By Owen Clark –
For years, I have been interested in learning more about Sarah Pressly Watson, a Ridge Spring native who spent thirty-nine years, from 1920 to 1959, as director of a dormitory for foreign women attending the Sorbonne, a part of the University of Paris. Recently I ordered a book, Americans in Paris: Life and Death under Nazi Occupation, by Charles Glass (New York: Penguin Press, 2010). I was pleased to find that the book has interesting information about Sarah. She appears several times as a friend of Sylvia Beach, an American woman who founded the English-language bookstore Shakespeare and Company in Paris. In this article I will give the information I now have about Sarah.
Sarah Watson was born in 1885, the youngest of nine children of Robert Briggs Watson, called Colonel R. B., and his wife Lucy McIver of the Pee Dee section of South Carolina. The house where Sarah grew up at 410 East Main Street in Ridge Spring is now operated as an events location by the owners, Joetta and George Belk. Sarah graduated from Hollins College in Roanoke, Virginia, and received a master’s degree in history from Columbia University in New York City. She taught at Coker College and Greenvillle Woman’s College and then went to Paris at the end of World War I to work for the Red Cross. At that time, the American philanthropist Gertrude Whitney Hoff built a dormitory for foreign women attending the Sorbonne. She offered Sarah the directorship for life, and Sarah kept the job until she died in 1959.
In this book, Charles Glass refers to a description of Sarah in 1942 by Drue Tartiere, an American actress. She described Sarah as short and round, with the pink skin of a baby, snow-white hair, and a kindly smile. Drue said that Sarah’s soft South Carolina accent added to her charm, and that she had a lively wit and a keen intelligence. These descriptions would also fit Watson women I knew in the later twentieth century.
After American women had suffered various indignities from the Nazis, who occupied Paris in the spring of 1943, Sarah hid Sylvia Beach at the dormitory. Sylvia had her meals in the cafeteria with the students and was pleased that no one betrayed her to the Germans.
Sylvia Beach was a friend of the American novelist Ernest Hemingway and the Irish novelist James Joyce when they lived in Paris. Although she had no experience as a publisher, she published Joyce’s best-known novel, Ulysses, in 1922. She died in 1962. In 1964, George Whitman, an American bookseller in Paris, renamed his bookstore Shakespeare and Company after Sylvia Beach’s shop. The newer bookstore is still in business.
During the German occupation, Sarah Watson faced the daily challenge of getting enough food for the women in her dormitory and occasional refugees such as Sylvia Beach. Arrested once by the Nazis, Sarah imperiously ordered her captors to carry her luggage. They complied.
The Germans occupied Paris for fifty months, from June 1940 until they left in disgrace in August 1944. After the War, Sarah received an award from the French Legion of Honor for her work with the Resistance.
During her time in Paris, Sarah paid one visit to her family in Ridge Spring, accompanied by her trusted assistant, Madame Marcelle Fournier. At mid-century, Sarah had a visit in Paris from her three nieces-in-law – Hattie Watson, now living in Aiken; the late Carolyn Watson; and the late Edna Watson.
Sarah’s funeral took place in the American Cathedral in Paris, and her ashes were shipped home and buried inside the stone wall at Ridge Spring Cemetery. The state historical marker placed at the cemetery in 2009 mentions her. The French epitaph on her gravestone means “I achieved a monument more lasting than marble.” Her work was indeed her monument. It was quite an achievement for a Ridge Spring girl.