The above picture is not Whitman, of course, but it illustrates his contribution to the literary world. Born in New Jersey, he served in Paris during WWII, and settled there. He began lending books to American soldiers, and soon opened a bookstore called Le Mistral. Located across the street from Notre Dame cathedral, the shop became a home for itinerant writers, who were always offered a spare bed by Whitman. One such expat tells this story:
"Eyeing me suspiciously, George asked if I was a writer. I said I’d been a college editor, and had aspirations. He said OK... I could have a week on the mattress."
In the early 50s, Whitman befriended Sylvia Beach, who had owned a bookshop of her own, called Shakespeare and Company, before the war. She reportedly shut down the place rather than sell a copy of James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake to a Nazi soldier. That shop never reopened, but Whitman eventually purchased Beach's inventory, and changed the name of his shop to Shakespeare and Company, in her honor.
It's said that the shop, now run by Whitman's daughter, is the most famous bookshop in the world, having been mentioned in countless pieces of literature, and even having appeared in several movies (Woody Allen's recent hit Midnight in Paris, for instance).
Frankly, I had not heard of this place before Whitman's recent death. I visited Paris when I was 17, and somehow, a musty, cramped bookshop never made it onto my itinerary (though it surely would now). But in reading the descriptions of the place, it seems to be a spot where one can browse for hours, discovering treasures.
So why is this guy's death, and his bookstore, on my radar? It reminds me of the bookshop which features prominently in one of my favorite little films, 13 Charing Cross Road.
In that spirit, the Yeats quote which adorns the wall at Shakespeare and Company seems apropos:
"Be not inhospitable to strangers,
Lest they be angels in disguise."
George Whitman, proprietor of the most famous bookstore in the world, died December 14th, at the age of 98.