Sylvia Beach Revisited, At Last

Thirty-or-so years ago my husband and I discovered a quaint hotel on the Oregon coast. We were so charmed that we agreed it would become a side trip on our annual pilgrimage to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Well, you know the old truism: “We plan; God laughs.” Turned out, our lives took us in another direction. 

It wasn’t until last month, fifteen years after my husband’s death, that I finally made that return visit to the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport. If you’re a lover of books and their writers, you may have heard of it. The hotel, located on a high bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, is named not for the sands below (Nye Beach) but for a bookstore owner. Sylvia Beach was an American expatriate who in Paris in 1919 opened her shop called “Shakespeare and Company.” Notable writers of the era, from Hemingway to James Joyce, hung out there.

The vintage hotel, named the New Cliff House when it was built in 1912, was renamed in the 1980s along with a literary themed renovation. Each of the twenty-one guest rooms is dedicated to a different author and decorated to complement the authors, their era, and their work. The Shakespeare room has an Elizabethan look, with canopied bed and a throne-like chair, while J.K. Rowling’s space has a more wizardly flair, right down to the stuffed owls. 

The hotel is not for everyone. “When you walk up our garden path to the front door, the old building will give you a big hug or spit you out, depending on what really matters to you,” writes co-owner Goody Cable on the hotel’s web page. No TVs, no internet, no elevators, no pool or spa, no phones. Cell phones (allowable in the privacy of one’s room) are banned from the best room in the house — a spacious top-floor library affording an ocean view that stretches north to the historic Yaquina Head lighthouse and endlessly west until water dissolves into sky. Guests are welcome to curl up in the library’s capacious easy chairs day or night. Last one to bed is asked to turn out the lights.

“Unplug, unwind, and sleep with your favorite author,” the website suggestively invites. That last was, um, problematic for my stay in the Oscar Wilde room — not to make light of Wilde’s unjust fate. One of London’s most celebrated playwrights, Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labor in 1885 for “gross indecency.” He had a male lover. The cruel imprisonment destroyed Wilde’s health and his life. He died sick and impoverished at age forty-six.

The Oscar Wilde room: wallpaper you could live with. Or not.

Aware of that tragedy, I was a tad uncomfortable reserving the room. Still, the comfortably small room is ideal for a single person, has a large private deck, and is on the lower end of room rates. At the time of his death, Wilde was holed up in a dingy Paris hotel and supposedly said, “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has got to go.” The wallpaper in his namesake room strives to live up to that legacy. The guest journal in the room suggests some visitors appreciate the garish paper, others not so much.

I intended to spend my time in quiet retreat, reading, writing, sinking into the hushed luxury of the library. There was ample opportunity for that. And more. Meals in the “Table of Contents” dining room are served family style. The food is excellent, the conversations engaging. You sit down for dinner with strangers, and leave (some two-and-a-half hours later) as friends. 

I had breakfast the first morning with a highway engineer whose wife was sleeping in. It gave me a chance to complain about various freeway ramps and he ruefully acknowledged, “We have a saying: everyone with a driver’s license is a highway engineer.” There were opportunities to commiserate — one table mate was determinedly moving forward after the death of her husband from Covid — and celebrate — our entire table hurrah’d a cheerful single woman enjoying her eightieth birthday. 

There was synchronicity. I was befriended by a pair of identical twin sisters, Lutheran PKs (preacher’s kids), as am I. (A Lutheran PK, not a twin; Sylvia Beach herself was a Presbyterian PK.) I played Trivial Pursuit with a couple of former reporters as we shared stories about the now gone glory days of newspapering. It’s a hotel that — if you choose — folds you into a community, something you’re not likely to experience at a Hilton.

When I made my reservation several months ago, I was thinking it would probably be my sayonara visit to Oregon’s coast. It’s a gorgeous drive but a thousand-plus-mile round trip without public transit options. Sylvia Beach reinvigorated me. I hope to return. 

And, oh, please keep that just between you and me, dear reader. I’ve given God more than enough to laugh about.

NOTE: Sylvia Beach (1887-1962) was obviously unaware that a hotel would be named for her. She was well worthy of the honor as you can see for yourself if you watch this interview, made shortly before her death.

Memento Mori

When the committee that organized my high school reunion announced that the sixtieth would be our last, it was like having an ice bucket challenge of mortality dumped on my head. 

They didn’t say why there’d be no more reunions. They didn’t have to. We needed only to observe the “memorial” posters — thumbnail photos of our fellow graduates who’d passed their final, final exam. There were more faces on the posters than living souls in the banquet room. Fewer than twenty percent of our class were still alive and adequately interested and/or able to attend. We survivors among the Class of ’62 should not feel too bad. Born just ahead of the Baby Boom, we “war babies” have already outlived the age expectancy for our generation.

The reunion was in September, a month that ushers in autumn. Poets love to use autumn as a metaphor for old age, preceding winter and death. Hymn writer Susan Palo Cherwien began cheerfully enough with “O blessed spring,” followed by a stanza about “summer heat of youthful years,” then getting to “When autumn cools and youth is cold …” and ultimately, “As winter comes, as winter must, we breathe our last, return to dust …”

The last summer roses and Christmas decoration at the cemetery

I’m writing this on November 2, “All Souls Day,” also known as “Day of the Dead.” This is the time of year when many traditions, dating at least back to ancient Celts, focus on death and those who’ve departed. The Celtic tradition of Samhain became All Hallow’s Eve after Pope Gregory III declared November 1 as All Saints Day in the eighth century. Our death-denying culture has commercialized it as Halloween, a time of macabre costumes and candy treats. Even that is quickly overcome by Christmas hysteria. A stubborn traditionalist, I visited the cemetery on this All Souls Day. As I lay the last roses of summer on my husband’s headstone, I noted a large candy cane with flying reindeer decorating a grave nearby.

As for my own demise, my attitude varies from Woody Allen’s oft-quoted philosophy: “I’m not afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” I have a healthy fear of death. I just want it to catch me unaware, suddenly. I’d like to avoid a lingering illness, disability or —dear God, please — senility. And wouldn’t we all?

Even when we outlive actuarial tables, it can be challenging to celebrate these “bonus” years if our bodies taunt, even torture us. Some folks thrive. Others endure loss after loss: mobility, independence, dignity. 

If autumn represents old age advancing toward death, then let my autumn be like today. This autumn day the leaves on my front yard maples turned a shimmering gold so exuberant you could almost hear them shouting an alleluia chorus. 

This day the prolific cherry tomato vine gave up its final, generous bounty before tonight’s killing frost. 

This day sunshine reflected on the river as it quietly flowed beneath a necklace of brilliant, shimmering diamonds. 

This day I received two pieces of news: the unexpected death of one friend and the full remission of cancer for another. 

May all my autumn years be as generous as this day. May I embrace the paradox of autumn, its extravagant celebration of life as a last hurrah and gateway to the mysterious inevitable.