Saturday, April 22, 2017

Remembering George Whitman--We'll always have Paris

Photo by Simon Nofolk for The Telegraph

(I'm re-posting this from 6 years ago, because I just learned that my friend, award-winning author Nicholas Basbanes, and his wife Connie, are off to Paris, and I wanted to tell them of my experiences visiting "Shakespeare and Company" and George Whitman, who owned the store until his death in 2011.  It's now owned by his daughter. This post is one of my favorites, recalling the years when I was traveling as a single girl, not yet a crone.  I recommend that anyone who visits Paris visits the store on the Left Bank, with one of the most beautiful views in Paris.)

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.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Greek Easter--The Drama Begins

I first posted this in April of 2010, when Orthodox Easter and Catholic Easter happened to fall on the same day just as they do this year.  We just picked up our lamb from Bahnan's market today, and I realized this blog post is becoming a tradition.  Happy Easter  to all and to our Greek friends, Kahlo Pascha!

Today is Good Friday and in a Greek household that means we can’t eat dairy or meat (that’s been going on for 40 days) and also today we can’t eat oil, so on Good Fridays we usually end up surviving on things like plain baked potatoes and peanut butter on crackers.

But today the Big Eleni, who lives with us and is the best cook in the world, has all sorts of “fasting” Good Friday food ready – Halvah, stuffed grape leaves, rice-stuffed tomatoes, taramasalata (made from fish roe) and some sort of artichoke/spinach/ hummus concoction. And boiled shrimp.
Today was also the annual dramatic journey into Worcester to collect the lamb which we had ordered far ahead from Bahnan’s Market on 344 Pleasant Street. As you can see from the first sign below, the people at Bahnan’s are ready to sell you your Easter needs in four languages: English, Greek, Turkish and Arabic.

(And they now have a café where, according to local Greeks, you can get the only authentic gyros for miles around.)

Shopping at Bahnan’s is like a visit to the United Nations, but on Easter week it’s like several festivals rolled into one.

There was a considerable line of people waiting to get into the refrigerated back room to receive the lamb they had ordered and have it cut up to their specifications. And this was in the morning, before church let out. I imagine by afternoon the line was out the door.

I didn’t last long in the refrigerated room, because of the cold and the proximity of all those lamb corpses, some of which looked the size of a small horse. (Our lamb was very small—I believe 27 pounds.)

I had to escape before the butcher started sawing, I couldn't take it, but this process is still easier than some early Easters in Nick’s Northern Greek village when the adorable baby goats were tied to each house’s front door knob and my offspring loved petting them. Then I had to drag the children, (all three under  age ten) out of town on Holy Saturday to prevent them seeing the general bloodshed as the baby goats were slaughtered and the blood ran in the street.

In the village on Easter Sunday you see spits outside every house, each one tended by the patriarch who is drinking homemade moonshine called Raki and having a good time. We sometimes do the lamb on the spit outside in Grafton, but not when Easter comes this early.

By the way, this was a rare year when Orthodox Easter and everyone else’s Easter are on the same day. Usually we Greeks are later because Orthodox Easter has to be after Passover. It’s complicated.
In the photos above you see the Big Eleni shopping for Greek cheese at Bahnan’s. We already have our large round Tsoureki bread with the red egg in the middle. And on Holy Thursday, as always, we dyed dozens of eggs red for the Saturday-night egg-cracking duel when you challenge everyone – saying “Christ is risen” “Indeed he is risen”. Crack! And whoever’s egg comes out the winner gets the other guy’s egg.

Tomorrow—Holy Saturday—we will all go to church very early and without consuming as much as a drop of water beforehand. We line up to take communion and then are free for the first time in seven weeks to eat dairy (not meat. Not yet. But we are free to rush to the Pancake House where we traditionally stuff ourselves with high-calorie breakfast treats that have been forbidden for weeks.)

Then it’s back to church again at midnight.—for the dramatic Midnight Mass on Saturday night when the church is plunged into darkness and the priest comes out at the exact stroke of midnight with a single candle and announces ‘Christ is risen!” Then the flame passes from his candle to everyone else’s and the church fills with light as we sing the Resurrection hymn: “Christos anesti!” We try to keep our candles lit as we drive home to break the Lenten fast by cracking eggs and eating the delicate dill-and-egg-lemon soup made by the Big Eleni out of the lambs intestines.

(Actually, she doesn’t put in the intestines because she knows that our kids would never eat it. In fact one is a vegetarian. And after my visit to the market today, I understand perfectly.)

I hope wherever you are celebrating Easter or Passover -- in any language – you are enjoying warm spring weather. Here in Massachusetts it has finally stopped raining and will be a beautiful weekend. Kalo Pascha!

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Magazine Divas--The First Pants Suit at the Office

 ( I recently read an amusing article about the history of women wearing pants suits, slacks, bloomers, whatever you call them, and I thought I'd re-visit this post about my early working days at Ladies Home Journal when we all were shocked to see a stylish female editor walk in wearing a pants suit.  I first posted this in November of  2009 and saw my first pants suit at the office in the mid-1960's

(Looking for an illustration for this post, I googled for images from the great 1959 film --and novel by Rona Jaffe-- “The Best of Everything” about young women who work in a NYC publishing firm—The diva editor is played by Joan Crawford. They suffer terrible fates until they realize that they will be happier in quiet domesticity as housewives instead of living a miserable life as career women.

I was thrilled to find the image above—our heroine Hope Lange standing on Park Avenue in front of Lever House, because that was where I worked at my very first job. For six months after grad school I worked in PR for Lever Bros. I quit six months later after my (male) boss in P. R. kept taking credit for my work, including the coup of getting a news article positive to our company in the NY press.)

After the month as a MLLE. guest editor, having developed a taste for caviar, I revised my plans for the future. I’d return to the Midwest, finish college, and then head straight back to New York City and a magazine job. Maybe they’d even hire me at MLLE! I wanted more Lester Lanin dances, Central Park photo shoots, strolling at night in the Village with Peter S., the young man who introduced me to my first Communist (in the White Horse Bar) and taught me how to eat an artichoke.

I had not yet realized that the women on the staffs of Vogue, Glamour, Mademoiselle-- all the Conde Nasties-- had to have trust funds in order to pay for food, rent and expensive clothes. No one was making a living wage. (And no one, let’s be honest, is ever allowed to dress in the clothes from the Fashion Closet despite what you see on “Sex and the City” and "The Devil Wears Prada". You can borrow a dress for a working night out, but you have to return it.)

Three years later, in 1964, I was back in Manhattan looking for a job, armed with my Master’s in journalism. I tried out for a post as fiction-reader at the Saturday Evening Post and my written tryout was labeled “brilliant”, but when the legendary fiction editor Rust Hills met me and learned that I had neglected to read "Henderson the Rain King", I was out the door in minutes. So I settled for a post as editorial assistant in the Ladies Home Journal food department and considered myself lucky.

I was paid $80 a week and worked with two other young women in a windowless room next to the LHJ Test Kitchen. Shortly after the Beatles invaded New York in 1964, our kitchen became a popular gathering spot because word got around that you could scrape the insides of banana peels, toast the result and get high smoking it. Mellow yellow! We tested, but it didn’t work.

My boss was a celebrity food editor—Poppy Cannon. She was known for many things including "The Can-Opener Cookbook" and her multiple husbands, among them Walter White, the founder of the NAACP and Chef Phillipe of the Waldorf. Her sister was the designer, Anne Fogarty. (Since we’re talking the Pleistocene era here, I don’t expect you to recognize any of those names.)

Poppy was, as she often told us, the first woman elected to the Chevaliers de Tastevin. She would occasionally organize wine-tastings in the LHJ food kitchens, and I would assist. She would take a mouthful of wine, roll it around in her mouth like the connoisseur she was, then spit it out into a silver cup before cleansing the palate with a little bread and going on to the next wine. My job, which did not really require a master’s degree or a Phi Beta Kappa key, was to hold the cup into which Poppy spit.

Poppy was a glamorous and, yes, Amazonian woman who liked to wear long, sweeping dresses and matching turbans which increased her height to well over six feet. She often displayed various medals on her ample chest, pinned to sashes like royalty. She was, in fact, very sweet and not intimidating like Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly, but Poppy was rather needy and helpless.

She often didn’t feel like coming into the office, so I would have to go to her Park Avenue home. While she reclined on a chaise longue, wearing one of a dazzling wardrobe of peignoirs and muumuus, she would dictate her column for the magazine while I took notes. During the whole time I knew Poppy, the stove and oven in her kitchen did not work, so she would send me out to get lunch for both of us. And usually she had no cash on hand, so she’d tell me to expense it.

In the end, I wrote many of her articles myself, because, after a while, I got the hang of her uniquely florid style. Poppy also once invited me and a colleague out for a weekend at her house in Danbury. We were driven by a car and chauffeur, but it turned out that we were there to clean the house and serve at the table.

In those days, I was at an editorial luncheon when some of the women began reminiscing about the "Delineator". What, I asked, was the Delineator? That was like Amanda in The Devil Wears Prada saying “Can you spell Gabbana for me?” The journalists fell about laughing and sneering (“She’s never heard of the Delineator!”) and informed me it was one of the finest magazines ever published for women. When I looked it up later, I learned that it was published between1873 and 1937 and went out of business four years before I was born.

In my early years on MLLE and LHJ, I met a number of glamorous, larger-than-life women from the post-Pleistocene generation whom I call the Best of Everything editors-- because they are the ones Rona Jaffe was writing about in her book. Their names belong on the roll of visionary, intelligent, glamorous and sometimes impossible women who carried the torch in an era when Ladies Home Journal staff members were given aprons with the slogan “Never underestimate the power of a woman.”

There was Bruce Clerke, my personal editor at MLLE, who suffered my Midwestern naiveté with great good humor and tact, as when I tried to drink the shrimp cocktail at La Fonda del Sol during our first lunch. Bruce was a beautiful southern belle, (a college Azalea Queen, if I remember correctly). Perhaps her trademark silver hair inspired Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Miranda Priestly.

The fiction editor at LHJ was Phyllis Levy, a slender and vivacious woman who entranced a series of men but, to my knowledge, never married. (Her good friend Rona Jaffe wrote about Phyllis’s chameleon personality in the story “Rima the Bird Girl.”) One morning, as I was answering reader mail in my closet off the test kitchens, Phyllis dashed in clutching a bottle of champagne and a tin of caviar. “Put this in the refrigerator,” she commanded. “I met the most fabulous man and he’s flying me to Paris tonight.”

And the late Lois Benjamin Gould was the first editor to stride into the office wearing a pants suit. She looked thin, tragic and beautiful. Our jaws dropped. Anything that Lois did, we knew, must be the Next Big Thing. I believe this was after Lois’s husband had died and she dropped out of sight for about a year while she wrote Such Good Friends about discovering her husband’s adultery, another “fiction” book, like The Bell Jar and The Devil Wears Prada that was really faction.

At this time I was sharing an apartment on 14th Street with three young women, all in some form of journalism. Two were researchers on news magazines and, it’s true, the female researchers were expected to travel with the reporter, to help, research, support and socialize with him, but never to write. In those days, believe it or not, nobody got by-lines on the articles in Time, except for columnists. Nowadays, everybody who has anything to do with a piece gets his/her name at the end. Which is only fair.

We had fun, living in that sordid apartment with cardboard furniture and orange-crate shelves. We each chipped in a dollar a day for food. When Time closed on Friday nights, there was always a big buffet on the top floor and our Time/Life researcher roommate would often bring home leftovers. There was no swag for magazine assistants-–certainly not the way there is today--but I remember one Christmas when Restaurant Associates sent me a box made of chocolate with my named spelled out on the lid. Once in a while the Fashion Department would sell off clothes at a bargain-basement price and I snagged a dress that was originally worn by Twiggy in a fashion spread. When there was a subway strike, we’d compete to see who could walk to mid-town on time without stopping for a Chock Full O’Nuts doughnut on the way.

No doubt we were abused, underpaid, overworked and discriminated against because we were women, but that was before we’d ever heard terms like “glass ceiling” , “women’s liberation” and “car service” or read manifestos like TDWP. We didn’t even realize that we were storing up fodder for future exposés.

Footnote about Anna Wintour: I’ve never met her, but when I first had an article published in Vogue, she sent me a handwritten note saying that she liked it. I thought that was a very gracious thing to do.