Sunday, March 9, 2014

Berowne's 210

(Also for Three Word Wednesday and ABC Wednesday: "I" is for "icon")

March 14 is the birthday of Sylvia Beach.  My recent report on Gertrude Stein went over fairly well so I thought I’d smugly skip the quiz this week so I could celebrate Sylvia’s 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 icon 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.”

Cafe Le Select, Paris

Cafes then were, and to a degree still are, central to Paris life.  Cafe managers indulgently allowed writers to write in them, painters to paint 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.  She had known them all.

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.

But things went from bad to worse for Sylvia because of the depression of the thirties. She managed to stay open because André Gide organized a group of devout 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 to liberate Sylvia and her bookstore.

21 comments:

kaykuala said...

A wonderful tribute and to think you had rubbed shoulders with her. That is great Berowne! Thanks for sharing this personal information of historical importance!

Hank

R. Burnett Baker said...

Great story! Now I know what I want to see, aside from the obvious, when I go to Paris next year...

humbird said...

Such a fun to read about people standed up on the intersections of history and supported spreading the world culture among masses. Enjoyed very much!

Helen said...

I will be in Paris this August ... A must see for me! Thank you so much for sharing this with all of us.

Other Mary said...

What a wonderful post. You know I always feel terribly boring after reading one of your posts.

Irish Gumbo said...

Wonderful slice of life. I dig it.

Roger Owen Green said...

Well, I noticed that Billy Shakes was born about 550 years ago (his baptism was in April), so good timing with a good story.

Doctor FTSE said...

Wonderfully informative and interesting, Mr.B.

Sharp Little Pencil said...

What a life you have lived, my dear! Fabulous locales, wonderful people (not all famous). I didn't know much about Sylvia until now. Glad she hid her books from the Nazis and I can almost picture Hemingway riding in on horseback to save the day, like a Rough Rider! Thanks for opening our eyes to an amazing woman... and furthering our knowledge of you, an amazing man in your own right. Where's your autobiography, man? Peace, Amy

SK Waller said...

Wonderful! Have you seen a documentary called, "Paris Was a Woman"? Well worth the viewing.

Kutamun said...

"Seeds planted have not retired , rather they have sprouted as pretty things, to be admired " - Kutamun

Karen S. said...

What a delight to have known her! A most interesting tribute, and inviting photos. Thank you, so much.

Leslie: said...

Amazing story - and lucky you to have been part of the history of all this. She surely was a brave woman to have kept those books hidden during the Nazi occupation!

leslie
abcw team

Hildred said...

Wonderful post and reminiscence, Berowne. You must look back on this time fondly, and with a great deal of satisfaction.

Nonnie USA said...

Wonderful tribute to a courageous lady! I bet there are more untold tales out there waiting for someone like you to discover them. I especially love the bookstore photo.

Joy said...

Although Shakespeare and Co is legendary I don't remember seeing a photo of Sylvia Beach before and her steady gaze. How marvellous to have her share some memories with you all with the bonus of a Parisian cafe.

Shailaja V said...

What a lovely tale! That looks like a bookstore I would have loved visiting :)

uberrhund said...

What a wonderful encounter, glad you were able to meet with her and learn all this history you just shared with us! Thanks!

Altonian said...

Delightful recapitulation of an interesting person and her times.
Yours were pretty interesting too!

Sheilagh Lee said...

A lovely tribute to her and a very interesting story

Tess Kincaid said...

Very much enjoyed, Mr. B...

 
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