December 15, 2012

In memory of George Whitman


“Curtain down on a grand and human show. We’ll never see its like again. But we’re much much richer for having seen it once. World—throw your roses!”               —Adrian Hornsby

“Dad wants to talk to you,” Sylvia told me as she shuffled books behind a desk in the Antiquarian Room of Shakespeare & Company, filled with rare old treasures. “He’s on the deuxième étage” — the third floor to an American — “above the library.”

It was Valentine’s Day 2007. I was teaching English in France and had come to Paris on a two-week break. I had read about Shakespeare & Company — not only its history as Sylvia Beach’s shop when she published Ulysses, but its current reincarnation as dreamed up by George Whitman since 1951.

With the help of other “tumbleweeds” — the assortment of international travelers who slept in the shop for free in exchange of doing odd jobs and shelving books — I made my way to George’s flat where he was in bed reading the newspaper.

“George, I’m the one who wrote the Valentine for you.” He looked up from reading, a disheveled, thin, elderly man in red pajamas with blue eyes twinkling and wild white hair. “It was wonderful, thank you,” he said with a breathless voice. “Won’t you write me another one? My daughter ripped it up.” (I would later realize that he had characteristically misplaced my poem among his paper piles).

I turned to go and he stopped me. “You can be our tea lady. We have a tea party on Sundays at 4 o’clock. You’ll be the host and invite the guests.”


As his daughter Sylvia Whitman has said, the best way to know George was to spend time in his bookstore. George’s philosophy of life came through in his slogans, little fragments of borrowed prose and poetry that he posted on the walls of the shop. George lived and breathed his cherished truths unlike anyone I have ever met. For example, on generosity: “This is the creed of the Hotel Tumbleweed, give what you can, take what you need.” Openness:  “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise.” Antimaterialism: “I must lie down where all the ladders start, in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” Community: “Shakespeare & Company is a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore.” And radical love: “Live for humanity.”

He was a study in contradictions: sweetly encouraging you to write, then yelling at someone for using a paper towel instead of a newspaper to clean; serious and sincere, but also a jokester; completely disorganized but strict about schedules (pancakes on Sunday morning, tea party in the afternoon); accessible yet utterly mysterious. By the time I knew him he didn’t want to talk about the famous people who had stayed in the shop — Anaïs Nin, Allen Ginsburg, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes — but he did like to tell us tall tales. “See those?” he’d say, gesturing to the huge heavy-gilded mirrors in the writer’s studio: “I carried those through the jungles of Central America on my back.”


In the afternoons during my first two weeks at the shop, I would sit with Bevan, my new friend and fellow tumbleweed, at George’s table in his front room and sift through a large scattered pile of photos and letters. George would occasionally sit with us, and we’d hand him a photograph and ask him who it was. Sometimes he would just shake his head and sigh, other times he would scream, “that person was a lunatic!” One time, I remember him standing up, very still, looking at a photograph of a couple young figures at an outdoor wedding. He was the best man. “I loved her,” he said wistfully, referring to the bride, a tear running down his cheek.

George believed his life story was summed up by The Idiot by Dostoyevsky. “I have spent my life searching for the heroine, a girl with a pure heart,” he would say. He felt he was living in a novel and that we were all characters, which is why he liked Shakespeare & Company as the name of his shop. And there were so many crazy characters, from all over the world.


I returned to Shakespeare & Company for the literary festivals Sylvia organized in 2008 and 2010, and each time, at the end, a group of us would help an increasingly frail George climb downstairs. He’d sit outside in his colorful paisley jacket like a king, while everyone tried to get a glimpse of the man behind the beloved Parisian bookstore.

George had been old for so long that I started to think that maybe he would live forever. But last year, after a stroke, he came back to his little apartment above the shop. He died one year ago today at the age of 98, attended to by Sylvia and friends. I had always imagined that I would go to Paris for George’s funeral, but instead I marked his passing with other former tumbleweeds in Fort Green park — appropriate because George used to claim he was Walt Whitman’s illegitimate great-grandson.

The funeral took place in Père Lachaise, where George is buried. David Delannet read a poem by George’s lifelong friend Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Sylvia gave a eulogy, in which she spoke of having learned so much from her father who “created a meeting point for all of us dreamers.” Later former tumbleweeds Ron and Daniel sang a rousing rendition of the “Tumbleweed Hotel song” in the bookshop.


I think of George all the time. He would have loved the People’s Library at Occupy Wall Street. I see him in the face of my own grandfather who is nearing the end of his life. And working in publishing, I’m constantly reminded of his assertion that “the book business is the business of life.”


Claire Kelley

Claire Kelley with George Whitman in his flat above Shakespeare & Company


More memories of George Whitman:

Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.