Sylvia Beach and Company Essay - Critical Essays

Sylvia Beach and Company


Sylvia Beach and Company

The following entry discusses how Beach owned and operated Shakespeare and Company, an English-language bookshop in Paris during the 1920s and 1930s.

Owner and operator of the only English-language bookshop in Paris, Shakespeare and Company, during the 1920s and 1930s, Sylvia Beach made a significant contribution to the field of literature by providing a venue for the exchange of ideas and writings between French and Anglo-American authors of her time. Beach's bookshop began as a lending library, and featured many American and English authors that had not been available in France prior to her bookstore opening. She operated the business across the street from her friend and fellow-bookshop owner, Adrienne Monnier, who ran a French bookstore during the years that Beach was proprietor of Shakespeare and Company. Beach had personal connections with many English and American expatriate authors living in France at the time, chief among them a friendship with Irish-born writer James Joyce. It was Beach who provided the means for Joyce to publish his masterpiece, Ulysses (1922) at a time when none of the traditional publishers he worked with were willing to issue his work. The decision by Beach to serve as publisher for Joyce's book is now acknowledged as one of the most significant publishing events in modern literature.

Beach was born in the United States, a daughter of a Protestant clergyman. She came to Paris, France, around 1914, and planned to return to the United States and open a bookstore featuring the works of French authors. When lack of financial backing made this venture impossible, Beach decided to stay in France and opened her bookstore in Paris instead. During her years as a student, Beach had met and become friends with Adrienne Monnier, who herself owned a bookstore, named La Maison des Amis des Livres. It was frequented by many major figures in the French literary world, including André Gide, Valéry Larbaud, and Paul Valéry, among others. When Beach was unable to procure sufficient funds for her bookshop in New York City, Monnier encouraged her to open a store in Paris instead, selling authors of English-language works. Beach did just that, modeling her shop on Monnier's and opening across the street from her mentor and friend, in 1919. Part bookstore, and part lending library, the store became a haven for the large number of expatriate American and English authors living in Paris at the time. Writers such as Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ford Madox Ford, Kay Boyle, and many others were among those who frequented Beach's shop regularly. Beach herself edited the work of many authors, publishing literary reviews of their works, helping them publish their works, and generally providing new and experimental authors with a venue for presentation. She also translated several English-language works into French and vice versa.

In time, Shakespeare and Company became an integral part of the expatriate literary life in Paris during the 1920s and 1930s, with many authors even using the store for their mailing address. Inspired by previous expatriates such as Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, many Americans chose to move to Paris, and Shakespeare and Company provided them with a perfect venue to interact with other authors, both French and English. As a business, the bookshop never really made a huge profit, with most of its revenues derived from the subscriptions people paid to use the premises and its contents as a lending library. The most significant literary event in the history of Shakespeare and Company occurred in 1922, when Beach, who had been friends with Joyce for some years and was familiar with the difficulties he was encountering in finding a publisher for his new book, offered to publish it herself. Thus, Beach became a publisher, and Ulysses was published in 1922. It is widely documented that Beach herself made numerous sacrifices in the process of urging Joyce to complete and eventually print his book. Had he not been working with Beach, Joyce would not have been given the allowances he had when working with her. To raise money for the printing, Beach used her own money and found a printer who would publish the work with a promise of future payment. She also wrote letters to her many acquaintances, soliciting subscriptions for the first edition copy of Ulysses, eventually succeeding in issuing the work. The publication of the book jolted both Joyce and Beach into instant fame, although Joyce used another publisher for the second and subsequent printings of his work. Beach continued as proprietor of Shakespeare and Company until the 1940s, but eventually shut it down. Following the start of World War II, many Americans found it hard to support themselves in France, and they moved back home. And while Beach's shop had never made a huge amount of money, these years were especially rough on the business. Ultimately, she was interned by the occupying German army, and by the time she returned in 1944, the war was almost over. She did not open Shakespeare and Company again, but in 1959, she did publish a memoir about her shop and her years in Paris, titled Shakespeare and Company. Beach died in 1962 in her sleep.

Representative Works

Sylvia Beach
Shakespeare and Company (memoir) 1959
Writers of the Left Bank (voice recording) 1962

James Joyce
Ulysses (novel) 1922
Pomes Penyeach (poetry) 1927
Our Exagmination round his Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress [Finnegan's Wake] (novel) 1939
Ulysses in Paris (novel) 1956

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Hugh Ford (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: Ford, Hugh. “From Princeton to Paris: Sylvia Beach.” In Published in Paris: American and British Writers, Printers, and Publishers in Paris, 1920-1939, pp. 3-33. London, England: Garnstone Press, 1975.

[In the following essay, Ford provides a fairly detailed overview of the life of Sylvia Beach, also reflecting on the impact of her bookshop as well as her efforts to help Joyce publish his Ulysses.]


The story of how the proprietor of an obscure little bookstore in Paris became the publisher of what is widely considered to be the most important novel of this century will probably always provoke a few incredulous gasps, if only...

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Morrill Cody and Hugh Ford (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Cody, Morrill, and Hugh Ford. “Sylvia Beach.” In The Women of Montparnasse, pp. 19-32. New York: Cornwall Books, 1984.

[In the following essay, Cody and Ford recount the life and work of Sylvia Beach, focusing on the history of Beach's bookshop in Paris called Shakespeare and Company.]

The most remarkable characteristic of Montparnasse in the twenties was in my opinion, the way French, American, English, and Irish writers were drawn together to talk and to read each other's works. From this penetrating experience they undoubtedly learned more than they would have absorbed from any other comparable source. Largely responsible for this amalgam of ideas were...

(The entire section is 3782 words.)

Criticism: Shakespeare And Company

E. Morrill Cody (essay date 12 April 1924)

SOURCE: Cody, E. Morrill. “Shakespeare and Company—Paris: Successfully Selling English Books on a French Side Street.” Publishers Weekly 12 (12 April 1924): 1261-63.

[In the following essay, Cody outlines the arrangement and operation of Shakespeare and Company, the bookshop owned and operated by Sylvia Beach in Paris.]

Tucked away in a little narrow street leading up to the Odeon in Paris, hangs a sign on which is painted the head of one Shakespeare, poet and dramatist. Behind the sign is a small American bookshop whose influence on the book-loving people of the Latin quarter and on the English and American writers of Paris, is yearly becoming greater.


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Sylvia Beach and Jackson Mathews (interview date winter 1960)

SOURCE: Beach, Sylvia, and Jackson Mathews. “Conversation with Sylvia Beach & Company.” Kenyon Review 22, no. 1 (winter 1960): 137-50.

[In the following interview with Beach, Mathews discusses both her memoir Shakespeare and Company as well as other events and literary personalities that had a connection with Beach's bookshop in Paris.]

Shakespeare and Company is a record of the people and their doings that made Miss Beach's bookshop in Paris the literary headquarters of the twenties. Above all, it is a personal record. When you have read it, you will find a sensitive and moving image of James Joyce in your memory. Adrienne Monnier will be there...

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Janet Flanner (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: Flanner, Janet. “The Great Amateur Publisher.” In Sylvia Beach (1887-1962), pp. 46-51. Paris: Mercvre de France, 1963.

[In the following essay, Flanner examines Beach's contributions as a publisher as well as her own acquaintance with Beach as she worked to publish Ulysses.]

In the evolution of literature the book publisher has undeniably been the second main essential. Yet individually he has rarely been famed as this necessary major element connected with the appearance of a new great book or even much thanked by its readers. He has been literature's common carrier, like a donkey, with the authors and occasionally their weight of genius loaded on his...

(The entire section is 1981 words.)

Noel Fitch (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: Fitch, Noel. “Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare and Company: Port of Call for American Expatriates.” Research Studies 33 (1965): 197-207.

[In the following essay, Fitch describes the importance of Sylvia's bookshop, which spanned 22 years between two world wars, and how it enriched the art and writers of three nations.]

On the Left Bank of the Seine in a bookish neighborhood in the oldest part of Paris, a book lover or a James Joyce admirer of the 1920's and 1930's could find Sylvia Beach's bookshop, Shakespeare and Company. He could either cross the Luxembourg Gardens from Montparnasse or walk the three blocks west from the Sorbonne to the rue de l'Odéon. This...

(The entire section is 4023 words.)

Nancy Barrineau (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Barrineau, Nancy. “Shakespeare and Company.” Pembroke Magazine 34 (2002): 108-14.

[In the following essay, Barrineau recounts a visit to a newly-reopened Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris, founded this time by George Whitman.]

When you enter Shakespeare and Company, the most famous English-language bookstore in Paris, you may see just about anything or anyone. Books spill off the shelves and onto the floor, then from the shop's floor outside onto the front sidewalk. A sleek black cat named Kitty wanders about as if he owns the place. (He is only the latest in a series with the same name, feline replacements for Baskerville, the owner's beloved German Shepherd, who, along with an English tramp named Henry who once stayed here, disappeared suddenly one day.) Photo shoots for movies and advertisements, including one for Christian Dior, are so commonplace that the regular help hardly seem to notice. When I visited in June 2001 with an English class from UNC Pembroke, in fact, camera crews and two actors who could have stepped out of The Great Gatsby blocked the front door, virtually shutting down the store for several hours, but no one blinked an eye. Meanwhile, up in his third-floor study, more microphones were in place to interview George Whitman, the bookshop's celebrity owner, another event the staff regards as commonplace. Documentaries have been produced here at least twice, one for British and another for Swedish t.v.

Regular Monday night readings—they've taken place for decades—may feature famous poets, student writers, or whoever happens to be there for the open-mic events. (Two UNCP students, Karen Dial and James Bass, read with well-published poets and novelists the week we were there.1) Upstairs, the Blue Oyster Tea Room (an appropriately whimsical name for a room both as musty and as full of intrigue and untold stories as any you've ever known) hosts a tea every Sunday afternoon with the same odd assortment of people. The top floor rooms always house young—or not so young—visitors who “flop” here for a week, a month, or half a year (among them Anais Nin, Allen Ginsberg, and Langston Hughes), including the helpers Whitman has employed since the fifties who, in return for a place to stay in Paris, perform duties as varied as cash register attendant, book “cataloguer” (if one can call it that, given the collection's charmed disarray), archive keeper, even website designer.2 Visitors should be prepared to stumble upon a young man sleeping on one of the couches or beds scattered throughout the fourth floor or a woman just out of the shower toweling off wet hair, all the while greeted by the smell of one of George's concoctions being heated on the primitive stove that feeds residents and visitors alike.

The helper in residence this summer, when I visited the bookstore for the second time, was Stephen Pain, son of a British rector, a self-described “quasi-writer” of many genres with four academic degrees and a penchant for travel. At Whitman's request, Pain offered generous amounts of his time and attention to take me on a trip through Shakespeare and Company's extensive archive of press clippings. The scholarly community has by and large ignored the place, at least in journals, but periodicals galore have run articles about Whitman and his bookshop, some more than once. It's an illustrious list that includes the Washington Post, New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Boston Sunday Globe, Wall Street Journal, Guardian, New Republic, Chicago Tribune, AB Bookman's Weekly, Los Angeles Times, Vanity Fair, to name only a handful. The names of Shakespeare and Company's famous visitors are equally legendary. Lawrence Durrell. Gregory Corso. Allen Sillitoe. Allen Ginsberg. Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Anais Nin. Henry Miller. Bernard Malamud. Vladimir Nabokov. George Plimpton. William Saroyan. James Baldwin. Graham Greene. Sartre. Jacques Lacan. Langston Hughes. Two Hemingway daughters and his sister Joan. The list goes on and on, a veritable Who's Who of Literary Visitors in Paris. And then there are, of course, the thousands upon thousands without literary pedigrees who cross the threshold each year, as well as odder characters from time to time, including just recently, I was told, a fugitive hiding out from the Mafia.

Whitman has always been an inveterate storyteller. He has woven tales and built a larger-than-life mythology about himself until it is impossible to know for sure who he really is or exactly what the bookstore can claim for itself. But the salient facts I've been able to glean from the archives and from Stephen Pain, who had been in residence for six months when I met him, seem to be these. The building, located across from Notre Dame at 37 rue de la Bucherie in the academic center of the city, dates back some 400 years (hard even to imagine for an American like me, raised in a country that has yet to live past adolescence in comparison), when it was the lamplighter's house for a Parisian monastery. When Whitman bought it in 1951, the ground floor level housed restaurants and an Algerian grocery store. Over the years the store swallowed up what were originally three different apartments and three stores. How he financed the original purchase or its expansion is less clear. One story has it that he used the $500. proceeds from a bookstore he sold near Boston, another that the money came from a small inheritance.

Whitman earned degrees in journalism from Boston University and Latin American studies from Harvard before the GI Bill landed him at the Sorbonne. That's where he met Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a fellow ex-GI who was there for the same purpose. When Ferlinghetti returned to San Francisco in 1953, he opened City Lights Booksellers, and the two stores have considered each other “sister” stores ever since. (Ferlinghetti was on hand to read his poetry at the 50th anniversary of Shakespeare and Company this past July.) Whitman says he traveled in Greenland and lived for two years with the Eskimos, trekked across Mexico to Panama, lived in China, saw India. True or not, the tales add to the legend. Other “facts” are easier to establish. He married a British woman and produced a child whom he named Sylvia Beach Whitman, a name that once served as Whitman's nom de plume for The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, the pamphlet he wrote about the store.3 Twelve years after her birth, her parents separated and she moved with her mother to Wales but recently made an extended visit to see her father in Paris.

Sylvia's name is a reminder of the heritage her father claimed for his store. In Shakespeare and Company's first decade, one of its famous visitors was Sylvia Beach, an American woman from Princeton, New Jersey, who had made a name for herself as founder of the first Shakespeare & Company, Paris' most famous English-language bookstore of its own day. Beach opened the shop at 8 rue du Dupuytren in November 1921, where it lived for two and a half years, before moving to its more famous location, 12 rue de l'Odeon, where it would stay until December 1941, when veiled threats from an officer of the occupying Nazi regime to seize a copy of James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake (and perhaps the rest of Beach's voluminous stock) caused her to hide her books and close the shop. Beach was, in fact, interred soon after by the Nazis for eighteen months, and after she was released, she did not reopen it.4

Before her death in 1959, Beach visited Whitman's bookshop from time to time, buying books and attending readings by writers like Laurence Durrell and Richard Wright. After she died, Whitman renamed the bookstore (he had opened it as Le Librarie Mistral, in tribute to a woman with whom he had fallen in love) with, he said, Beach's blessing. (I can't say whether he intentionally changed the name a slight bit or whether he was unaware of Beach's orthography.) The story that Beach somehow passed the mantle to Whitman crops up periodically, like the rumor (which he himself has encouraged from time to time) that he is a descendant—direct or otherwise—of Walt, whose huge likeness hangs on a wall outside the store. No corroboration exists for either of the two legends, which I would hazard to say are true, if at all, only figuratively.

In the twenties and thirties, Beach's Shakespeare & Company defined what an English-language bookstore in Paris could be. It harbored and supported American writers, some already famous and some living in Europe on cheap dollars and struggling for recognition that they had not yet managed to achieve at home. The most famous of that second group, Ernest Hemingway, paid tribute to Beach decades later in A Moveable Feast, his famous memoir, where he wrote, “No one that I ever knew was nicer to me” (35). It was especially high praise scattered as it was among scathing indictments of the other American expatriates, including notables like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, who were a bit more established than he and offered him literary advice. Years later, when Hemingway was famous, those offers seem to have been the unforgivable sin. But Beach never fancied herself a writer and so perhaps failed to threaten him.

Beach might have been lost to literary history (which has, at any rate, still not given her the credit she deserves) had she not turned her bookstore into the publishing house for James Joyce's Ulysses and transformed herself into its one-woman publicist, apologist, promoter, and, after the novel was ruled obscene in the U.S., its smuggler. She was, in addition, the constant supporter of Joyce's considerable ego and the supplier of funds he needed for the luxuries forever denied Beach herself as a consequence of the relationship. (When Noel Riley Fitch's Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation told the full story, it earned Joyce the title of “most incredible literary leech of all time” from reviewer Leon Edel.5) But even more important, I think, was her bookstore's function as the gathering place for conversation about books, the sale of English-language books—many of them American, including all the newest titles in modernist fiction and poetry—to both the French and English-speaking expatriates, and their loan to those who, like Hemingway, could ill afford to buy everything they wanted to read. Without Sylvia Beach and her bookstore, many a writer would have failed to thrive in Europe, and modernism would have lacked one of its most crucial stimulants.

But back to George Whitman. Whether or not Sylvia Beach gave him her blessing and her bookstore's name, there is no question that his Shakespeare and Company has also had an illustrious history, for many of the same reasons. In addition to being a gathering place for English speaking expatriates who love books and disseminating the work of new writers like the Beat poets in the 1940s and 1950s, it, like Beach's enterprise, also tried its hand at literary publishing, though the results were less auspicious (and of shorter note) than Ulysses. In the summer of 1989, Whitman published what was intended to be the first issue of Paris Magazine out of the bookstore. In it appeared, among other pieces, a caricature of the Sunday afternoon teas, an interview with Ferlinghetti, an article by Noel Riley Fitch on the literary attractions of Paris, an expose of the situation of contemporary expatriates in Paris, a memento of Henry Miller, a selection of two of the autobiographies that Whitman requires of all the visitors who come to stay at the bookstore, a piece about Gertrude Stein's walks around Paris, and Whitman's own article, “The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart” (later the title of his pamphlet about the store), in which he admits that the shop “sometimes seems a preposterous mixture of Hell's kitchen and Shangrila [sic].” As interesting as this issue was, it never led to any others, probably because of the cost of production, but just this fall the first issue of Kilometer Zero, a similar venture of the bookstore staff (though not of Whitman himself) has appeared.

Sadly, despite Shakespeare and Company's legacy, it is clear that today it is in decline. New books are in short supply because only one or two distributors will fill his orders; the rest have given up on his ability to pay his bills (an irony given the fact that the store is situated on prime Paris real estate). Most of the books spilling out of boxes on the street, in fact, are copies of the paperbacks that Penguin regularly remainders to worthy “causes.” One source even told me that George is reduced to paying cash for stacks of books at another English-language bookstore in order to have something to sell. Repairs and renovations to the store would cost a fortune. And Whitman is 88 (89? 90? reports vary, like every other story here); who will take over the business upon his death is uncertain. Ferlinghetti and Whitman's daughter have been mentioned as literary “heirs,” but no one seems to know for sure. When I asked Stephen Pain about the store's future prospects, he became elusive and vague for the first time during our conversation.

Regardless of its current situation, Shakespeare and Company remains a stimulating place. If it closes, as it seems almost inevitable it will, pilgrims from all over the world who love books and writing will lose an important sanctuary they have relied on for fifty years.


  1. To see pictures of Shakespeare & Company, as well as of UNCP students Karen Dial and James Bass reading their poetry, go to the pages from the site produced by ENG 465/565. Thanks to Karen Dial's efforts, the store's permanent collection now holds a copy of the first issue of Aurochs, the UNCP student literary magazine inaugurated in 2001.

  2. The website for Shakespeare and Company itself can be found at

  3. The first time I met George Whitman, in March of 1999, I asked him who Sylvia Beach Whitman was and he replied that she was once a patron of the store. Since then, inexplicably, he has excised Sylvia's name and replaced it with his own.

  4. The best source for information about Beach is Noel Riley Fitch's Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation and Beach's own memoir, Shakespeare & Company.

  5. The review appears on the paperback edition's back cover.

Works Cited

Beach, Sylvia. Shakespeare & Company. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1959. Rpt. 1991 U of Nebraska P.

Fitch, Noel Riley. Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties & Thirties. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1983.

Hemingway, Ernest. A Moveable Feast. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1964.

Whitman, George. The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart. (Pamphlet) Paris: Shakespeare and Company, 2000.

Criticism: The Business Of Publishing

Shari Benstock (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Benstock, Shari. “Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier: Rue de L'Odéon.” In Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900-1940, pp. 194-229. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986.

[In the following essay, Benstock presents brief overviews of Monnier and Beach's lives, also reviewing the history of their relationship together, both as personal friends and professional colleagues.]


In May 1938, the owner of La Maison des Amis des Livres at 7, rue de l'Odéon, broadcast over Radio-Paris a “Letter to Listeners.” Adrienne Monnier began her spoken letter with a hypothetical objection from the male listening audience: “‘les...

(The entire section is 17254 words.)

Noel Riley Fitch (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Fitch, Noel Riley. “Sylvia Beach: Commerce, Sanctification, and Art on the Left Bank.” In A Living of Words: American Women in Print Culture, edited by Susan Albertine, pp. 189-206. Knoxville, Tenn.: The University of Tennessee Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Fitch outlines the importance of Beach's bookshop, detailing its business operations and reflecting on its significance as a meeting place for American writers in Paris during those years.]

Sylvia Beach fled the Presbyterian parsonage of Princeton, New Jersey, to create a life for herself abroad. After working in journalism, volunteer farming during World War I, and the Red Cross in Serbia, Beach...

(The entire section is 6924 words.)

Criticism: Sylvia Beach And James Joyce

Sally Dennison (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Dennison, Sally. “James Joyce: From the Bookshop.” In [Alternative] Literary Publishing: Five Modern Histories, pp. 78-115. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1984.

[In the following excerpt, Dennison characterizes Beach's undertaking with Joyce as one of the most famous cases of alternative publishing, in which Beach's unusual allowances and relationship with Joyce allowed him the freedom to be even more experimental than he could have been had he worked with a traditional publisher.]

The most famous case of this form of alternative publishing in modern times involves one of the most influential English-language novels of our century, James Joyce's...

(The entire section is 6684 words.)

Noel Riley Fitch (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Fitch, Noel Riley. “The First Ulysses.” In James Joyce: The Augmented Ninth, edited by Bernard Benstock, pp. 349-61. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1988.

[In the following essay, Fitch traces the events that led up to Beach sponsoring and managing the publication of James Joyce's Ulysses under the auspices of Shakespeare and Company.]

The letter is dated 1 April 1921—its letterhead reads Shakespeare and Company, rue Dupuytren—the tone is the cultivated one of a breathless, youthful daughter to her “Dearest Little Mother,” first benefactor of the bookshop and lending library called Shakespeare and Company:


(The entire section is 5062 words.)

Edward L. Bishop (essay date summer 1998)

SOURCE: Bishop, Edward L. “The ‘Garbled History’ of the First-edition Ulysses.Joyce Studies Annual 9 (summer 1998): 3-36.

[In the following excerpt, Bishop explores the conflicting accounts of the events leading up to the decision by Beach to publish Joyce's Ulysses, using Beach's own memoir about Shakespeare and Company as one of the sources of information in helping trace the editorial and creative process for the book.]

Joyce was fond of garbled history: and so am I.

—Sylvia Beach

In the spring of 1921 a shattered James Joyce slumped in a chair in Sylvia Beach's...

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Further Reading


Banta, Melissa and Oscar A. Silverman, eds. James Joyce's Letters to Sylvia Beach: 1921-1940 Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987, 221 p.

Collection of annotated correspondence between Beach and Joyce, including an introductory essay for each decade.

Beach, Sylvia. “Shakespeare and Co., Paris.” Listener 62, no. 1579 (2 July 1959): 27-8.

Beach recalls how she published Joyce's Ulysses.

———. “Interned.” Mercure de France 349 (August-September 1963): 136-43.

Beach talks about her internment with the Germans in Paris during World War...

(The entire section is 249 words.)