Thursday, December 15, 2011

Deceased--George Whitman

George Whitman
December 12th, 1913 to December 14th, 2011

"George Whitman dies at 98; founder of legendary Paris bookshop"

Over the years, George Whitman sheltered about 50,000 young, struggling writer types for free at Shakespeare & Co. on the Left Bank. It also was a magnet for writers like Allen Ginsberg, Anais Nin and Lawrence Durrell.


Devorah Lauter

December 15th, 2011

Los Angeles Times

George Whitman, the legendary founder of the Paris bookshop and literary institution Shakespeare & Co., died Wednesday. He was 98.

The Left Bank bookshop was closed Wednesday, and a note on the door said Whitman had suffered a stroke a few months earlier. He "died peacefully at home in the apartment above his bookshop," the letter said.

On Wednesday night, people stopped to leave notes, flowers and candles along the ground and covering the window of the shop, now run by his daughter, Sylvia. Many of them said the place had always been much more than a bookshop to them, but a second home. Literally.

Over the years, Whitman has sheltered about 50,000 young, struggling writer types for free, right in the shop if they needed a roof, wanted to save a franc, or just had ideas about books and a hankering for a certain bohemian way of life. All they had to do in exchange was work a few hours in the shop, write a one-page biography and provide their picture (an idea born out of Whitman's attempt to appease French authorities who wanted to know more about the clandestine "hotel" he was running on the left bank of the Seine River).

The shop has kept all the letters from past boarders, dubbed "Tumbleweeds" by Whitman, and each one is a testament to how he changed their lives.

Pia Copper said Whitman hired her on the spot in 1994, and she stayed 10 years.

"He found so many young people who were lost, on drugs, totally hopeless, and they lived here. And there was no hard logic to it, other than: Give them a roof, and maybe part of the shop will rub off on them," Copper said.

Though eventually an economic success, attracting book lovers from all over the world and writers such as Anais Nin, Lawrence Durrell, Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the running joke was that the place rarely actually did what a bookstore is supposed to do: Sell books.

And that was exactly how Whitman wanted it. He used to call Shakespeare & Co. "a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookshop," and in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, he said: "I never had any money, and never needed it. I've been a bum all my life."

But Whitman was something of a wild-haired, and wild-mannered, king to those who knew him. The land he ruled, with its constant flow of lodgers and poets from all over the world, might as well have come out of the books he loved, and read so voraciously. (One per night.)

Inspired by Sylvia Beach's famous Paris bookstore and publishing house, which closed during World War II, Whitman fashioned the 17th century, two-story apartment into a labyrinth of soft-lit, teetering bookshelves, winding stairs, a library, stacks of well-read Life magazines, and cushy benches that turned to beds at night for Tumbleweeds. Free tea and pancake brunches were served every weekend to anyone brave, or hungry enough. After brunch, the leftover, mysteriously thick pancake batter was used as glue to repair peeling floor rugs.

Whitman didn't care much for supervising the young lodgers that passed through, but his temper could famously flare if a book was misplaced or an edition not shelved just so.

"He's the most un-phony person," Sylvia Whitman, 30, said in an interview this year with The Times. He "says what he thinks, and he doesn't care what anyone thinks of him. And it's quite refreshing."

He once threw a book out the second floor window at a customer below because he thought they might enjoy reading it. And he used to light people's hair on fire to save them the trouble of paying for a haircut. After all, he had been using the same technique on himself for years.

Whitman was born in 1913 in East Orange, N.J., and his Shakespeare & Co. universe was largely inspired from his experience hoboing through South America as a teen, where poor locals took him in after he ran out of food and money. He famously used to say he couldn't refuse anyone a roof, "lest they be angels in disguise."

Sylvia Whitman lived with and cared for her father in his final years, while running the shop, which she has delicately nudged into the current century. (She added a cash register and telephone, despite stiff protests from regulars.)

And more than that, she and her staff have also added high-profile concerts, readings, literary prizes and other cultural events to the shop's repertoire, adding her own touch, but keeping the place as active as when Beatnik readings were hosted there by her father. Tumbleweeds are also still welcome.

"We don't want to think of it as an end of an era," said Christopher Copper-Ind, Pia Copper's husband. "Of course it will continue with Sylvia."

Whitman will be buried at the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

"Remembering George Whitman"


Janice Harper

December 15th, 2011

The Huffington Post

Years ago, back in the early eighties after reading too much Henry Miller to do a woman any good, I found myself in Paris, squatting in an old and dusty room above the legendary booksellers, Shakespeare & Company. Not the Shakespeare & Co of Sylvia Beach and her salons, but the Revised Edition of Shakespeare & Co., an entirely different store across from the Notre Dame, and under ownership of a goofy old soul, George Whitman.
George was already nearly ancient way back then, at least in the eyes of my youth, but he had the spirit of a prankster and the heart of a gentle clown -- not to mention the temper of a tyrant every now and then. His two-year-old daughter Sylvia played among the books and kept him chasing after her (and kept the gossip whizzing -- when an old goat like that has a child so young, who knows what other tricks he's got up his sleeve?), while a parade of travelers pretty much like myself vied for his attention, tea, and a spare bed among the endless books.

I was one of the lucky ones, parked in the prized room where every famous writer who'd passed through Paris was rumored to have written his or her masterpiece. I felt like Colette locked away by her husband, not to be let out until the day's story was done. An overstuffed day bed and walls full of books and handwritten manuscripts held tight with rubber bands or twine gave the room a magical, almost Victorian air. On a desk before a front window was an old electric typewriter where I would sit, day after day, hammering away the nonsensical rambles of untutored youth. The tourists would line up outside the window, pointing up to me, snapping photos, certain I must be some famous poet.

But like most of the people who passed through the store and received the generosity of George Whitman, I wasn't the least bit famous, just another rambling soul in search of good books, good conversation, and a good heart. And that's what we got at Shakespeare & Co., because for all the famous writers he might have known through his bookstore and his adventurous life (and it was the stuff of adventure), it was those who would never become famous that George gave so much of his time to tending.

He could be gruff and grouchy and when he was in a bad mood, we stayed away, swapping stories, myths and legends. Was he really descended from Walt Whitman? No, that was just a rumor he liked to keep alive. Did he really steal the name of the bookshop from Sylvia Beach? Well, some say she gave it to him, just like that. Did he really sneak off with Gregory Corso's manuscript and wouldn't give it back? Ah, well, that, yes, that one might be true, some say they actually saw it . . .

But then again, some said they actually saw Gregory Corso. It was while I was there that the manager at the time, a dark and suffering soul who wrote mystical poetry about the black, blood darkness of early dawns and unrelenting shorelines, grabbed me by the hand and rushed me out the door.

"Hurry, we have to get out of here, lock the door and let's go!" The skeleton key rattled in the lock as I tried to turn it with my shaking hands, then we ran down the stairs and through some alleys until we were well out of sight and out of breath.

"What's going on?" I asked, panting and laughing and feeling like some endangered heroine in a Polanski movie.

"Gregory Corso is back! He's come for his manuscript!"

"So we have to run away?" Another cross-cultural rule I'd yet to learn, no doubt. There's no making sense of the French sometimes.

"Yes, yes, I have it; right here, under my coat!"

"You have it, let me see!"

"No, I can't show it to anyone, George wants me to get it out of there."

"But it belongs to Gregory Corso, you should give it back to him."

"Of course I should give it back to him, but George wants to keep it. He says that Gregory owes it to him."

"Does he?"

"I don't know, probably not. I just know I'm supposed to get it out of the shop."

I felt like we'd committed a horrible crime, but there was something so terribly exciting about running away from Gregory Corso, even though I didn't have the faintest idea, at the time, of who he was, other than some poet. But I did know that whatever he owed anybody, he had a right to his own manuscript, and being a part of such a caper made me squirm.

Over the course of the next couple of weeks, there were many Gregory Corso sightings. "He was just here, you just missed him." "He just went upstairs -- no don't, he knows you're staying in the room, he'll want the manuscript." "He just came in here and had a terrible fight with George, you just missed it." "He's right there, no there, oh, no, too late, he's gone, he slipped past the Surrealists and he's gone."

I never saw Gregory Corso, and I never saw the mysterious manuscript, which, for all I know, never existed. And for that matter, I was never even certain that Gregory Corso existed. But at George's bookshop, anything could happen, and just knowing that, made every moment swell with possibility and expectation, no matter how otherwise dreary and uneventful it might be. And that was one of the gifts that George Whitman gave the world. Among the books and manuscripts and overstuffed chairs and beds and pots of tea, he created a community of curiosity and expectation, a place where anything might happen, and anyone might become someone at any given moment, just through the turning or the typing of some pages, the twist and turn of just the right word, the perfect image flung across an empty page. Or the perfect conversation shared among readers and writers and thinkers and travelers, hungering story tellers all.

George Whitman died this week, at the age of 98, in that very room I wrote in. And just in the nick of time, it appears, as booksellers throughout the world make way for the mega-sellers, and the communities that formed inside these wondrous shops now scatter to the cyber-corners of the world to chat in virtual time and space, eyes never meeting, hands never touching. With the passing of George Whitman, one of the last of the great booksellers has gone, but the tens of thousands of travelers whose lives he touched live on. Angels and demons, each of us, finding our place in a world gone weird, remembering the "Socialist Utopia disguised as a bookstore," as he called it, the little place of mystery and magic, the bookstore.

"The Timeless Joy of George Whitman's Shakespeare & Co."


Harvey Wasserman

December 15th, 2011

The Huffington Post

Never doubt that simple acts of generosity and solidarity can change lives -- and the world.

George Whitman and his Shakespeare & Company bookstore have been uniquely powerful living proof of that. And his daughter has guaranteed it will continue.

Nestled into the Left Bank of the Seine, a stoned throw from the magnificent Notre Dame Cathedral, George's bookstore has been a beacon of Bohemian/hippie/humanist/leftist writing and romance for decades.

Its spiritual roots stretch back to the great literary lights of the ex-pat 1920s -- Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Joyce, and Stein. In George's 1950s era, that also meant Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso and more. So much genius passed through the place its walls seem to glow.

George Whitman was known for letting budding young writers crash for weeks at a time. In the summer of 1967, I was one of them. Based on hippie urban legend, I sought the place out and asked if I could sleep on a couch upstairs.

Eyeing me suspiciously, George asked if I was a writer. I said I'd been a college editor, and had aspirations.

He said OK.... I could have a week on the mattress.

It was pure joy. Raised in the Midwest, just out of the University of Michigan, at the age of 21, I got to hang out in Paris, surrounded by the spirits of the century's greatest writers, thinkers, rebels. Nightly sessions of intellectual fervor followed days of wandering free through the vibrating streets of that gorgeous, dazzling city.

George consciously followed in the footsteps of another Whitman (no relation) who transformed the literary world of his day -- and far beyond. Generous, eclectic and eccentric, George shared Walt's occasionally fierce New England temperament, making him both fascinating and formidable.

My week in his bookstore changed my life. It proved that the fantasy of a Bohemian counter-culture could actually be sustained, and that it was at least as good as billed by those perennial romantics who are always being dismissed as "unrealistic dreamers." At Shakespeare & Company, the dream was real, and as good as it gets. All these years later, Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris delightfully captures (though without the politics) the joy of its spirit.

And it continues. Not long ago I brought to Paris my teenaged daughter Julie. With Max Schneider, son of the great green energy expert Mycle, we paid our respects to Notre Dame, then found the bookstore.

I'd stopped by in the early 1990s and found the place in serious disrepair. I wasn't optimistic about this return visit.

But to my great joy, the place literally shone. George's daughter Sylvia runs it with firmness and grace. It is bustling with business, beautifully appointed, and offers a timeless blend of off-beat rebellion and good bookselling -- what George has called "the business of life." It is a solid independent enterprise of the kind that is tragically disappearing throughout the U.S. -- but in this case with a legendary past being carefully preserved and enhanced.

With Julie and Max by my side, I told Sylvia that I'd stayed upstairs more than 40 years ago, and wanted to thank her for her father's life-changing hospitality.

She suggested I thank George myself.

Venturing up the narrow, tiled staircase I'd loved so long ago, we found a young writer from Florida encamped as I'd been when we marched through the wine-soaked streets, shouting epithets against the Vietnam War, then retreating to the bookstore to drink and smoke and bask together in the intoxicating, self-proclaimed brilliance of our youthful rebellion.

George was napping on the third floor, but I could send up a note.

So I wrote one profusely thanking him for putting me up, and for keeping the faith through all these decades of trial and chaos, tears and joy, disappointment and victory.

Having made sure that Max and Julie were sufficiently inspired, we were just making our way out when a note came back, scribbled on the backside of the one I'd sent up.

George apologized for being indisposed. But he was glad I'd enjoyed my stay. And, since I'd continued to write all these years, I was welcome to stay again -- any time.

Wow! I cannot describe the feeling that note gave me. Especially as I looked at the wide-eyed responses of my daughter and our young friend. In an instant, their lives changed, as mine had so long ago.

George Whitman passed away this week, at age 98. But his is a life that will truly never stop giving.

So thank you, George, for enhancing the Dream and making it real. Thank you, Sylvia, for keeping it alive.

And thank you, Shakespeare & Company, for reminding us all that there really is at our core a spirit of generous, joyous grace that makes life worth living, and that need never die.

"George Whitman, Paris Bookseller and Cultural Beacon, Is Dead at 98"


Marlise Simons

December 14th, 2011

The New York Times

George Whitman, the American-born owner of Shakespeare & Company, a fabled English-language bookstore on the Left Bank in Paris and a magnet for writers, poets and tourists for close to 60 years, died on Wednesday in his apartment above the store. He was 98.

He had not recovered from a stroke he suffered two months ago, his daughter, Sylvia, said in announcing his death.

More than a distributor of books, Mr. Whitman saw himself as patron of a literary haven, above all in the lean years after World War II, and the heir to Sylvia Beach, the founder of the original Shakespeare & Company, the celebrated haunt of Hemingway and James Joyce.

As Mr. Whitman put it, “I wanted a bookstore because the book business is the business of life.”

Overlooking the Seine and facing the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, the store, looking somewhat beat-up behind a Dickensian facade and spread over three floors, has been an offbeat mix of open house and literary commune. For decades Mr. Whitman provided food and makeshift beds to young aspiring novelists or writing nomads, often letting them spend a night, a week, or even months living among the crowded shelves and alcoves.

He welcomed visitors with large-print messages on the walls. “Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise,” was one, quoting Yeats. Next to a wishing well at the center of the store, a sign said: “Give what you can, take what you need. George.” By his own estimate, he lodged some 40,000 people.

Mr. Whitman’s store, founded in 1951, has also been a favorite stopover for established authors and poets to read from their work and sign their books. Its visitors list reads like a Who’s Who of American, English, French and Latin American literature: Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Samuel Beckett and James Baldwin were frequent callers in the early days; other regulars included Lawrence Durrell and the Beat writers William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, all of them Mr. Whitman’s friends.

Another was the Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The two met in Paris in the late 1940s and discussed the importance of free-thinking bookstores. Mr. Ferlinghetti went on to found what became a landmark bookshop in its own right, City Lights, in San Francisco. Their bookstores would be sister shops, the two men agreed.

Mr. Whitman’s beacon and enduring influence was Walt Whitman (no relation), who also ran a bookstore, more than a century ago. In a pamphlet, Mr. Whitman wrote that he felt a kinship with the poet. “Perhaps no man liked so many things and disliked so few as Walt Whitman,” he wrote, “and I at least aspire to the same modest attainment.”

George Whitman was born on Dec. 12, 1913, in East Orange, N.J., and grew up in Salem, Mass. His thirst for travel was awakened when his father, a physics teacher, took the family to China for a sabbatical year at Nanking University. After majoring in journalism at Boston University and graduating in 1935, Mr. Whitman began traveling in earnest, taking extended walking trips across North America and through Central America while writing and exploring, coming home only after getting bogged down in a swamp in Panama.

After enrolling at Harvard, he enlisted in the Army in 1941, serving as a medic for several months at an outpost in Greenland.

With the end of the war he resumed his travels, exploring Europe before settling in Paris in 1946. There he used his G.I. Bill benefits to start a small lending library in his windowless room in the Hotel de Suez near the Sorbonne, where he studied for a time.

After moving his English language books to a kiosk, he opened his store, first calling it Le Mistral. It was said to be named after the Chilean poet Gabriella Mistral, whose work Mr. Whitman admired.

Mr. Whitman, who had called himself a frustrated novelist, poured his energy into selling and lending books and moving in literary circles.

How Le Mistral became Shakespeare & Company has been a matter of some debate. Some accused Mr. Whitman of pilfering the name. But Clive Hart, a Joyce scholar, wrote in a recent e-mail that he attended a gathering in 1958 in which Sylvia Beach “announced that she would like to offer George the old name of Shakespeare & Company.”

“George was of course delighted,” Mr. Hart wrote.

Mr. Whitman adopted the name in 1964, to honor Ms. Beach on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, the bookstore said. He named his daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman, born in 1981, after her.

Ms. Whitman, who now runs the store, is Mr. Whitman’s only child. She said that while he had many romantic attachments, he was married only once, and briefly, to her mother, Felicity Leng. He is also survived by a younger brother, Carl.

For all the romanticism surrounding the bookstore, Mr. Whitman went through difficult times. He was closed for a year, in 1967, for lack of a proper license, but with the support of friends he continued lending books and published the first issue of The Paris Magazine, which he called “the poor man’s Paris Review,” a reference to the literary journal founded in 1953 by George Plimpton and others. Mr. Whitman’s magazine carried work by Jean Paul Sartre, Lawrence Durrell, Allen Ginsberg and Marguerite Duras.

It has come out only sporadically since then. A fire once destroyed almost 5,000 volumes in the library above the store.

Mr. Whitman was famously frugal and expected the bibliophiles residing in his store to work a few hours every day sorting and selling books. Yet he also invited uncounted numbers of people for weekly tea parties to his own apartment, or for late-night readings enriched with dumplings or pots of Irish stew.

Some guests later described him as a kind and magnetic father figure to needy souls but also as a man who could throw tantrums and preside over the store’s residents, sometimes up to 20 people, like a moody and unpredictable dictator.

Mr. Whitman had variously called himself a communist, a utopian and a humanist. But he may have also been a romantic himself, at least concerning his life’s work. “I may disappear leaving behind me no worldly possessions — just a few old socks and love letters, he wrote in his last years. Paraphrasing a line from Yeats, he added, “and my little Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart.”

"George Whitman, Bookseller"


Rachel Horovitz

December 15th, 2011

The New Yorker

Samuel Beckett introduced me to George Whitman on August 15, 1983, in Paris. Or rather, I arrived in Paris on the morning of August 15, 1983, after finally finishing college, having been given by my father, the playwright Israel Horovitz, a one-way ticket and a date with Samuel Beckett.

The date with Sam was that same bleary morning. Café crème cigars cut with cups of actual café crème. Sam, inquiring how long I would be staying and who I knew in town, promptly suggested that I might go see George at Shakespeare & Company, a bookstore near Notre Dame. I hadn’t given any good answers to Sam’s questions about my prospects in Paris, and I suppose he was concerned that as a friend of the family he could end up being responsible for my well-being. This was not, it has been written, his strength.

“I’m here to see George Whitman. Samuel Beckett said to say he sent me.” I was corralled up to an apartment at the top of the building and handed over to a whisp of a man with a large dog and a small child. George’s first words to me were: “Hurry up, will you? Get this gingerbread made. The poet Robert Bly is coming to tea.” It was a Sunday and in those days at the bookstore there was a regular Sunday tea party (and nightly midnight snacks I learned a bit later). There was also an immemorially beautiful young woman named Felicity, mother of the small child, hurriedly cleaning mismatched glasses and teacups.

I didn’t know how to make gingerbread, but I was young—and good enough company and possibly even nice to look at (despite my unflattering Laura Ashley)—and I furtively managed to get someone to help me fix the cakes as George raced in and out muttering the word “Beckett” under his breath and occasionally looking in my direction. I didn’t know how much more to explain about myself but suffice it to say that when Bly walked in the door and said “Rachael, what are you doing here?!”—being friends with a famous writer was about as close to a secret password as you could get with George—I found myself locked inside the bookstore for the good part of the next year, which, well-known to those dear to me, became the best year of my life.

George gave me a home in the writer’s room (except for the nights Ferlinghetti came through town), a job looking after the front desk, and after his equally arresting-as-her-mother daughter Sylvia, and usually Baskerville, the dog, too. George was a bookseller who lived on recycled scraps of food, habitually disappeared early in the mornings on his Mobylette, never saying where he was going or when he would be back. I spent afternoons with Sylvia in the park behind Notre Dame dreaming of Paris even though I was in Paris, waiting for George to come back to 37 rue de la Bûcherie, kilometre zero. I spent nights waiting for the midnight snack, which meant time with George. When he liked you, he had no clock, no attention deficit, no interest in the world other than the conversation he was having with you at that moment.

In those conversations, George made it clear that a non-literary life was unacceptable. He ordered me to write my autobiography. These talks were circular—his demands and my excuses—I was only twenty-one, for God’s sake. This went on for more than twenty-five years, my story still unwritten. I let him down and went into the film business. When I would return to Paris every May on my way back to New York from Cannes, I would nervously climb the steps to his door. Would he still want to see me? Would he be angry? Dismissive?

He never disappointed. He often gave me his own bed and sat nearby as we watched real movies on his old TV. He could not have been less interested in the films I was working on, which over the years included “Blue Velvet,” “About Schmidt,” and “Moneyball.” He was still my teacher, talking through the dubbed classics we watched together most nights till dawn, eating jars of peanut butter and drinking sweet tea. He was a presence like no other: handsome, witty, attentive, and sly. He thought Beckett was the star, but boy was he wrong. I will start my autobiography immediately.

Shakespeare and Company

George Whitman [Wikipedia]

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