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Goodbye, George Whitman

December 15, 2011

George Whitman, who re-founded the legendary Paris bookstore Shakespeare and Company, died yesterday.  He was two days after his 98th birthday.

The obituary on the store’s web page says:

On Wednesday 14th December, 2011, George Whitman died peacefully at home in the apartment above his bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, in Paris. George suffered a stroke two months ago, but showed incredible strength and determination up to the end, continuing to read every day in the company of his daughter, Sylvia, his friends and his cat and dog.  He died two days after his 98th birthday.

Born on Dec. 12, 1913, in East Orange, New Jersey, George moved to Paris in 1948 and opened his bookshop Le Mistral, later renamed Shakespeare and Company, in 1951.  Packed wall-to-wall with books and beds for roaming writers, the store quickly grew to be a haven for book lovers and authors while George became an unusual Paris literary institution. In 2006 he was awarded the Officier des Arts et Lettres by the French Minister of Culture for his lifelong contribution to the arts.

After a life entirely dedicated to books, authors and readers, George will be sorely missed by all his loved ones and by bibliophiles around the world who have read, written and stayed in his bookshop for over 60 years. Nicknamed the Don Quixote of the Latin Quarter, George will be remembered for his free spirit, his eccentricity and his generosity  —  all three summarised in the Yeats verses written on the walls of his open, much-visited library : "Be not inhospitable to strangers / Lest they be angels in disguise."

George will be buried at the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, in the good company of other men and women of letters such as Guillaume Apollinaire, Colette, Oscar Wilde and Balzac. His bookstore continues, run by his daughter.

WHITMAN-obit-popupThe original Shakespeare and Company was opened by expatriate American Sylvia Beach in 1919, and it was a central focus of the "lost generation" 1920s authors. Beach is perhaps best known for publishing James Joyce’s Ulysses and for the description given in Ernest Hemmingway’s A Moveable Feast.  Beach famously closed her store in 1941 rather than sell a copy of Finnegans Wake to a Nazi officer.

George Whitman, another American expatriate, opened his store in 1951, across from Notre Dame cathedral.  Originally he called his store Le Mistral, but in the early 1960’s Whitman bought all of Beach’s remaining books from her, and in 1964 (the 400th anniversary of William Shakesepeare’s birth), he renamed his store “Shakespeare and Company” in honor of Beach.  (He also named his only child Sylvia Beach Whitman; today she runs the store.)

Visitors associated with Whitman’s Shakespeare and Company include Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Samuel Beckett, James Baldwin, Lawrence Durrell, William Burroughs, Allan Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti (who regarded his San Francisco “City Lights” bookstore a sister shop to “Shakespeare and Co.)

I met Whitman several times when  I visited his Paris bookshop.  He was gruff and kind and knowledgeable about books.  I miss him.

The New York Times and Washington Post have obituaries today.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    December 15, 2011 6:29 pm

    I enjoyed hanging out there a couple of years ago!

  2. December 16, 2011 4:50 pm

    Suzanne: I hope you consider posting the story of your visit sometime.

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