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Sylvia Beach ( 1887 - 1962 )  Category ( women_in_history ) [suggest a correction]

Though she is not as well known today and even during her lifetime was most influential behind the scenes, Sylvia Beach was one of the leading expatriate figures in Paris in the years following World War II. Most significantly, she served as mentor and supporter to some of the more legendary authors and artists of the "Lost Generation." Born in Baltimore, Maryland to a family including generations of clergymen and missionaries, the family moved to France in 1901 when Beach's father was appointed assistant minister of the American Church in Paris. Though the family returned three years later, the teenage Beach was determined to return to Europe, which she did, living for two years in Spain and the Balkan area.

During the last years of World War I, Beach returned to Paris to study French literature. While there she became lifelong friends with a bookshop owner, Adrienne Monnier. Beach became a frequent visitor to the bookstore and lending library and attended readings by a number of prominent authors. Inspired by the literary life of the Left Bank and intrigued with the process of creative writing, Beach wanted to open a branch of Adrienne's bookshop in New York. This plan proved to be cost prohibitive, and so she opened an English language bookstore and lending library in Paris, named Shakespeare and Company. The bookstore was an immediate hit with both French and American readers, including a number of aspiring writers to whom Beach offered hospitality (including her famous potato soup) and encouragement. Post-war Paris was a Mecca for Americans, as it offered the splendor of Europe with a very favorable exchange rate. Poor American writers could stretch their francs much farther than in the United States.

Shakespeare and Company became so popular that Beach needed to expand, and the store moved to a new, larger location in 1921. The store gained fame after it published James Joyce's Ulysses in 1922, since Joyce was unable to publish in English speaking countries. Her support and efforts to assist Joyce nearly bankrupt. Hard times continued throughout the Great Depression of the 1930s, but Shakespeare and Company was kept afloat by Beach's circle of wealthy friends. Her store was shut down during World War II, but Beach kept her books hidden in a vacant apartment. The store was symbolically liberated by Ernest Hemingway in person in 1944, but it never re-opened.

In 1956, Beach wrote a memoir entitled, Shakespeare and Company, which detailed the cultural life of Paris during the inter-war years. In the memoir, Beach relates first hand experiences with and observations of a number of literary greats, including James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Thornton Wilder, Gertrude Stein, and many others. During the 1950s Beach granted permission to George Whitman to reopen the bookstore Shakespeare and Company at a different location. Beach remained in Paris until her death in 1962, and was buried in Princeton Cemetery.

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