Sylvia Beach died on this day in 1962. Her memoir Shakespeare and Company (1956) contains a series of charming anecdotes about life at her Parisian bookstore, hardly a day going by there without one famous modernist or another showing up to browse or chat. “My Best Customer” turns out to be the young sports reporter Ernest Hemingway — “best” because Beach and her partner, Adrienne Monnier, found him personable and engaging, and because he actually bought books instead of just thumbing them. Their friendship was no highbrow, salon affair, Hemingway at one point becoming Beach and Monnier’s guide and tutor for a range of sporting events. “Our studies began with boxing,” writes Beach:
Hemingway led us to the ring, a tiny one that you had to go through a sort of backyard to reach, and we found seats on narrow benches without backs. The fights and our instruction began. When, in the preliminary matches, the boys swung their arms around and bled so profusely that we were afraid they were going to bleed to death, Hemingway reassured us….
[The] last fight led to another — in which the spectators participated. Opinion was divided on the referee’s decision; everybody got up on the benches and jumped down on each other — a real Western. What with the socking, the kicking, the yelling, and the surging back and forth, I was afraid we would be “Hemmed” in, and that Hadley would be injured in the melee. Calls for “Le flic! Le flic!” [the cop] were heard, but evidently not by the cop whose attendance at all French places of amusement, whether it’s the Comédie-Française or a boxing ring in Ménilmontant, is obligatory. We heard Hemingway’s voice above the din exclaiming with disapproval: “Et naturellement le flic est dans la pissotière!”
A few paragraphs later, Beach tells of Hemingway reading to them from the stories which became In Our Time (his first major-press book, published eighty-five years ago yesterday). They recognized his talent immediately, and declared him a future contender: “Maybe we didn’t know much about boxing, but when it came to writing — that was another thing. Imagine our joy over this first bout of Ernest Hemingway’s!”
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.