Category Archives: History

75th Anniversary of The Freedom Fighters of WWII. What does it mean for us today? And why does it still matter?

75,000,000 people. You read that right! 75,000,000 is the estimated number of people in total who lost their lives in WWII.

Russia lost the mother load. Literally, 15% of her population perished in that war, an estimated 8-10 million soldiers along with an estimated 20 million civilians. Mostly at the hands of the Germans and the Russians. That’s right. They also killed their own, and even more so after June 1941 when Hitler pulled out of the ghoulish and evil nonaggression pact which he and Josef Stalin had made together two years prior. A pact to wage war, violently and unmercifully, against the rest of the free world in exchange for splitting up the spoils of European lands at the end.

“To prevent his soldiers deserting the front line around the capital, Stalin ordered special ‘blocking detachments’ to shoot all deserters. The Soviet leadership also instructed Soviet partisans operating in the countryside to kill anyone whom they believed was disloyal. This resulted in an effective carte blanche for partisans to abuse their power and extract whatever they wanted from helpless villagers.” BBC: Hitler’s Invasion of Russian in WWII

But Hitler did what what he perceived was the most strategic move in the war up to this date. And in a surprise attack, his highly skilled, crackerjack war machine invaded the western Soviet Union along a 2,900-kilometer (1,800 mi) stretch of the Eastern Front with Moscow in their sites.

Suddenly in very short order, Russia was our ally. (Eyebrows raised) Literally, one day she was the enemy and the next day an ally.

Think about that for a minute.

Your two biggest adversaries back in grammar school were maliciously opposing you, stealing your lunch money every day, calling you names, and threatening your very life, and then, one of them turns the tables on the other. The snubbed bully suddenly sees the advantage in changing sides, and wants to team up with you. You would be a little wary right? He’s still the enemy, but now he is an enemy-ally of sort. It wouldn’t exactly give you a warm fuzzy.

And that is exactly how it was when Russia suddenly joined up with the Allies. Russia wasn’t really anymore trustworthy on Monday morning than she had been on Sunday. (Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa began in earnest Sunday June 22, 1941.) Nevertheless, there would not be an additional front for Great Britain and her Allies to be fought in the East. Thankfully, Hitler sealed that deal for all of us.

But I digress.

Here’s a little timeline: (Hint: There were two theaters of war in WWII: European and the Pacific)


The German war machine revs back up. After their humiliating defeat in WWI which ended in 1918, Germany had been devastated economically and socially by that war. Sanctions were tough and arguably harsh. Unemployment was widespread. Families were starving, literally for both food and solid leadership. Reconstruction from the ravishes of the first world war lagged behind the rest of the continent.

So….Germans were a soft target for the likes of Adolf Hitler and his fiery speeches to take back all that he perceived was rightfully his. He and his gang of ghouls wreaked havoc for 10 years leading up to the declaration of war by England. This included book burnings, taking over the media, censorship, persecution of Jews, and the destruction of Jewish businesses, violating basic human rights of all people groups, and terrorizing their own citizens-particularly the Jews, Jewish sympathizers, and anyone at all who opposed this new regime, even in speech. Effectively, personal rights in Germany had been suspended. The Führer was a Socialist Dictator, and not to be crossed.

December, 1937

The Japanese Imperial Army invades Nanking (Nanjing) China. The conquest of China is intended to provide resources and labor for the Japanese war machine. Michinomiya Hirohito crowned Emperor of Japan in 1926, after his father’s death, was believed by the Japanese people to be a divine deity.

December 1937- January 1938

What became known as the Rape of Nanking ensued for hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers, and civilians. Relentlessly and with extreme brutality, the Japanese Imperial Army raped their women, and performed mass executions of soldiers and civilians. Surrounding villages were looted and burned. China was effectively overthrown before WWII even started. (Sort of like Czechoslovakia and Poland. Read on.)

March, 1938

A pantywaist agreement called the Munich Agreement was signed by Nazi leader Adolph Hitler, Italy’s Fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, and two pantywaist politicians, British and French prime ministers Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier. It was both a travesty of justice and judgment. It allowed for the annexation of the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia in exchange for a pledge of peace from Hitler(Liar). Seriously folks, Czechoslovakia, was not even a party to the Munich negotiations.

September of 1939:

  • Germany violated said pantywaist agreement by invading Poland. What was that agreement with Hitler: “Give me the Czechs and I’ll stop there….?”
  • USA proclaims its neutrality.
  • UK, France, Australia, New Zealand, Austria, and Canada all declare war on Germany.
  • Now Russia invades Poland (Remember they’re on Hitler’s team at this point). Poland is surrounded on every side by Germans and Russians.
  • Nazis and Italy sign a pact.
  • Poland capitulates.


  • April- May 1940, Nazis invade Denmark, Norway, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Holland.
  • April – May, 1940, The Katyn Massacre: A series of mass executions of nearly 22,000 Polish military officers is carried out by Soviet Union, specifically the NKVD (“People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs”, the Soviet secret police).
  • May 10, Winston Churchill replaces Chamberlain as Prime Minister of England, and so the fight against the Nazi regime finally begins in earnest.
    • Churchill: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” 
  • May 15, Holland capitulates to Nazis
  • May 26-June 3, Dunkirk evacuations. The most successful retreat in battle in the history of the world.
  • May 28, Belgium capitulates to Nazis
  • June 10, Norway capitulates to Nazis.
  • June 14, Nazis Occupy Paris
  • June 22, France capitulates to Nazis, and signs an armistice with France in the French countryside of Compiègne. This took place in the same railroad car in which Germany surrendered to French General Ferdinand Foch, at the close of WWI in 1918. Hitler’s bitterness over that war’s outcome was somewhat vindicated in that train car. He ordered the train car destroyed right after the signing. The train car on site today is a replica.
    • American Journalist William Shirer was present for this event: “I am but fifty yards from him. (Hitler) I have seen that face many times at the great moments of his life. But today! It is afire with scorn, anger, hate, revenge, triumph.”
  • The Vichy government of France, headed up by collaborators Marshal Pétain and Pierre Laval, is installed by the Nazis as a puppeteer French government.
  • June 28, Britain recognizes General Charles de Gaulle as the Free French leader. Ever heard of this little network of fighters called La Résistance? The French people were ostensibly divided into two primary groups. “Collabos” and “Non collabos,” or The French Resistance as the latter quickly came to be known.
  • American Doctor Sumner Jackson, his wife Toquette, and young son, Phillip become intricately involved in French Resistance activities. They were eventually arrested by the Gestapo. Sumner died in captivity in April, 1945. His son survived captivity, and his wife survived Ravensbrück concentration camp. Read “Avenue of Spies,” Alex Kershaw.
  • July 10, Battle of Britain begins. The USA was still in “neutrality” mode. Consequently, there were 9 American pilots, a few of them crop dusters, who are known to have smuggled themselves overseas to fight in this battle. One of these men was Pilot Officer William ‘Billy’ Fiske, a Cambridge graduate and a member of the US Winter Olympic bobsleigh teams of 1928 and 1932. Fiske did not survive the battle. A memorial was unveiled to Fiske at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London in 1941 with the words: An American citizen who died that England might live.” Recommended reading: The Few, Alex Kershaw.
    • Churchill in a speech exuding appreciation to the Royal Air Force: Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

September 1940-1941

  • September, 1940, the Triple (Axis) Pact is signed by Germany, Italy and Japan. 
  • September 1940–May 1941, The Nazi Blitz, nighttime bombing raids against London and other British cities ensued which killed an estimated 43,000 British civilians and wounded over 130,000. Recommended reading, “The Splendid and the Vile,” Erik Larson.
  • For two years London sustained heavy casualties both civilian and military, on her British Island and on French soil where the battle against the Germans raged on, as the Americans continued to hem and haw about getting involved. Meanwhile, actions, like Franklin Roosevelt’s Land Lease Act, kept Churchill connected to the great hope that the USA would enter the fight for freedom with he and his comrades, literally before it is too late.
  • Romania and Hungary join the Axis.
  • April 1941, Greece and Yugoslavia capitulate to the Nazis.
  • June 22, 1941, Hitler reneges on his pact with Josef Stalin, and Germany invades Russia.
  • June 25, 1941, USA Executive order prohibits racial discrimination in the national defense industry.
  • December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor. Japan executes a successful, surprise attack on our Pacific fleet, killing 2,403 U.S. personnel, including 68 civilians, and destroyed or damaged 19 U.S. Navy ships, including 8 battleships. Isoroku Yamamoto, who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor would reportedly write in his diary, I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” Thank God he was right!
  • December 8, 1941, America and England declare war on Japan.
  • December 11, 1941, Hitler declares war on the USA, what a foregone conclusion.
  • December 12, 1941, Hitler takes complete control of the German Army. This was significant, because up until now, the Wehrmacht Army operated largely independently of Hitler’s German Gestapo. Now those old Prussian Generals who paid mind to things like the Geneva Convention or just in general, had a moral compass, are completely stripped of power by the Führer. INDEED, the plans of Hitler’s assassination and the multiple attempts on his life, were birthed inside the Wehrmacht. Dietrich Bonhoeffer a famed German Lutheran pastor and bible scholar, and leader of the Confessing Church of pastors, along with his older brother, and two of his brothers-in-law (married to his sisters), and several other high ranking Wehrmacht officials were executed late in the war by Heinrich Himmler on Hitler’s orders. Lest you think every German supported Hitler. Read my review on Eric Metaxas’ book about Dietrich Bonhoeffer here. The Confessing Church was necessarily borne out of the Lutheran church’s selling out and becoming the official church of the Third Reich. The Catholic church was mostly silent throughout the war.
  • December 31, 1941 The War in the Pacific had only just begun. By year’s end, the Japanese Army, largely unchecked, had savagely invaded and occupied Thailand, Malaya, Burma, Indonesia, and the Chinese cities of Shanghai and Hong Kong.


  • January 20, Wannsee Conference takes place with top German officials putting together “The Final Solution,” an insidious plan to exterminate the Jewish people. Reinhard Heydrich is one of the masterminds.
  • February, an executive order in the USA begins the relocation of more than 100,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry to internment camps in California. While America is in the fight of her life for liberty and freedom, ironically, many Japanese Americans are losing theirs.
  • May, the first thousand-bomber British air raid (against Köln). Köln is a lovely city a mere 45 minutes by car or train from where my family and I lived in Germany in 2008-2012.
  • April – May 1942, Japan occupies the Philippines.
  • April 9, 1942 , “Bataan Death March” – one of the most notorious crimes committed against Americans and Filipinos during the war in the Pacific theater was a 66 mile march across the peninsula. The sick, starving, and brutalized captives who didn’t die on the march, were herded into prison camps, one for Filipino soldiers and another for Americans, across the road from each other at a former Philippine army training ground called Camp O’Donnell. Here, from April to October 1942, thousands of men died of sickness and starvation.
  • May 1942, Creation of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.
  • September 1942, Japanese floatplanes drop incendiary bombings in the forests of Oregon hoping to spark forest fires. Only minor injuries are reported, but it is the first time USA soil has been breached by the enemy. UNLESS you count the 5,000 seamen and passengers who died in American merchant and military fuel tankers and cargo ships along the Eastern Seaboard of the USA, and in the Gulf of Mexico, at the hands of Nazi U-boats.


  • January, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team is formed, composed of primarily Japanese Americans. This unit would become the most decorated unit in U.S. history.
  • August 5, The Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) was established. Women proved themselves as tough-as-nails combatants and non-combatants, not only in organizations like WASP, but also back home in the factories doing 1000 different jobs, all necessary to support the war. Jobs left empty by the hundreds of thousands of men who were called to combat. Think Rosie the Riveter.
  • November 27, The Cairo Conference. The Allies, represented by Churchill, Rosevelt, and China’s current general in command, Chiang Kai-shek, demand unconditional surrender from Japan and her immediate disembarkation of the Pacific Islands, Korea, and China.
  • The brutal battle for the Pacific continues.
  • November 18, The Battle of Berlin begins and will continue until March, 1944.
  • Allied forces land in Sicily (not the least of which was at the hands of my old unit, the 45th Infantry Division from Oklahoma) and gain control of the Mediterranean. The precursor to the invasion of Italy would take 38 days to secure. In short order, Italy switches sides. (Eyebrows raised) Recommended reading, “The Liberator,” Alex Kershaw.


One D-Day story: (There are a million) The soldiers of the 116th Infantry were the first to hit Omaha beach at 0630, coming under heavy fire from German fortifications. Company A, from the Virginia National Guard in Bedford was annihilated by overwhelming fire as it landed on the 116th’s westernmost section of the beach, along with half of Company C of the 2nd Ranger Battalion, which was landing to the west of the 116th. The catastrophic losses suffered by a small Virginia community led to it being selected for the site of a National Memorial.

One Pacific Theatre Story (There are a million) The Battle of Okinawa.

“Okinawa was to witness the biggest single land-air-sea battle of all time, a brutal campaign which would see savagery and brutality that surpassed anything that had come before in the Pacific War. At sea, naval casualties were higher than at any point in the war, with Japan unleashing almost its entire kamikaze effort against the joint American and British task force around the islands. On land, the scale of killing was even worse. Okinawa was to witness a blood bath of barbaric savagery, in which more than a quarter of a million people were killed. Okinawa was to be the last, and one of the costliest battles of the Second World War.”

When 91 year old Virgil “Bub” Simmons and 92 year old Ozzie Aasland were interviewed by Stars and Stripes magazine in April, 2015 they recalled in vivid detail the danger and the brutality of that 82-day battle. Some highlights of their experiences:

Simmons and his crew were ordered to destroy caves throughout the region, battle positions for Japanese combatants. “I was ordered to go up and blow this cave. So I went up there and all I saw was children and women. And I refused to blow the cave. It was huge. I just couldn’t do it.”

Battle Worn Flag of the USS Crescent City during the Pacific Battle of Guadalcanal

Ozzie remembers the island defenders allowing the 6th Marine Division to land with little resistance. They wanted the Marines concentrated in one area so they could decimate them. “It kind of backfired on them. The bullets were tracking along like a sewing machine.You only had a few seconds to know what was coming and analyze if it was going to hit you. You’re thinking, Is this my time?’ Ozzie would remain there for an unbelievable, 103 days, firing 105mm Howitzer rounds.

An American serviceman shares his rations with two Japanese children in Okinawa, Japan, 1945. (Photo by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Were the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki necessary?

On August 6, 1945, a US bomber dropped the uranium bomb above the city of Hiroshima killing around 140,000 people. Three days later on August 9, 1945, the US dropped the second atomic bomb ever deployed in conflict, hitting the Japanese industrial city of Nagasaki. and killing about 74,000 people.

Two weeks later Japan surrendered, ending World War Two.

After the Japanese defeat at Okinawa, many people thought for sure this would be the end. Japan would finally declare an end to this bleak and ferocious war which they initiated in Nanking in 1937. But they persisted in their misguided belief that their leader Emperor Hirohito was a God, and would render them victors at last. They forced the hand of the Allies to begin orchestrating the invasion of Tokyo.

You can do your own research. I can assure you that you will find eloquent arguments made today, 75 years later both in defense of the atomic bombing, and still others in favor of a land invasion of Tokyo. Here are a few thoughts:

  • The truth is, there was mortal fear that Tokyo would be the bloodiest sea battle and land invasion to date, perhaps 5 times the carnage of the Normandy invasion in France. The numbers of Japanese civilians and Allied soldiers to meet their death was estimated to be incalculable.
  • Everyone was dang exhausted and battle weary. Americans were tired of receiving the ominous Western Union Telegram announcing yet another dead son, husband, or father. In World War II the average age of the combat soldier was 26 years old. The pressing and overwhelming conviction for most Americans was, “We didn’t start this war, but we are going to finish it.”
  • By the end of the Battle of Okinawa, there were approximately 140,000 Allied military personnel (from Australia, Canada, Great Britain, India, Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United States) in Japanese POW camps. These camps were notorious for their brute savagery, starvation, forced labor and beatings. The Allies were ready to bring their boys home. As many of them as could be saved, should be saved. That was paramount in their thoughts.
  • And finally.… the Potsdam Conference of the Allies, July 17 to August 2, 1945, total surrender was demanded of Japan. The ultimatum stated unequivocally, that if Japan did not surrender, it would face “prompt and utter destruction.”

Let’s face it. 75 years later, it is just too easy to be an armchair quarterback from the relative comfort of my 21 century ivory tower. But, the truth is, thankfully, most of us will never know the horrors of that war on such a personal level as those who lived it.

Total U.S. casualties in the war against Japan were 150,000+ dead or missing and another 253,000+  wounded.

Total U.S. casualties in the European theater were 200,000+ dead or missing and another 600,000+ wounded.

May 7-8, 1945

The unconditional surrender of the German Third Reich was signed at 2:41 am Monday, May 7, 1945 at Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) at Reims in northeastern France. The surrender ordered “all forces under German command to cease active operations at 2301 hours Central European time, on 8 May.” This set the official date for VE Day as May 8th. 

Prime Minister Winston Churchill outside 10 Downing Street, gesturing his famous ‘V for Victory’ hand signal, London, June 1943. (Photo by H F Davis/Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

August 15-September 2, 1945

On August 15 Emperor Hirohito went on national radio for the first time to announce the Japanese surrender. On Sunday, September 2, more than 250 Allied warships lay at anchor in Tokyo Bay. The flags of the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union, and China fluttered above the deck of the Missouri. Just after 9 a.m. Tokyo time, Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu signed on behalf of the Japanese government. General Yoshijiro Umezu then signed for the Japanese armed forces. This set the official date for VJ Day as September 2nd.

Crowds gathering in Times Square to celebrate the news of Japan’s surrender on V-J (Victory in Japan) Day, New York City. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

WWII embodied virtually every part of the world during the years 1939–45. There were 41 countries in combat. That’s 41 different nations of people. In American alone, there were 7 different ethnic groups of citizens who fought for democracy. All of these citizens were equally subject to the draft. All were given the same rate of pay. When they were released from military service in 1945-46, all were eligible for the G.I. bill and other veterans’ benefits on a basis of equality. Did America do everything right in the war? Not by a long shot. We interned Japanese Americans. African Americans were segregated in the war. They were also vastly underestimated in their skill and contributions. The civil rights movement was partly borne out of those African Americans who served and gave their all in that conflict. They knew personally and with intricate detail, the cost of freedom. Many veterans, having learned multiple organizational skills, and having become more alert to the nationwide situation of their group, became active in civil rights activities after the war. They brought much to that fight for equality and liberty.

Sadly, WWII did not solve our problems of inequality in this country. But it was foundational in the fight. It was and will always be a cornerstone of our freedom. Or else, they died for nothing.

Worldwide Deaths in WWII by Country, WWII Museum, New Orleans, LA.

God help us, in the year 2020, as social unrest heightens and everyone has their claws out, that we would not pause to consider those millions of freedom fighters who 75 years ago made the ultimate sacrifice in order that we might, today, be able to live a life that exudes both joy and gratitude. Honestly, our ability to fully do that is largely contingent upon how well we know our own history. That fight 75 years ago should impact our choices today. It should make us pause. It should inspire us. Essayist and poet Jorge Santayana made famous these words: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Let this not be said of us.

Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote, “Freedom has its life in the hearts, the actions, the spirit of men and so it must be daily earned and refreshed — else like a flower cut from its life-giving roots, it will wither and die.”

Ernest Hemingway’s Life In Paris

So as y’all know by now, clearly, Paris is one of my favorite European cities. Here’s the thing. It is a beautiful city with a lot of wonderful historic sites and adventures to be conquered. But even better is the history of this city. And even better than that, is how much American history is intricately entangled with French history, particularly in the capital of France.

Paris has had a hand in American artists of every genre honing their crafts for centuries. In fact, Paris was once a haven for practicing young doctors, painters, writers and sculptors in the 19th and 20th centuries. Think impressionist painter Mary Cassatt, or physician Oliver Wendell Holmes, or dancer and entertainer Josephine Baker or writer James Fennimore Cooper, or painter turned telegraph inventor Samuel F. Morse. This list goes on and on for miles! (Recommended Read: Americans In Paris: The Greater Journey, by David McCullough) Writers were no exception to this rule. Paris was a hot bed of creativity and ambition in those years. And once it was part of your DNA, then it became, as Ernest Hemingway put it, A Moveable Feast.

So in the same spirit as my recent post on Van Gogh’s Life in France, now I wold love to present to you Hemingway’s Life in Paris. Whenever I get the chance to combine my passion for literature with my passion for travel, it is a beautiful thing. Indeed, if you are a voracious fan of books, then you will be equally fascinated by 20th century Paris, between the two great wars, when notorious young men and women were evolving into the literary giants we know them as today. These included the likes of Ernest Walsh, Wyndham Lewis, T.S. Elliott, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Janet Flanner, Mina Loy, Evan Shipman, Ralph Cheever Downing, Scott Fitzgerald, Donald Stewart, Don Passoss, and of course Ernest Hemingway, just to name a few! This article is only going to highlight one of those writers: Ernest Hemingway. But no account of Hemingway’s time in Paris can be told without telling the story of book store owner and publisher Sylvia Beach. Today’s tale begins there.

Sylvia Beach

Any discussion about American Expat writers in Paris in the early 20th century cannot be told in truth without including the influence of Sylvia Beach. Her contribution to that era was epic. In 1919, Sylvia opened a small book shop at 8 rue Dupuytren called Shakespeare and Company.

Sylvia was the daughter of a Presbyterian preacher. She was born in Baltimore. The family moved to Paris around 1902 when her dad became pastor of an American church there. They lived in Paris for about 4 years and returned to the states to Princeton NJ where he took over pastoring another church. But Sylvia’s heart was drawn back to Paris the last years of the first world war, to study contemporary literature. She became a permanent resident of Paris and seemed to find her calling in life.

Sylvia’s inventory of books finally outgrew the shop at Dupuytren and in May, 1921, she moved to 12 rue de l’Odéon. Her close friend and mentor Adrienne Monnier, owned a French book store at number 7 rue de l’Odéon. Both women had a deep appreciation of literature and welcomed all manner of writers and artists into their friendly fold. Sylvia’s shop served multiple purposes for sometimes starving artists, both French and American writers. It was for them a home away from home. Indeed, it was sometimes used by them for a postal address as well as a loan service. Beach would often loan them money just to tie them over. Book clubs and book discussions flourished in this place under the due diligence of Sylvia’s leadership and passion. Moreover, Sylvia published Ulysses by James Joyce when no other English speaking country would do so.

Today 12 rue de l’Odéon is a clothing boutique.
The plaque above 12 rue de l’Odéon says: “In 1922 in this house, Sylvia Beach published Ulysses by James Joyce.”

Whether we realize it or not, Sylvia is one of those people in our history for whom we are all indebted. She ushered in a new era of literature, the ripple effect of which we are all still seeing. The benefits of which we are all still reaping. She propped up and supported those writers and artists, so much so that their craft thrived, even in the most tumultuous of times. Her life’s work is something that links all of us to the past, the present and the future. Her life work? Books.

We should all be so courageous and eager to protect the right to write.

French author André Chamson said Beach “did more to link England, the United States, Ireland, and France than four great ambassadors combined.”

What an endorsement.

In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway wrote of Beach: “Sylvia had a lively, sharply sculptured face, brown eyes that were as alive as a small animal’s and as gay as a young girl’s . . . She was kind, cheerful and interested, and loved to make jokes and gossip. No one that I ever knew was nicer to me.”

In August of 1940, Paris was occupied by the Germans. It was the beginning of four devastating years of oppression and near hopelessness. In 1941 a Nazi officer entered Sylvia’s shop on Rue de l’Odéon and demanded a copy of Finnegans Wake, which apparently Sylvia refused to supply. When he left, Sylvia removed the book from its prominent place in the window. The Nazi officer returned to her store sometime later and made the same request. Again Sylvia refused. He told her he would return in the afternoon to confiscate all of her inventory and then shut her store down. Immediately in a mere two hours, Sylvia packed everything up, more than two decades worth of passion and work, all of it; she stole it away to a vacant upstairs apartment. Sadly at that very moment, she forever shuttered the doors of one of the most epic book shop and publishing companies ever to exist.

Sylvia was arrested sometime after that and held at the Garden d’Acclimation at the Bois de Boulogne before being sent to an internment camp in Vittel France. She was transported there in September, 1942 and released in March, 1943. But tragically her bookstore never reopened. In 1951 American George Whitman opened a bookstore named Le Mistral. But in 1964, he renamed it Shakespeare and Company in honor of Beach. Today it is located at 37 Rue de la Bûcherie on the Left Bank of Paris just across from Notre Dame and on the edge of the Latin Quarter. The color scheme and facade of the store looks the same as Sylvia’s rue de l’odéon store back in the 1920’s. Whitman died in 2011. His only child, Sylvia, so named for Sylvia Beach, became the store’s new owner.

Don’t miss a stop at this enrapturing bookstore when you’re in Paris. Make sure you have a couple of hours when you do..

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway was born in Cicero (now Oak Park) Illinois, a suburb of Chicago in 1899. He was a journalist by trade and in WWI served as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross. He married Hadley Richardson, his first wife, on September 3, 1921. Two months later, Hemingway was hired as foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star, and the couple left for Paris.  When trying to piece together a profile of Ernest Hemingway that shows his truest character, I have found for me, the best way to do so has been to read a combination of books and articles. For instance, there are several books that are all set during the same window of time in Paris. (1921-1925) These include (but are certainly not limited to):

  • A Moveable Feast, a memoir by Hemingway about his life in Paris in the 1920’s, was published in 1964 posthumously 3 years after his death by his 4th wife Mary Hemingway.
  • The Sun Also Rises, his first novel published in 1926. (He published a book of stories in 1925 entitled: In our Time). Additionally, he was married to his first wife Hadley Richardson for the duration of the time he wrote and published this book. Soon after it was published, he began an affair with his second wife, and Hadley asked for a divorce.
  • The Paris Wife by Paula McClain. I know! Why include a fictional book on this list? Well, McClain’s book is set from 1920-1926 when The Sun was published. After reading A Moveable Feast, she wanted to write a book through the lenses of Hadley, Ernest’s first wife. Based on what we know about their humble beginnings and the end of their marriage, I think she does a great job depicting the way the marriage spiraled due to Ernest’s volatile relationships and his inability to see Hadley on equal ground with him, socially and professionally, once he published The Sun and became famous. The intimate facts of the relationship are embellished as McClain attempts to express Hadley’s emotions on the pages of that book. But the circumstances of their life together are depicted very factually. One can only assume the rest.
  • Everyone body Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises by Lesley M. M. Blume.
  • The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald published in 1925 just barely ahead of The Sun.
  • Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, by Therese Anne Fowler. Again like The Paris Wife, historically accurate, embellished conversations.
  • Ernest Hemingway, A Biography by Mary D. Dearborn (on my to read list)
  • The Letters of Sylvia Beach, Columbia Press
  • Shakespeare and Company, By Sylvia Beach- talk about getting it straight from the horse’s mouth. I love love love this book!
  • Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties, by Noël Riley Fitch;

What these books tell us about Ernest Hemingway and his fellow expatriates in Paris:

“The Moveable Feast” is written by Hemingway set in the Paris years with Hadley and his side kick Fitzgerald. In that book, he depicts both his wife and Zelda through the lenses of his own narcissism. Hemingway’s end to his life was suicide. Fitzgerald’s was heart attack brought on by a lifetime of alcohol abuse. The two of them were the worst of friends. Their relationships was characterized by unhealthy professional competition and excessive drinking to a point that was staggering by all accounts.

“The Paris Wife” is about Hemingway and his first wife Hadley’s relationship in the Paris years. It is Hadley’s story.
What you will also find if you read accordingly and do your own research, is that his wife Hadley stuck with him, supporting him both emotionally and financially while he worked toward publishing this novel. She was a solid rock in his life. Literally, he could not have done it without her help. But he cheated on her perpetually and this finally drove them to divorce, forcing her hand, when he and his lover Pauline Pfeiffer aggressively pursued each other. Furthermore, Hemingway, thinking that Hadley was not good enough for his new found stardom, left her and his son and married Pauline. Pfeiffer was from a wealthy family and herself a popular writer for Vogue. Indeed when Hadley confronted him about the affair, he was angry at her for not leaving it alone, as if his menage à trois arrangement should not have bothered her at all.

Z: A novel of Zelda Fitzgerald: This book reveals a sad portrayal of the toxic relationship of two human beings, Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald. That’s an important element of Hemingway’s time in Paris. This was after all, his “go to” couple. Together, Scott and Zelda were an unstoppable train for disaster. Two brilliant minds completely narcissistic and undisciplined, brilliant but not a brilliance nurtured with character. You will feel sorry for Zelda, beginning with her growing up when she was taught by her parents that her worth is only in the domestic sense. She is to marry a local boy who has a fulfilling job himself but she is only to support him in every way. That is her wifely duty. Ironically her dad hated Scott Fitzgerald and for good reason. But he really never raised her with other options. And she was just obstinate enough and a free spirit to follow this loser for the rest of her life. They had one daughter together who lived most of her young life with a nanny. Both Scott and Zelda’s life ended tragically. Scott died an alcohol abuse related death. He literally killed himself drinking. Zelda died in a fire in the Psych ward of a hospital in her home state where she would go often for lengths of time to convalesce after Scott’s death.

Everyone Behaves Badly and The Sun Also Rises: Like the other books listed here, Everybody Behaves Badly, chronicles the life of Ernest and Hadley Hemingway in the early 1920s in Paris along with this larger group of other artist expats who also lived there. But Everyone Behaves Badly tells the true story of The Sun. To me, The Sun, was a boring book about a bunch of people who were bent on self destruction. But I can assure you at the time of its publication, this book was one of the first books ever to depict desperation and debauchery as entertainment. It and others like it, such as Fitzgerald’s the Great Gatsby, blazed the trail for edgy, sexy and scandalous. This book blew away the puritanical style of literature that had dominated up until then.

The main characters in The Sun were actually based on true life characters, “friends” of Hemingway’s whose lives he very nearly destroyed, and arguably did just that with at least two of them. Their reputations were set in stone forevermore since Hemingway had written about their lives in gross detail in the book, changing only their names. This plagued them for the rest of their lives.

Hemingway was a ruthless, brutally competitive writer. He may have single handedly destroyed Robert Sherwood’s career even though Sherwood was the one who made the critical introductions for Hemingway to all of the Paris elite upon his arrival there. As it was he could have never paid Sherwood back for how he championed the beginning of his career. But rather than be thankful, he wrote a parody about Sherwood, going straight for the jugular. That was the beginning of the end for Sherwood. And there were others who mentored him when he was a nobody, like Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound. With a lot of fan-fair, and in the public eye, Hemingway cut his ties with them after The Sun was released.

The Letters of Sylvia Beach Like her autobiography, Shakespeare and Company, Sylvia’s letters are written in her own hand. But unlike her autobiography, these letters are personal and were intended for the recipient. So they are raw and transparent, much more so than her autobiography. Her autobiography is good, but her letters fill in more holes. I wish there had been more letters pertaining to her mother’s death which was by suicide. But alas, as this topic was difficult for any of the Beaches to talk about at the time, it was clearly just as difficult to write about it. Sylvia’s letters offer personal insight into her tumultuous relationship with James Joyce that you simply will not get in her autobiography. Because being the consummate, gentle spirited, and generous woman, and publisher and business woman that she was, and unlike her contemporary Hemingway, she was clearly not one to throw anyone of those she admired and loved under the bus publicly, even if they may have deserved it.

Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties; Noël Riley Fitch does a fabulous job of introducing his readers to one of the most fascinating American women in American and French history. And that is certainly no small task. Again, like Beach’s letters, Fitch discloses rich details from his own research about Sylvia that Sylvia never willingly disclosed herself. And this teaches us so much about who she was and what she was made of. Fitch is relentless in the truth about the characters who hung out at both Sylvia’s bookshop and her partner’s, Adrienne Monnier’s, bookshop , La Maison des Amis les Livres, directly across the street at 7 rue de l’Odéon. Fitch does a great service to literature and writers from this era forward, as he uses his own talent to tell us the untold story about incredible individuals like Beach and Hemingway as they honed their craft in a foreign land, but yet forged a difficult and arduous path for all of us to meander along today!

Hemingway’s Haunts

74 Rue du Cardinal Lemoine, Paris France, Ernest and Hadley’s first apartment January 1922- August 1923, is now a travel agency. Their only son was born here.

Here is a passage from Bernice Kert’s book, The Hemingway Women, about Ernest and Hadley’s start in Paris at this humble address:

“Ernest wanted to spend their little store of money for travel and recreation, not fancy digs.  Hadley was as enthusiastic as he was about exploring other parts of Europe. Finally Lewis directed them to a fourth-floor walk up at 74 rue du Cardinal Lemoine, in an archaic, working-class district of the Fifth Arrondissement, far from the good cafes and restaurants. Hadley agreed with Ernest that they should take it. Paris was still wet when they moved in on January 9, 1922 . . . “

From Bernice Kert’s book, The Hemingway Women:

At the top of the street in the old cobblestone square known as Place de la Contrescarpe were the bistros, some of them smelly and awful. Bundles of rags blocked the doorways, then the rags moved, reveling themselves as wine-soaked men and women. The green autobus careened around the corner. Flower vendors dyed their flowers, the purple dye running into the gutters. On the market street. . . housewives shouted and shoved and fought for cheap goods. Tired beggars bleated for alms… Hadley never developed a love affair with Place de la Contrescarpe to the degree that Ernest did. But she learned to move about it with ease, no longer frightened by the squalor. . . Ernest’s vitality was contagious.”

La Rotunde and Cafe Le Dôme. Hangouts for this group of scoundrels included these two notorious bar cafes in Montparnasse directly across the street from one another. They were perpetual rivalries then and perhaps even now. Hemingway, and other American and English writers at that time donned La Rotunde, “The Bastard.” Legend has it the two cafes were such rivals, that when someone in the bathroom of the Dôme was found attempting suicide, the Dôme employee forthwith told him to go to the Rotunde and do it there!

La Closerie Des Lilas at 171 Boulevard du Montparnasse, was a common working spot for Hemingway. I am sitting in “Hemingway’s seat” which has been memorialized with a small plaque bearing his name.
La Closerie Des Lilas

Hemingway may have been a brilliant writer of his time and is truly a literary king today, but he was in truth always wrestling with personal demons. He and his expatriate “friends” were held totally captive to the all consuming tyranny of ruthless competition and extreme alcohol abuse. They literally were drunk the majority of their waking hours. And if they weren’t drunk, they were cheating on one another. 

He referenced in the book, The Sun Also Rises, that he is part of the “Lost Generation.” He was speaking about himself and others like him, men and women post WWI who were lost spiritually and emotionally, shiftless with little direction. Clearly this would not have represented all of that generation, but in Hemingway’s circle, that is really all that he saw. He looked at life through the skewed lenses of the “crowd” he ran with while in Paris. And in the end, that was problematic for him.

Gertrude Stein actually coined the phrase “The Lost Generation,” and she never intended it to be complimentary. However, once Hemingway included it in his book, then everyone in that generation saw him as their hero.

Interestingly, this term the “Lost Generation” is responsible for begetting future references to the different generations, i.e baby boomers, generation X, Millennials and so forth. It is likely that the “Lost Generation” that Hemingway loved to exploit in his writing were all suffering from PTSD after such a bloody and horrific war as WWI. And PTSD clearly wasn’t officially recognized then. But Hemingway, I feel, did less to help and heal that generation, than he did perpetuating their trauma, given his own inability to navigate the detrimental path he was walking down himself. 

So why was this man so bent on destroying those around him and seemed hell bent on self destruction? Well, he was a severely depressed person. Sadly he killed himself in 1961. He had cheated on Hadley with his 2nd wife Pauline. He cheated on Pauline with his 3rd wife Martha. Martha cheated on him, and he then married his 4th wife Mary. He was married to Mary when he died. A little more research revealed that he his dad, one brother and one sister and one granddaughter have all committed suicide. The tragedy of mental illness is that it rears its ugly head over and over again.

Hemingway would go on to write a number of master works in the years following those first 5 tumultuous ones in Paris. During WWII, he somewhat reverted to his original trade of journalism and traveled with the allies writing pieces , more or less for Colliers magazine with whom he had a very rocky relationship. He was off shore in a naval ship at the time of the Normandy invasion of June 6, 1944. A few months later, it seems only natural he was in his beloved Paris France on August 21, 1944 with American and French soldiers the day it was liberated. He symbolically liberated the Ritz where German command and French collaborators had been partying it up for 4 years.

I wish Hemingway could have overcame the demons that lived inside him. I would say the same for the majority of these characters in this article, Paris expats of the early 20th century, including Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. So much genius gone as quickly as it appeared, lost in the blackness and downward spiral of dysfunction, alcoholism, and hopelessness. 

However, on another more happy note, today we get to enjoy the great rewards of such genius. I plan to reread A Farewell to Arms and For Whom The Bell Tolls. Like me, you can read the personal letters of Sylvia Beach and find out what was in her heart after her shop was forced to shutter in 1941. We also get to travel to Paris; and in between climbing to the top of the Arc de Triomph, strolling the Seine at night, and fine dining in lovely bistros, we can revisit all of these haunting places where Sylvia, Hemingway, Hadley, and their woebegone but intriguing contemporaries lived, worked and loved. We can travel our way through that Paris portal and find a walloping wonderful archive of hangouts that are beckoning us to come and feast, just as they did.

Click below for another helpful link to plan your visit to this iconic city.