Remembering George Whitman

14Dec12

Some people call me the Don Quixote of the Latin Quarter because my head is so far up in the clouds that I can imagine all of us are angels in paradise.

George Whitman wrote those words on the chalkboard outside his bookstore on January 1, 2004.

George Whitman, who died in Paris a year ago today, was a dreamer indeed — and an optimist, a philosopher, a lover of people and words.

But most will remember him best as the founder of Shakespeare and Company. That’s how he became a patron saint of writers, and a Parisian literary legend.

I wish I’d met George Whitman. Although I spent many hours in his shop over the years, I never mustered the courage to ask, “Is George around, by chance?” It seemed presumptuous, and too much of an intrusion.

But after reading his biography on the Shakespeare and Company website, I am filled with regret. We would have had plenty to discuss (I, too, once got lost in a South American jungle).

After his graduation [from Boston University] in 1935 he decided to travel again. With $40 in his pocket he caught a ride to Mexico City and began a voyage that was to trace almost 5000 kilometers through Mexico and Central America, including Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica.  …

This trip was a formative experience in George’s life. Much of his traveling was done alone and on foot. He had many adventures and close calls. In an isolated part of the Yucatan he fell sick with dysentery and was forced to walk alone for three days through the swampy jungle with no food or water. Eventually he was found and nursed back to health by a tribe of Mayans. George was deeply impressed by the fact that despite hardship and extreme poverty, the people he met were invariably friendly and generous. This philosophy of “give what you can, take what you need” would become one of his founding principles.

And live by those founding principles he did: Above his bookstore were several rooms he let out freely to visiting writers — and at least one musician I know. Some stayed for a few days; others for weeks or even months. According to the obituary in the Irish Times, by his own estimate George lodged some 40,000 people.

I’m sure George had no idea how many lives he’d help shape when he opened the first incarnation of his bookstore in 1951.

Shakespeare 1300598 BLOG

But even the richest and most wonderful of stories must end. George’s message on the chalkboard concluded like this:

… In the year 1600 our whole building was a monastery called La Maison du Mustier. In medieval times each monastery had a frère lampier whose duty was to light the lamps at nightfall. I have been doing this for fifty years; now it is my daughter’s turn. —GW

My heartfelt gratitude to Sylvia Beach Whitman for carrying on her father’s light.

To read more:
An evening’s rêverie from A French Frye in Paris
A personal recollection from XpatScot
The Washington Post
The Telegraph



7 Responses to “Remembering George Whitman”

  1. Thanks for the info on Mr. Whitman! I had no idea he named his daughter Sylvia Beach. That’s classy considering how connected the original Sylvia was to this whole idea. It’s a special place for sure, and kudos to the current ownership for not messing with a good thing.

  2. 4 Jarrett Smith

    What a charming and wistful piece!. Now I have another destination to add to my list for my next Paris visit. For some reason, your post made me think of the sweet and sad little animated film by William Joyce called “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.” If you haven’t seen it, I hope that you can find it on the Internet somewhere. Please let me know what you think. William Joyce is one of my favorite children’s book illustrators but “Fantastic Flying Books” is a thing unto itself. Hope you are doing well. Perhaps our proposed rendezvous can/will happen in the coming new year. Yours, Jarrett

    PS There are a couple of Paris walking-tour books I’ve noticed; one is Gerturde Stein’s Paris, the other is Oscar Wilde’s. Do you know of them and if so do you recommend them?

    • 5 hmunro

      Hello, dear Jarrett! So glad you enjoyed this post — and especially thankful for your kind, thoughtful comment. I haven’t seen the “sad little animated film” you describe, but I’ll have to look for it online. And I also haven’t heard of either the Oscar Wilde or Gertrude Stein walking tours, but gosh … I must look those up! But my first priority is to finally meet up for that coffee we’ve been threatening. Are you around over the holidays? I’ll drop you a note through FB; much great news to share. Hope you are well also, and look forward to seeing you soon. Cheers!

  3. It’s strange to read that you never met George because I can’t recall ever going to the shop at not seeing him there; until this last time, in September of this year. I too was pleased to see that Sylvia has carried on the tradition; and there was a young writers’ group meeting taking place when I arrived, rekindling memories of bygone years and my own unfulfilled aspirations. It was the same; but it was not the same. The shop itself looked a lot tidier than I remembered it (from 28 years before); the organisation of the books looked more systematic; but the two differences that struck me most powerfully were these: I was not the same person as I had been 28-39 years before; and George wasn’t there. I left with a massive lump in my throat, trying not to shed a tear.

    • 7 hmunro

      Incredibly, I didn’t discover Shakespeare & Co until a few years ago, Xpat — and by then George had retired from the daily operation of the shop. I remember hearing somewhere that he still enjoyed chatting with the occasional visitor, but it honestly seemed like too much of an intrusion to request an appointment. I’m glad you had the privilege of meeting him, though, and that you have so many rich memories of that place. As for the differences that struck you upon returning after so many years, well … it’s true what they say, isn’t it? You can’t go home again.


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