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, 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.
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. She had a deep appreciation of literature and welcomed all manner of writers and artists into her friendly fold. Her 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.
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 a book which apparently Sylvia refused to supply. He told her he would return in the afternoon to confiscate all of her inventory and then shut her store down. Immediately, Sylvia packed everything up and 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. Whitman died in 2011. His only child, Sylvia, so named for Sylvia Beach, became the store’s new owner.
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, by Sylvia Beach (on my to read list)
- Shakespeare and Company, By Sylvia Beach (on my to read list)
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: 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.
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!
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. I’m going to read the 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 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.