Sylvia Beach Biography

Sylvia Beach (March 14, 1887 – October 5, 1962), born Nancy Woodbridge Beach, was an American-born bookseller and publisher who lived most of her life in Paris, where she was one of the leading expatriate figures between World War I and II.

Beach was born in her father's parsonage in Baltimore, Maryland, United States, on March 14, 1887, the second of three daughters of Sylvester Beach and Eleanor Thomazine Orbison. Although named Nancy after her grandmother Orbison, she later decided to change her name to Sylvia. Her maternal grandparents were missionaries to India, and her father, a Presbyterian minister, was descended from several generations of clergymen. When the girls were young the family lived in Baltimore and in Bridgeton, New Jersey. Then in 1901, the family moved to France upon Sylvester Beach's appointment as assistant minister of the American Church in Paris and director of the American student center.

Beach spent the years 1902-1905 in Paris, returning to New Jersey in 1906 when her father became minister of the First Presbyterian Church of Princeton. Beach made several return trips to Europe, lived for two years in Spain, and worked for the Balkan Commission of the Red Cross. During the last years of the Great War, she was drawn back to Paris to study contemporary French literature.

While conducting some research at the Bibliothèque Nationale, Beach found the name of Adrienne Monnier’s bookshop in a French literary journal and decided to seek out the little store on the rue de l'Odéon. There she was warmly welcomed by the owner who, to her surprise, was a plump fair-haired young woman wearing a garment that looked like a cross between a peasant’s dress and a nun’s habit, “with a long full skirt … and a sort of tight-fitting velvet waistcoat over a white silk blouse. She was in gray and white like her bookshop.” Although Beach was dressed in a Spanish cloak and hat, Monnier knew immediately that she was American. At that first meeting Monnier declared, "I like Americans very much." Beach replied that she liked France very much. They later became lovers and lived together for 36 years until Monnier’s suicide in 1955.