Adieu George Whitman, owner of Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris
Friday, December 16, 2011
George Whitman's famous bookshop, on the Left Bank. Today, we remember this incorrigable angel. Read on, and prepare to share your own tributes and stories.
beau/belle comme un(e) ange = beautiful as an angel
être aux anges = to be in seventh heaven
un ange passe = an angel is passing
être le bon ange (or ange guardien) de quelqu'un = to be someone's guardian angel
angel cake = le gâteau de Savoie
to go where angels fear to tread = s'aventurer en terrain dangereux
Audio File: Listen to the following scripture (and to all of the expressions listed above) by clicking here: Download MP3 or Wave File
N'oubliez pas l'hospitalité; car, en l'exerçant, quelques-uns ont logé des anges, sans le savoir. Be not inhospitable to strangers, for, in practicing it, some have entertained angels in disguise.
As many of you know by now, George Whitman passed away on Wednesday, at the age of 98. For those who didn't know him, or who are not familiar with this literary legend, I will try my best to introduce you to him. Perhaps I could begin by telling you how it was I came to meet him?
Walking into Shakespeare and Company is like walking into a book: the scene is as dramatic as the characters that live there... I immediately noticed George! How could you miss him? He sat behind a messy desk, looking as worn as his cherished editions. His clothes were tattered too; a psychedelic ensemble of layers covered him from head to toe: a colorful shirt clashed with a colorful vest which clashed with a colorful coat and so on...
His hair fought for distinction above the rest: unruly white locks, seared at the ends (did you ever see the video of George "cutting" his own hair: no scissors necessary; a pocket lighter sufficed!).
Seeing George was sensory and emotional overload for this aspiring writer: for here was the greatest character of all! Only, instead of pulling out my notebook and sketching George, via words—it was all I could do to hurry past him, and hide among stacks. There, I could better process what I had just seen: evidence of the ultimate hero.
"What have you found?" George inquired. A little startled, my eyes shot down to the books in my hands. I was struck by the irony of the subject matter: there was a book on home cooking... and another on women's lib (it was, I believe, a book on women writers who had emblazoned a path to publication—in a time when only men were allowed to publish).
On the way upstairs George literally bumped into one of his "tumbleweeds" (one of the 40,000 lost souls/writers he would host in his shop) and screamed, "What are you doing here? There's work to be done!" I witnessed, for the first time, the bookseller's duo personality: part angel par "incorrigible" (he certainly had a temper, perhaps to temper his overgenerosity?).
"They're writing their memoirs," George explained. I watched, in awe, wishing for anything to trade places with one of the young, down-and-out writers who got to live in this house of books and dine with its cranky host.
A sign above the door read:
Be Not Inhospitable To Strangers Lest They Be Angels in Disguise
A door off one of the rooms led to a stairwell, where an old spiral staircase joined the various levels of the bookshop. George pointed up to the third floor, it seemed he lived up there....
I was grateful for the generous tour, an impromptu look-see that many before me (and many after...) had enjoyed as well. It all depended on George's mood, if he felt like it, he might show you around and even invite you to stay.
"You'll have to come back for soup sometime," he offered, telling me about the irish stew he is known to make. I couldn't believe he was offering this to me, as he had to the writers in the upstairs study.
And then, a dream came true and I had the honor of speaking at the bookstore... I asked his daughter, Sylvia, if by chance George would be around for the talk. "He's upstairs resting," she said, "but he will hear you," she assured me...
Saying a nervous "bonjour" to the audience... wondering if George might, by chance, be listening from his room just above...
Back at home while processing the photos from my talk, I saw this beautiful image, of Sylvia, listening in on the talk. That is when I remembered her assuring words, "He will hear you..."
* * *
Post note: I am so glad I took George's advice and, instead of reading about women writers (in the women's libbish book, I opted for the cook book... went home, had babies, took care of my husband... and wrote about it all in one of those autobiographies that he encouraged his "drifters" to undertake! George, you are the man! Thank you for creating this eclectic, warm, bookstore that continues to create and welcome writers and readers. We love you dearly.)
I wrote about my talk at Shakespeare and Co. (and overcoming public speaking jitters) here. Don't miss it.
You must watch Portrait of a Bookstore as an Old Man. Savor the documentary this weekend, or when you have the chance. It is a touching video and will tell you most everything you need to know about Shakespeare and Company and the incorrigable angel behind it. RIP, dear George!
Some news articles:
American Dean of Paris Literary Scene dies at 98
Whitman nurtured aspiring writers at Paris bookshop
And in French:
George Whitman, adieu l'ami américain
Paris : mort du fondateur de la librairie Shakespeare and Co
George Whitman, le fondateur de la librairie Shakespeare and Company, à Paris, est mort
A Message from Kristi: For twenty years now, support from readers like you has been an encouragement and a means to carve out a career in writing. If my work has touched you in any way, please consider a donation. Your gift keeps me going! Thank you very much.
Ways to contribute:
1. Send a check (to this new address)
2. Paypal or credit card
3. A bank transfer via Zelle, a great way to send your donation as there are no transaction fees.
Or purchase my book for a friend, and so help spread the French word.
For more online reading: The Lost Gardens: A Story of Two Vineyards and a Sobriety