Photo by Simon Nofolk for The Telegraph
Today’s New York Times carried the obituary for George Whitman, who died yesterday, Dec. 14, in Paris in his apartment above his bookstore “Shakespeare and Company” at the age of 98. There was even a small photo of him on the Times’ front page saying “Heir to a Paris Legacy—George Whitman, owner and operator of the postwar Shakespeare & Company bookstore and a beacon, mentor and provider to generations of young writers. Page B 17.”
I was immediately transported back to 1969, when, as a single “career girl” in my 20’s, I took two years off, quit my magazine job in New York and traveled, visiting friends from Vienna to Paris to Morocco to Rome and then settled into an editing job in London.
Like every writer of my generation (including Woody Allen) I harbored fantasies of being part of the Paris writers of the twenties, hanging out with the Fitzgeralds and the Hemingways. I knew all about Sylvia Beach and her famous bookstore Shakespeare and Company, and I had heard it was now owned by a New England eccentric who was continuing Sylvia’s legacy and would offer food, board and books to anyone who wandered in off the street.
I was eager to write an article about him, but the first day I walked into the store, he refused to be interviewed. When he finally did grudgingly agree to answer some questions, he mixed fantasy with fact, because he liked enhancing his legend. He told me he was the “illegitimate grandson of Walt Whitman”, but the twinkle in his eye hinted that we both knew how unlikely it was that the poet left any progeny.
Looking today on Google for photos of George and his famous bookstore on the Left Bank’s Rue de la Bucherie, facing Notre Dame, I discovered that dozens, maybe hundred of writers of my generation visited Shakespeare and Company and had experiences similar to mine and are now reminiscing on their blogs about the man who devoted nearly a century to carrying on Sylvia Beach’s store and her encouragement of writers. (It's not the same physical store, but Sylvia late in life gave George the right to use the name.)
My article on George Whitman was eventually published in the April 1970 issue of the late, lamented Holiday Magazine. As I wrote in the lead, “Between the two world wars, a minister’s brown-eyed daughter named Sylvia Beach owned a famous bookstore called Shakespeare and Company on Paris’ Left Bank. She provided encouragement criticism and occasional handouts to struggling American writers …She published Joyce’s revolutionary Ulysses when no one in New York or London was willing to take the risk…Ernest Hemingway, in "A Moveable Feast", wrote about her: ‘She had pretty legs and she was kind, cheerful and interested and loved to make jokes and gossip. No one that I ever knew was nicer to me.’”
In the 1970 piece I chronicled the troubles Whitman had been having with the French Government, which had closed down the second floor of the store because he was using it as a free hostel for young people who wanted to crash there. I quoted the sign in the window on the day I first entered the store: “To Those Who Cherish Freedom, Practice Equality and Seek Justice –WELCOME. We wish our guests to enter with the feeling they have inherited a book-lined apartment on the Seine which is all the more delightful because they share it with others.”
In the article I compared Whitman to “a modern Don Quixote. He is the image of the knight of the woeful countenance—tall and painfully thin, with watery blue eyes in a doleful, hollow-cheeked face, unkempt red hair streaked with gray and a gray Van Dyke beard that juts out at the world like a defiant Brillo pad.” (And that was 42 years ago, people, when I was very young and he was already an old man. Twelve years after I visited him the first time, George Whitman produced his only heir, a lovely blonde woman named Sylvia Beach Whitman, who has taken over the running of the store.)
I found this photo of Whitman, posing with his daughter Sylvia and Bill Clinton on a blog with the unlikely name of Palavrasqueoventoleva
In “The Paris Magazine”, Whitman’s attempt at a “poor man’s Paris Review” he wrote, “Why do people always come in and ask me is this your bookstore? I consider it as much yours as mine ...Go ahead and kick off your shoes and lie in a bed and read…”
Here’s how I described my first meeting with him: I was peering into the window when a bleary-eyed, bearded figure unlocked the door and, squinting at the sun, asked me what time it was. “Noon,” I replied. “Come in and I’ll make us some coffee,” he said.
Soon I was drinking coffee at a table outside the door of the shop, gazing at what must be one of the most lovely views in Paris, while my host opened his mail. I felt I should explain myself, but when I began he snapped, “No interrogations at this time of the morning,” and went back to his mail.
Some customers wandered in and he motioned me aside “I have some good news for you, dear. I’m going to let you run the store while I take a shower.” He handed me the cash box, warned me not to sell any books that didn’t have the price written on them and nailed up a “Black Power-White Power” poster on an outside wall. Then he scrabbled around the messy desk looking for his soap, towel and a candle. “To cut my hair.” He lit the candle, ignited his hair, then beat out the flames with his hands, muttering,” Better than a haircut.” Finally he donned a red-plaid sports jacket, leaped onto his bicycle and rode out the door to the public showers, leaving me with 25,000 second-hand books and the odor of burned hair.
He never asked me my name and I never got a chance to ask his.
During the next seven hours, Whitman returned two times—just long enough to unload piles of books from the baskets of his bicycle. To my protests that I had to go, he’d mumble, “Lots of important errands to do, lots of people to see. Haven’t paid the tax on my bicycle.” And off he’d ride, red coat flapping behind him. Meanwhile I sold about $150 worth of books in five languages and refused to sell what were worth about $100 more because they weren’t marked. The most popular books that day were Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire, L’Anarchisme and anything by Ezra Pound.
By the time the sun was going down, I had been joined by two mini-skirted English girls who had run out of money, a starving French boy who wanted to sell his art books, a young American couple who couldn’t find the friends they were supposed to stay with, a fiery Frenchman with a broken leg who wanted to talk to Whitman about publishing his poetry, and Gerard, a soft-spoken American who had been on the road for seven years and was currently sweeping up the store in exchange for food. Whitman himself popped in for a minute to say he was going to make potato salad—we must all stay for dinner—and he was just going to the grocery store. Much later, when he hadn’t returned, we raided the refrigerator, ate bread, sausages, cheese and yogurt on the table outside and watched shadows cover Notre Dame while the good bourgeoisie of the neighborhood looked at us with curiosity. I handed the cash box to Gerard and set out on my Métro trip back to the Right Bank.”
Eventually, of course, I came back and eventually I got the chance to interview George. One thing he said that I quoted in the article: “My favorite customers are seventeen-year-old girls. I can’t think of anything more wonderful than being seventeen and in Paris. If a girl comes in on her seventeenth birthday, she can pick out any book she wants, free.”
That interview took place in 1969 when I was 28 years old, not seventeen. When I turned 60 in 2001, I returned to Paris with my two daughters (both of them over 17 by then) and dropped by Shakespeare and Company to find it being tended by a young British schoolteacher. She assured us that George was in fine health, reigning over his small kingdom as usual. He just wasn’t in at the moment.
Now George is gone, but I suspect his ghost will still be sitting in the shadows of his dusty, overcrowded store which, according to the Times he called, paraphrasing Yeats, “my little Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart.”
George Whitman lived a remarkable life. I’m just sorry I never got a chance to thank him for one of my favorite Paris experiences.