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Bookshop: Shakespeare and Company in Paris. Death of George Whitman

Bookshop Shakespeare and Company in Paris

Death of George Whitman

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.

George Whitman was born on December 12, 1913 to mother Grace Bates and father Walter George Whitman in East Orange, New Jersey. When George was still a baby the family moved to Salem, Massachusetts. Early in his life George’s parents instilled in him a passionate and profound respect for literature. Walter was a well-respected professor of physics and the author of several books on science in the home and community. In 1925, when George was twelve years old, Walter took the whole family (except the youngest son Carl) on a year-long sabbatical to Nanking University in China. Immersed in Chinese culture and society, George and his younger sister Mary learned the language quite quickly. It was his first trip abroad, and his experiences in China made a lasting impression on him.

George Whitman

With the brief exception of the Nanking exchange, George lived in Salem until he graduated from high school. While he was a student he published and edited his own satirical paper called “The Reflector” and also worked as a newsboy. In 1931 George decided to enroll as an undergraduate at Boston University with a major in journalism. After his graduation 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 the Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Hawaii. During this time he became fluent in Spanish.

Ernest Hemingway (right)

Sylvia Beach and James Joyce

George Whitman and daughter Sylvia

Sylvia Whitman

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.

When he arrived in Panama George ran out of money. He found a job working with the Panama Canal Company, where he stayed for several months before sailing to Hawaii and then to San Francisco in 1938, where he worked as a cable car conductor, attended classes at the University of California and enlisted in the US Army. He didn’t stay out west for long but decided to hobo his way back east, riding the rails until he arrived back in Massachussets. In 1939 he enrolled at Harvard University, where he stayed until 1941 when he was called into military service. He was trained as a Medical Warrant Officer and worked at different hospitals around Europe, helping with the wounded. Several months of his army career were spent at an isolated post in Greenland. He lived with the natives, learned to sail, and according to George, had a beautiful Eskimo girlfriend.

Returning to the United States, George managed to open and run a small bookstore in Taunton, Massachusetts while still working night shifts for the army until the war ended and he was discharged. After more travels through western Europe and France, George moved permanently to Paris in 1948 under the GI Bill. He lived in a small room in the Hotel Suez on Boulevard St. Michel in the heart of the Left Bank and enrolled at the Sorbonne, studying French civilization, philosophy, culture, and literature. Encouraged by his great friend Lawrence Lawrence Ferlinghetti, George founded his bookshop, Le Mistral, at 37 rue de la Bûcherie in 1951. The name, he says, “was in honour of the first girl I ever fell in love with.” Inspired by his encounters with the legendary bookseller Sylvia Beach, he later changed the name of his shop to Shakespeare and Company. In 1981 George’s only daughter was born at the Hôtel Dieu, directly across the Seine from the bookshop. She was respectfully named after Sylvia Beach.

For 60 years George worked tirelessly to ensure that Shakespeare and Company remains not only a venerable independent bookshop, but also a renowned Left Bank cultural institution and a home-away-from-home for many thousands of writers and visitors from around the world. In 2006 he was awarded the Officier des Arts et Lettres by the French Minister of Culture for his lifelong contribution to the arts.

On Wednesday 14th December, 2011, George Whitman died at home in the apartment above his bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, in Paris. George suffered a stroke two months before, 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.

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 verses written on the walls of his open, much-visited library : “Be not inhospitable to strangers / Lest they be angels in disguise.”

George was 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 Sylvia.

Shakespeare and Company, 37 Rue Bûcherie, 75005 Paris, France

photos 1-3 jef van kempen + photos archive shakespeare & company

≡ Website Shakespeare & Company Paris

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