Wednesday, March 10, 2010

MEETING SYLVIA BEACH AGAIN



Sunday, March 14th, will be the birthday of Sylvia Beach. I’ve never forgotten the meeting I had with her in Paris years ago; it meant a lot to me. So I thought I’d take the liberty of rerunning that post to celebrate her birthday.

Flash back to the time when an eager young writer-producer, bright-tailed and bushy-eyed, was on a first assignment for a major production company: I was to write and produce a film on Paris, which would have a sequence devoted to the American expatriates of the 1920s. It was for Universal-International and was to be titled “One Man’s Paris.”

Doing my research on the scene, I was pleased to learn that Sylvia Beach, another famous name from those Parisian roaring twenties, was still around. I phoned her and asked if we could get together. She suggested meeting at the cafe named Le Select. The Select! That rang a bell. There couldn’t have been a better place for such a meeting.

“’Café Select,’ he told the driver, ‘Boulevard Montparnasse.’” (Jake Barnes in Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.”)



Cafes then were, and to a degree still are, central to Paris life – writers wrote in them, painters painted them – and the Select (which has only been around for eighty years or so) represented the best traditions of the Parisian café. Sylvia Beach arrived and we had a wonderful conversation. She was then an elderly lady, but was full of youthful energy and vitality and she became very interested in the documentary I was there to make. She knew everything about the era in question, about all those earlier expatriate Americans, where they used to live and the cafes where they used to hang out.

La Coupole was just across the street, and that was just steps away from La Rotonde and Le Dome at the next corner, but Le Select was the jewel of the crown – not just for the Americans but for people who came from all over the world. It was indeed a pleasure, sitting in that famous café, to have pointed out to me just where in the place Henry Miller used to meet Anais Nin for afternoon drinks, where Luis Bunuel sat, and which was young Pablo Picasso’s favorite spot. In our 21st century groups of Japanese tourists continue to show up, asking to see Hemingway’s table.



No question, the Select had its attractions, but it was no more interesting than the lady I was talking with. Living in Paris at the end of World War I, a New Jersey girl named Sylvia Beach had opened an English language bookstore and lending library that thousands came to know as Shakespeare and Company. She started her store just as the franc dropped in value and the exchange rate became very favorable so the shop flourished. It became a hangout for Americans.



As I spoke with her, I remembered that Shakespeare and Company had gained considerable fame after she more or less single-handedly published James Joyce’s “Ulysses” in 1922, as a result of Joyce's inability to get an edition out in English-speaking countries.



She had gone into debt to bankroll the publication. Joyce would later show his gratitude by financially stranding her when he signed with another publisher, leaving Sylvia Beach in debt and suffering severe losses from the publication of that book.

Things went from bad to worse for her because of the depression of the thirties. She managed to stay open because André Gide organized a group of writers into a club called Friends of Shakespeare and Company, which got a lot of publicity and helped the business to improve.



Then came World War II. The shop tried to remain open after the fall of Paris, but by the end of 1941 Sylvia Beach was forced to close. She kept her books hidden in a vacant apartment.



It's now a fable of our time that, as Paris was being liberated, Ernest Hemingway – reckless, flamboyant, heroic – drove up in a jeep to liberate Sylvia and her bookstore.

29 comments:

lakeviewer said...

So much of this is just the way we would envision. Thanks for the memories!

Jeanne said...

What a fascinating story.

How did your documentary turn out?

Berowne said...

Jeanne: "How did your documentary turn out?"

The documentary that resulted from all this, “One Man’s Paris,” was distributed by Universal-International throughout the country after opening at the Palace on Broadway in Manhattan. Making it was the beginning of a new career for me and an unforgettable experience.

Berowne said...

lakeviewer: "Thanks for the memories!"

And I thank you, lv.

chiccoreal said...

Imagine! Sylvia Beach publishing James Joyce, and then he, the dirty-rat fleecing her by going with another publisher. Guess contracts were either non-existent or meant to be broken. Like Parisian hearts. Sylvia would have made up for any Act of Joyce somewhere somehow. Is there a novel on her many exploits and/or artistic alliances?
How utterly fun being able to spy by the lurking and lingering longer in the cafe de Picasso or Hemmingway. In the Parisian fin de siecle cafes? What about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas? A true artisian repository of the great. Hard to believe this story is true, but yes it is possible to meet these rarified talent of superhuman powers at one time. Thanks Berowne!

Berowne said...

chiccoreal: "What about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas?"

That post is on the way. Stay tuned. And thanx for your interest.

Madame DeFarge said...

You've had such a glamorous life. I am unutterably envious of your jaunts.

savannah said...

i could see it all again, sugar! thank you for this gentle reminder to find my passport and book a ticket! it's time! xoxox

Berowne said...

savannah: "Thank you for this gentle reminder to find my passport and book a ticket! it's time! xoxox"

Bring money. :-)

Berowne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Berowne said...

Mme DeFarge: "You've had such a glamorous life."

"Glamorous" might be a bit too strong. A life of "galloping penuriousness" would be more accurate. :-)

Sandy said...

At the risk of sounding repetitive...fascinating! I am seriously star-struck.

Berowne said...

Thanks, Sandy.

I don't feel dull,
I don't feel hollow.
I found myself
In your "Blogs I Follow."
:-)

ds said...

You. Met. Sylvia. Beach. Wow!! There is much to be said for a life of "galloping penuriousness." Thank you for saying it--and please, do continue.

savannah said...

1=1.36 that's damn good, sugar! ;~D xoxo

Berowne said...

savannah: "1=1.36 that's damn good, sugar!"

Better than it was, anyway. :-)

Berowne said...

Thanx for the kind words, ds.

Derrick said...

I recall reading this the first time around and being fascinated by the glimpse of pre-war Paris. You are fortunate to have had the opportunities to mix with luminaries during your career, despite the penuriousness!

Berowne said...

Derrick: "You are fortunate to have had the opportunities to mix with luminaries during your career, despite the penuriousness!"

Thanks. Yes, I believe I have been fortunate because the career continues -- at least, the penuriousness part. :-)

joanny said...

Berowne

A fascinating story on many levels. I will have to go back and re-read it again. I could spend hours in that bookstore -- What a resource Sylvia Beach was for you and how auspicious you met her at the time when you were about to make the documentary. Remarkable memory she had as well. And a remarkable journey for you-- is your documentary on youtube? As you know you can encrypt so no one can copy it.. Would it be possible to see it? or will you post excerpts from it .. would love to learn more..
Joanny

Berowne said...

Joanny: "Would it be possible to see it? or will you post excerpts from it .. would love to learn more.."

That film, if it exists at all after these few decades, is probably in an archive file of the production company I made it for. Even if it were in good-enough shape, the only way it could be screened -- since it's a 35mm theatrical wide-screen print -- would be to rent a cinema, a movie-house. Thanks for your interest.

Patty said...

I love "old style" pictures, they always seem to have more feeling to them. Sylvia Beach sounds like a absolutely amazing woman!

Berowne said...

Thanks for the comment, Patty.

Cindy said...

This is a very interesting post. I am an avid history buff.

Berowne said...

Cindy: "This is a very interesting post. I am an avid history buff."

A great comment. Thanks, Cindy.

Pat said...

What great fortune to meet her and have the opportunity to talk about my heroes - Hemingway , Fitzgerald, Stein, Toklas, Pablo et al

croneandbearit said...

How utterly romantic - to have been an expat in Paris w/such colorful characters. Unfortunately I did not get to Paris until the mid 80's and while I loved the cafes and the shopping and who doesn't enjoy the Louvre (except that ungodly pyramid monstrosity which destroyed the beauty) I found much of Paris filled with people who no longer enjoyed the company of Americans. Le sigh... darn good coffee though. :)

Cheryl said...

Coming over from WoW and WOW! What a great story.

Berowne said...

My thanks to croneandbearit and Cheryl for your great comments.

 
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