George Whitman, the legendary founder of the Paris bookshop and literary institution Shakespeare & Co., died Wednesday at age 98. Whitman opened his bookstore in 1951, following in the footsteps of Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare & Company, which had been shut down during World War II.
Shakespeare & Company was a haven for American and British expatriates who became some of the most important literary figures of the 20th century, including Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. Beach published James Joyce's "Ulysses" when no one else would. Beach was forced to close the store after Germans marched on Paris.
Whitman nurtured a new generation of struggling writers at his shop, including Allen Ginsberg, Anais Nin and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Devorah Lauter writes:
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....
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 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.
Lauter wrote that Whitman, who was born in New Jersey, had a "spitfire wit, unpredictable temper and unending generosity." He will be buried in Paris; his daughter Sylvia, who has been in charge of Shakespeare & Co. in recent years, plans to continue.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: Shakespeare & Co. window display featuring photographs of George Whitman. Credit: Miguel Medina /AFP/Getty Images