There is never a dearth of inspiration in the characters that populated the coruscating world of the elites in 1920’s Paris, a period that has never ceased to excite me for the bumper crop of artistic and iconic individuals it generated. Right in the middle of all these sits Adrienne Monnier, like a transport hub, not exactly a destination but a shimmering intersection.
Her bookshop “La Maison des Amis du Livre”, a modest and virtuous enterprise opened in 1915, did not take long to acquire a reputation for intellectual notability. In spite of her genuine and unadulterated passion for the written word, she approached the business of selling books as a marketing wizard. Readings, conferences and a lending book system were the fundamentals of her operations. The word “promotion”, far from its sharp business undertones, was unpretentiously practiced from her commanding post.
In comes another strong personality, an American girl, twenty years her junior, another book lover. Her name was Sylvia Beach and after a mentoring exchange, idyll ensued. Adrienne’s physical presence was on the antipodes of her personality. On seeing her ambling down the rue de l‘Odéon with her long skirts and capes, hair pulled back, one would justifiably take her for a country milkmaid on a delivery round. She was wholesome and earthy at the opposite of the athletic allure of Sylvia who, with an aquiline nose and sharp features, epitomized American cool. The enterprising spirit of Sylvia, and no doubt, the inspiration of Adrienne, catapulted the young neophyte to open Shakespeare and Co., an icon of Anglo Saxon culture in Paris, catering to the growing number of artistic expatriates. And so we have both women shining on their own merits in a still closed masculine circle: Sylvia published James Joyce for the first time as no publisher in the English-speaking world was interested in such “incomprehensible” book. In the meantime, Adrienne struggled with the translation of some of the poems of T.S. Eliot.
When a new protégé came into their lives during the 30s, Sylvia was undergoing financial difficulties with her bookstore. Gisèle Freund was a young Jewish exile from Germany, with a budding reputation as a photographer. The friendship of these three women turned into a more exclusively love affair between the new arrival and Adrienne. Upon her return from a trip to America, Sylvia, realizing the new barrier, moved out of Adrienne’s apartment. However, her loyalty and friendship remained intact.
In 1955 Adrienne, suffering from hallucinations and disorders of the inner ear, committed suicide. Gisèle became famous for her portraits of writers and artists and Sylvia remained in reduced circumstances in the city that made her a legend until her death in 1962. The fabric of passion and intellectual pursuits embodied by these women and so characteristic of the local zeitgeist vanished for ever with them.