it an ‘endless procession of motorized forces: tanks and armored cars and helmeted men seated with arms folded … all a cold grey, and they moved to a steady deafening roar.’ For the first time, Sylvia heard the Germans’ famous leather jackboots. ‘Those boots always made them seem much more enraged than they were,’ she wrote. As she and Adrienne watched, ‘Tears were streaming down our cheeks. It was an awful experience. Horrible.’
‘Miss Beach’, as James Joyce called the American from the time they met in 1920, was 53 years old. Adrienne, her longtime collaborator, friend and former lover, was four years younger. For twenty years, the American and the Frenchwoman had presided over a unique and fertile realm of French and English literature. Adrienne called their little kingdom ‘Odéonia’, for the two bookshops–her French La Maison des Amis des Livres and Sylvia’s English Shakespeare and Company–whose plate-glass windows reflected each other across the rue de l’Odéon. James Joyce, who had made Shakespeare and Company his office, called it ‘Stratford-on-Odéon’.
The modest rue de l’Odéon flowed downhill from the crest of a rise, dominated by the rear of the great Théâtre de l’Odéon, to a roundabout, the Carrefour de l’Odéon, and the boulevard Saint-Germain. A canyon of five- and six-storey apartment buildings rose from ground-floor laundries, antique shops, carpet merchants and printers. Adrienne’s shop was at Number 7, and she lived on the fourth floor of Number 18. Shakespeare and Company was at Number 12, and Sylvia’s flat was in the mezzanine above the shop. The rue de l’Odéon’s twin bookshops, where contemporary writers were supported and published, made it the world capital of Franco-American letters. For a week before the Germans seized Paris, French people, as well as refugees from the Low Countries, had trudged up the rue de l’Odéon on their way out of the city. Sylvia and Adrienne watched them bearing the weight of all the possessions they could carry on their backs. While other booksellers and publishers were fleeing, the two women preferred to remain, if only to guard a small light amid what their friend Arthur Koestler called Europe’s Nazi ‘night’. Sylvia dismissed what many saw as her courage: ‘I never left Paris–hadn’t the energy to flee, luckily, as nothing happened to us or the other monuments.’
Adrienne had come to Odéonia in 1915, opening her bookshop during the war when rents were low and the city’s male booksellers were mostly in the army. From a peasant family in eastern, Alpine France, Adrienne had retained her earthy love of food and all other things sensual. Her father, Clovis, was a postal clerk who sorted mail on trains. An injury he received in a rail accident gave him an insurance settlement that his daughter used to start her business. La Maison des Amis des Livres became more than a bookshop. It was the base for publishing Adrienne’s literary journals and a venue for authors’ readings and discussions. She had befriended and defended some of France’s greatest writers–among them, poets Paul Valéry and Guillaume Apollinaire and novelists André Gide and Jules Romains.
Sylvia Woodbridge Beach arrived a couple of years later. Born in Baltimore in 1887, she had spent two teenage years in Paris from 1902 to 1904, when her father served as Presbyterian clergyman at the American Church on the Quai d’Orsay. From Paris, the family moved to Princeton, New Jersey. The Reverend Sylvester Beach’s most prominent parishioner was Virginia-born Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who was president of Princeton University before being elected governor of New Jersey. The Reverend Sylvester Beach officiated at the weddings of both Wilson daughters and, after Wilson’s election to the White House in 1912, was known as the ‘president’s pastor’. Sylvia, who already spoke French fluently, learned Spanish in Madrid and Italian in Florence before returning to Paris during the Great War in 1917. A course in French literature at the Sorbonne led Sylvia to Adrienne Monnier’s shop in the rue de l’Odéon in search of a French literary journal. In March 1917, the slender, 5-foot-2-inch wisp of an American met the voluptuous French bookseller. Sylvia was thirty and Adrienne almost twenty-six. They discussed American and French books. Adrienne, who spoke little English, said she loved the works of Benjamin Franklin–albeit in French translation. When she told Sylvia, ‘J’aime beaucoup l’Amérique,’ Sylvia answered, ‘J’aime beaucoup la France.’ Soon, they loved each other as well.
Alice B. Toklas called Sylvia ‘flagstaff’ as much for her bony figure as her commitment to flying the banner of American literature on French soil. The American composer Virgil Thompson, who like Aaron Copland and George Antheil came to Paris to study music with Nadia Boulanger, called Sylvia ‘angular … Alice in Wonderland at forty’. Adrienne reminded him of ‘a French milkmaid from the eighteenth century’. William Carlos Williams remembered Adrienne in the kitchen, ‘That woman loved food, the senses were her meat.’ Her dining room was pink, she said, because pink was ‘good for the appetite’. Janet Flanner, who moved to Paris in 1922 with her lover Solita Solano and began her New Yorker column three years later, was a friend of both Sylvia and Adrienne. She compared ‘these two extraordinary women–Mlle. Monnier, buxom as an abbess, placidly picturesque in the costume she had permanently adopted, consisting of a long, full gray skirt, a bright velveteen waistcoat, and a white blouse, and slim, jacketed Sylvia, with her schoolgirl white collar and big colored bowknot, in the style of Colette’s Claudine à l’Ecole’.
Adrienne invited Sylvia to readings in her bookshop, where she heard, among many others, Paul Valéry in French Army uniform read his anti-war poem, ‘Europe’. When the Great War ended in November 1918, Sylvia went to Serbia to help her sister Holly with relief work for the Red Cross. Six months later, she was back in Paris. Adrienne encouraged her to open a French bookshop, like La Maison des Amis des Livres, in New York or London. Both cities proved impractical because of high rents and small readerships for French literature. Sylvia’s fallback was to establish an English language bookshop and lending library in Paris. Adrienne found her space on the ground floor of a building at 8 rue Dupuytren, around the corner from her own shop. With $3,000 sent by her mother, Eleanor Beach, Sylvia opened Shakespeare and Company on 17 November 1919. Above the door hung a pub-like sign of William Shakespeare’s head by the French-Polish painter Charles Winzer. When it was stolen, Winzer painted another. The second too disappeared, and Adrienne made one herself to replace it. Sylvia slept at the back of the tiny shop. Without running water but surrounded by the books she loved, she was content.
The first American writer to patronize Shakespeare and Company was the formidable Gertrude Stein, who appeared in the shop on 16 March 1920 with her companion, Alice B. Toklas. Already a figure on the Paris scene, Stein had yet to achieve success in America. Her weekly salon, initiated in 1906, attracted Pablo Picasso and other artists, whose paintings she assiduously collected. In the 1920s, American writers in Paris, including Ernest Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson, sought her invitations. Stein became one of the Shakespeare and Company library’s original ‘bunnies’, as Sylvia called them, from the French word for subscriber, abonné. On 12 November 1920, 22-year-old Stephen Vincent Benét became the first young, aspiring American writer to join the library. Sylvia’s English competitors were Brentano’s bookshop for sales and the American Library of Paris for lending, both Right Bank institutions not favoured by the Left Bank bohemians. Brentano’s did not stock books by new writers or sell the experimental literary journals that Sylvia promoted. The blue-stockinged American Library matrons played moral censor, something Sylvia refused to do. When they removed H. L. Mencken’s journal, American Mercury, from their shelves, poet Ezra Pound, another of Sylvia’s American bunnies, wrote, ‘DAMN the right bank pigs, anyway.’ Shakespeare and Company became the haven of a new generation of writers and publishers. Most of its bunnies were students from the nearby University of Paris who, too poor to buy imported English books, paid the small subscription to borrow them.
In the summer of 1920, Shakespeare and Company reopened in a larger space at 12 rue de l’Odéon, facing Adrienne’s shop. Sylvia had two rooms just above Shakespeare and Company, but she did not live in them. She moved in with Adrienne at Number 8 and rented the rooms over the shop to pilgrims, as she called Americans arriving in Paris. Avant-garde American composer George Antheil lived there for several years. He used to climb up the front of the building to enter through a window rather than bother Sylvia by ringing at the shop. At the back, Sylvia kept a stove to brew tea and keep warm in winter. William Shirer, the great American journalist who was then working at the Paris Tribune, recalled how he ‘loved to browse among the shelves or be invited to tea in the back room, when in winter a fireplace blazed and there was much good talk’. Also at the back were children’s books, toys and a little red table. The outline of Odéonia was complete. It comprised the outdoor bookstalls in the arcades of the Théâtre de l’Odéon, the two bookshops, a music store, a library appraiser and, in the boulevard Saint-Germain, the writers’ favoured cafés, the Flore and the Deux Magots, and the Alsatian Brasserie Lipp.
Sylvia met James Joyce in July 1920. Joyce had just moved with his wife, Nora Barnacle, and their two children from Trieste. At the time, he was consumed with writing Ulysses. Sylvia, who had already read his short stories, later admitted, ‘Probably I was strongly attracted to Joyce as well as to his work, but unconsciously. My only love was Adrienne.’ When American courts convicted Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap of the Little Review for printing ‘obscene’ sections of Joyce’s Ulysses, American and British publishers refused to consider the book. Sylvia Beach hated censorship. ‘You cannot legislate against human nature,’ she said. Although she had never published anything, she came to Joyce’s rescue by publishing Ulysses. Adrienne’s French typesetters printed it, and Sylvia proofread every page. It went on sale in her shop, and she persuaded friends like Ernest Hemingway to smuggle copies into the United States. Her friend Janet Flanner called Sylvia ‘the intrepid, unselfish, totally inexperienced and little-moneyed young-lady publisher of “Ulysses” in Paris in 1922’. When the book appeared, Sylvia lost one of her first bunnies, Gertrude Stein. Miss Stein, who hated Joyce, took her custom to the American Library on the Right Bank.
Within six years of opening her shop, Sylvia Beach was called by Eugene Jolas, the American publisher of the Paris literary magazine transition, ‘probably the best known woman in Paris’. If she had any rival for that honour, it could only have been another American, the beautiful singer-dancer Josephine Baker. Sylvia made Shakespeare and Company the centre of Parisian American literary life. Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thornton Wilder, John Dos Passos, Elliot Paul, Malcolm Cowley and other expatriate American writers used her combined bookshop-lending library as, in Janet Flanner’s words, ‘their club, mail drop, meeting house and forum’. Over tea at Shakespeare and Company, the Americans met the Irishman James Joyce and French writers like Louis Aragon and André Breton, as well as one another. It was a time of high living for the Americans, who found Paris cheaper than home and loved the freedom to write without censorship and to drink alcohol without being arrested. Aged 22, Hemingway fell in love, however platonically, with 34-year-old Sylvia the moment they met in 1921. ‘She had pretty legs and she was kind, cheerful and interested, and loved to make jokes and gossip,’ Hemingway wrote of her in his Paris memoir, A Moveable Feast. ‘No one that I ever knew was nicer to me.’ He made a point of taking her to boxing matches to shake her further from her Protestant clerical upbringing. She became an enthusiast and introduced Hemingway to French writer Jean Prévost, who wrote a book called The Pleasure of Sport and matched Hemingway’s physicality. The two men sparred in the ring, but Prévost’s head was so hard that Hemingway broke a thumb on it. Sylvia adored Hemingway, encouraging the young journalist to publish in Paris’s growing number of literary periodicals.
The Twenties bounty turned, for Sylvia as for much of the western world, into Thirties desperation. The dollar’s devaluation slashed the incomes of expatriate Americans–impoverished writers, painters and composers most of all. Ernest Hemingway and her other favourites left Paris for the United States. In December 1933, restrictions on drinking and writing that had driven many American writers to France were lifted with the repeal of Prohibition and the American publication of Joyce’s Ulysses. Judge John Woolsey of the US District Court in New York wrote the landmark decision that Ulysses, despite its sexual content, was a ‘sincere and honest book’. He famously added, ‘His locale was Celtic and his season spring.’ This was good news for Joyce, whose book sold 35,000 copies in three months, but it came at a cost to Sylvia. Joyce had convinced her, after her years of subsidizing him and keeping his book in print, to relinquish publishing rights to Random House in New York and the Bodley Head in London. Her health, plagued since childhood by eczema and migraines, suffered. The writer Katherine Anne Porter recalled ‘attacks of migraine that stopped her in her tracks’. Lack of business in Depression-era Paris put her deeper into debt. Her family helped when it could–small amounts arriving in their letters from Princeton and California. But the presents were not enough to protect Shakespeare and Company from bankruptcy.
When Sylvia told André Gide in 1935 that the shop might close, he declared, ‘But something must be done!’ Thanks to Gide and fellow writers Jean Schlumberger and Paul Valéry, something was. They created the Friends of Shakespeare and Company, whose members paid dues for two years to support the shop. Almost all of France’s best writers contributed. André Maurois, Jean Paulhan, Jules Romains and Georges Duhamel headed a long list of donors who paid a minimum of $45 a year to attend readings by French and American novelists and poets. The poet Archibald MacLeish sent $75. The largest donation came from Sylvia’s childhood friend, Carlotta Welles Briggs, with whom she had spent summers at the Welles’s country house near Bourré in the Touraine.
The civil war in Spain brought American writers back to Paris, where they took leave from the battlefront. Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos and the English poets W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender became Sylvia’s loyal customers. Sylvia persuaded Hemingway to do a reading to raise funds. He agreed on condition that Spender join him on the platform. This was less generosity than stage-fright. He was so nervous that he drank copiously before and during his reading of the short story ‘Fathers and Sons’. Faltering at first, he was declaiming like a Shakespearean dramatist by the end. The Paris Herald Tribune wrote, ‘He was beginning to show grace under pressure.’ Hemingway left Europe again when the Republicans lost the war in Spain and the half million Spanish refugees who escaped to France were be interned in camps.
In 1936, with the shop on a more secure footing, Sylvia made her first visit to the United States since coming to Paris in 1917. Her older sister, Holly, followed by younger sister Cyprian and their father, had moved to Altadena, California, where Sylvia saw them for a few weeks. By the time she stopped in Princeton to see childhood friends, severe menstrual bleeding took her to a Connecticut hospital for diagnosis and a hysterectomy. While Sylvia was away from Paris, a young German-Jewish photographer, Gisèle Freund, whom she and Adrienne had encountered two years earlier, supplanted her in Adrienne’s affections and apartment. Returning to convalesce in Paris, Sylvia, without demur, moved into the mezzanine rooms above Shakespeare and Company. The three women remained close, usually having lunch together in Adrienne’s kitchen.
A year later, after receiving nominations from parliamentarian Edouard Herriot and Henri Hoppenot, a poet in the French diplomatic corps, the French government made Sylvia a Knight of the Legion of Honour. It was the first official recognition she had received of her contribution to Franco-American letters. While she made light of her ‘little ribbon gibbon given me by the French’, she wore it proudly when occasion demanded.
At the outbreak of war in September 1939, Sylvia’s family urged her to return home. But her home was Paris. Friends, though, were leaving. The few American writers there in 1940, like Henry Miller and Robert McAlmon, as well as the photographer Man Ray, were fleeing to the south, where most went on to safer countries. Gisèle Freund waited until the Germans were bombing the industrial suburbs of Paris before she too escaped, first to the south, finally to Argentina. As a German-Jewish refugee, she would have been arrested immediately. By June 1940, Joyce was on his way to Switzerland. Sylvia Beach, Adrienne Monnier and their contracting circle of brave friends awaited the humiliation of their city.
On Monday, 3 June, Adrienne wrote, ‘Loud noise of planes roaring over our heads. Raid: 200 planes, numerous victims.’ Six days later, she and Sylvia heard German artillery pounding Paris’s outskirts. Adrienne’s diary entry for the day said, ‘We think seriously of putting mattresses in the cellar to sleep on.’ Only the day before, a friend warned them that ‘Paris will be involved in the battle.’ Two days later, the same friend’s husband ‘let me understand that Paris will not be involved in the battle’. Rumours, compounded by government radio bulletins that lied about the war, were confusing rather than reassuring. Someone warned Adrienne that, if she stayed in Paris, people would assume she welcomed German occupation. By the morning of 12 June, Adrienne was ready to quit: ‘Personal longing to leave and go to Rocfoin’, the village southwest of Paris where her mother and father had a smallholding. After asking Sylvia to bicycle to Montparnasse station to see whether there were any trains, Adrienne had lunch in her kitchen with her sister, Marie. Marie, whose pet name was Rinette from Marinette, persuaded her to stay, saying that ‘we should live such moments here’. Sylvia, meanwhile, urged Ruth Camp, a young Canadian student who worked for her, to escape. Canada, unlike the United States, was at war with Germany, making Ruth subject to detention as an enemy alien. Sylvia despaired that ‘she could not be persuaded to leave in spite of my efforts to push her homeward, [and] was still helping me when the Germans swarmed into France’. As the Germans neared Paris, Ruth, in Sylvia’s words, ‘did try to get away. She was machine-gunned in the ditches, and was later interned in spite of her efforts.’ On the 13th, Sylvia had an urge to flee. She went to the American Embassy, where she discovered it was too late.
The anti-Nazi, anti-Soviet, Hungarian-Jewish writer Arthur Koestler had been hiding in Adrienne’s apartment. The French authorities had already interned him with other foreigners, many of whom were also anti-Nazis and Jews. The Nazis would take charge of those still stuck in the camps when the occupation began. After Koestler’s temporary release, Adrienne took him in. He was reading Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le noir on her sofa, when a four leaf clover in the book ‘fell right between his eyes!’ Adrienne kissed the spot and assured him it was an omen that he would be safe. A year later, Koestler wrote discreetly in London, ‘I still had some friends. Who these friends were, how they passed me on in turn, hiding me for one night each, and how they succeeded in obtaining for me a travelling permit to Limoges, where a fortnight later I ceased legally to exist, will be an amusing and moving story to tell at a time when the night has gone from Europe and acts of kindness and solidarity no longer count as crimes.’ When the Nazi night had passed, he was free to give Adrienne credit without putting her in jeopardy: ‘For a few days I remained in hiding, first at the flat of Adrienne Monnier, then at the P.E.N. Club.’ The president of International PEN was Sylvia and Adrienne’s old friend Jules Romains. The French novelist’s anti-Nazi views were known, and he fled Paris for the south in hope of reaching New York with his wife, Lise, the French-American novelist Julien Green and American surgeon Dr Alexander Bruno. Romains said, more in hope than truth, ‘It is impossible that France should go fascist.’
On 14 June, Sylvia’s and Adrienne’s bookshops, like all other businesses in Paris, were closed. Sylvia’s premises enjoyed some protection. Two American diplomats, Third Secretary Tyler Thompson and her friend Keeler Faus, had personally affixed red American seals to her apartment and shop to tell the Germans they belonged to a US citizen. But Sylvia and Adrienne’s anti-Nazi past made them vulnerable to the occupier. Adrienne, as well as hiding Arthur Koestler, had assisted the brilliant German-Jewish writer Walter Benjamin’s escape from Paris to the south of France. (Benjamin was hoping to obtain an American visa from the consulate in Marseilles and travel to the United States via Spain and Portugal. He made an exhausting trek over the Pyrenees, but Spanish police forced him back to Nazi-occupied France. Rather than be sent to a concentration camp, he committed suicide.) Adrienne had also written a long condemnation of Nazi anti-Semitism in her Gazette des Amis des Livres in 1938: ‘From the day the Jews were emancipated (as you know, it is one of the glories of the French Revolution that they were), they have proved that they could be national elements of the first order.’ Sylvia had sold artists’ prints in her shop to raise money for Spain’s legitimate republican government to fight the Nazi-supported Francisco Franco. She also had many Jewish friends, including an unpaid voluntary assistant at Shakespeare and Company, Françoise Bernheim.
As the Germans occupied each arrondissement in Paris, someone told Adrienne that they were ordering everyone to remain indoors for forty-eight hours. Wehrmacht loudspeaker vans repeated this message, until it became known the curfew had been amended to begin at 9 p.m. Adrienne waited with Sylvia all morning in her apartment. At noon, they noticed civilians on the streets. In some places, Parisians were accepting gifts of food from German army trucks sent to feed the populace. In others, women flirted with soldiers. One of the better bordellos posted a notice: ‘Business as usual from 3 p.m.’ A few cafés opened to serve their first uniformed German customers, who were polite and paid for all they ate and drank. Adrienne was disgusted by a common sentiment she overheard: ‘What if the Germans are here? At least there will be order.’ She prepared lunch for Sylvia in the kitchen where for twenty years the earthy and maternal bookseller had cooked oily peasant dinners for the luminaries of French and American literature. It would be her last lunch before the Germans began requisitioning most of France’s food.
After lunch, the husband of Adrienne’s sister Rinette, painter Paul-Emile Becat, came to the flat to see her and Sylvia. He told them he had seen ‘the procession of the first German battalions this morning at the Place de l’Etoile’. A great phalanx of helmeted Wehrmacht troops marched to a Nazi band, while the Swastika flew over the Arc de Triomphe. At this scene, Parisians had stared sullen and silent, many of them weeping. Adrienne ended her diary of the day, ‘In the evening, great depression.’ She was not alone.
German forces seized both houses of France’s parliament, the Chamber of Deputies over the Seine from the Place de la Concorde and the Senate in the Luxembourg Gardens. They also commandeered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the Quai d’Orsay, the Naval Ministry beside the Hôtel Crillon and most other government buildings. Signs were posted in German saying they were under the ‘protection’ of the German army. Troops set up light cannon and machine guns at the main approaches to the Arc de Triomphe. They replaced French flags with Swastikas on government buildings, monuments, the arcades of the rue de Rivoli and the main hotels. Robert Murphy wrote, ‘I was amazed in those first occupation days to discover how thoroughly the Germans had prepared for every phase of military government. It became apparent that they had drafted comprehensive blueprints long in advance to suit whatever conditions they might encounter in conquered countries.’
The only fatal incident occurred at nine in the morning, when a lone French soldier shot at German troops in the southern suburb of Antony. ‘The German soldiers responded to the firing, killing the French soldier and a woman,’ noted the Paris Prefect of Police, Roger Langeron, in his diary. No Americans were harmed.
The Germans honoured most of the embassy certificates of American property ownership, including one that Bullitt personally issued to a French friend, Marie-Laure de Noailles. Married to an aristocrat, Marie-Laure was the daughter of a Jewish banker. Bullitt’s gesture undoubtedly saved her collection of Goyas and other masterpieces from German seizure. Nonetheless, the Nazis requisitioned two American homes near Paris in Versailles. One belonged to James Hazen Hyde, whose house was ransacked by German troops. The other was the villa of the twice-widowed Mrs James Gordon Bennett, in her youth Miss Maud Potter of Philadelphia. Her first husband had been Baron George de Reuter of the news agency his father founded. Five years after his death, she wed the eccentric, 73-year-old owner of the Paris Herald. When the Germans occupied her Versailles villa, she stayed in her Paris townhouse in the avenue d’Iéna near the American Ambassador’s residence. Other American losses were houses north of Paris belonging to Harlan Page Rowe and Ogden Bishop, both looted during the battles. The Luftwaffe bombed American oil and communications facilities on the northern French coast. Another American loss during the Battle of France was a consignment of 150,000 cigarettes for Ambassador Bullitt. The Germans did not tamper with any other embassy supplies, but a Wehrmacht colonel told French officials in the Paris customs house, ‘So these are Bullitt’s cigarettes! Well, he won’t get them. I used to live in Philadelphia and I never did like Bullitt. Take them away.’
In the evening, Bullitt received a visit at the embassy from Police Prefect Roger Langeron. For the past weeks, the two men had come to know and respect each other. Langeron told the ambassador that the Germans had arrested and were interrogating his chief of general intelligence, Jacques Simon. This violated the assurances given that morning by General von Studnitz, who told Langeron, ‘If order is maintained, if you can guarantee the security of my troops, you won’t hear a word from me.’ Langeron asked for Bullitt’s help. The ambassador called Robert Murphy, who went immediately to the Crillon with a message from Bullitt: if Simon were not released, no one would be responsible for security in Paris. Without Langeron’s 25,000 policemen, who had remained at Bullitt’s request when the French government was planning to remove them, the occupation which had gone smoothly until evening would become a shambles. At 11 p.m., Simon appeared unharmed in Langeron’s office on the Ile de la Cité.