My grandmother in Paris: Shakespeare and Company

I was recently contacted by Joshua Kotin, Associate Professor of English at Princeton University, who runs a fascinating resource: the Shakespeare and Company Project. Any of you who know Paris today probably know the current bookshop of that name, just across the river from Notre Dame. But today’s bookshop is its second incarnation; the first Shakespeare and Company, run by Sylvia Beach from 1919 to 1941, was a hub for expatriate Americans (and to a lesser extent Brits and Irish) between the wars, and most famously published Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922 when nobody else would do so.

Shakespeare and Company was also a lending library, and Joshua Kotin and his team have been putting together as much as they can about the community who borrowed the books. There are some big names there: Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Aimé Césaire, Simone de Beauvoir; there are some less well known names too, and one of them is Dorothy Hibbard, my grandmother, who lived in Paris from late 1918 until she married my grandfather in 1927 in Malaya (now Malaysia). She joined Shakespeare and Company for a month in August 1923, and renewed for a year in September 1923, September 1924, and October 1925. The address given in 1925 is 278 Boulevard Raspail, where she lived in a studio apartment from June 1924.

Frustratingly we don’t have the record of what she actually borrowed. Her own memoirs don’t name any books that she was reading, though she certainly read a lot (and her step-brother was the writer and critic Van Wyck Brooks). There is one tantalising note from late 1923, a couple of months after she joined the library, when her boyfriend of the time came to visit with his younger sister; she notes “We had some difficulty in finding a book in my library which was suitable reading for a well-brought-up French girl of sixteen!” I wonder what exactly she had borrowed from Sylvia Beach?!

The boyfriend, Loïc Petit de La Villéon, was a French naval officer whose first wife had died earlier that year, and I think his romance with my grandmother must have been a bit of a rebound for him, and as far as I can tell was her first semi-serious relationship (she was 24). He later married again and had several daughters. There is a marine scientist of the same name alive today, but it must be a great-nephew as he had no sons by either marriage.

The studio apartment at 278 Boulevard Raspail has a rather glorious history of its own. Ten years before my grandmother lived there, it was the base for Guillaume Apollinaire’s literary journal Les Soirées de Paris from 1912 to 1914, and hosted a concert by the musician and surrealist painter Alberto Savinio in May 1914. And ten years after my grandmother’s departure, it was the home of Dutch artist Piet Mondriaan from 1936 to 1938. It still exists as a mix of offices and apartments. It’s close to the Catacombs which are among my favourite Paris attractions.