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Thursday, December 15, 2011

May heaven be hospitable to you, George Whitman

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“Be not inhospitable to strangers
lest they be angels in disguise”
I should not be typing up a blog post. Thanks to those of you who have been concerned about my hands, arm and shoulder, which are giving me grief from inflammation due to work on the computer. I am trying to be good and limit typing to university work. But I cannot neglect posting on the peaceful-in-his-sleep passing of American George Whitman, owner of the Shakespeare & Co bookstore in the Latin Quarter of Paris since 1951, at age 98. The quote above is painted above the lintel of a doorway in the happily disheveled shop, where books are roughly categorized by type, and you worry that you will topple a pile of them when you squeeze around a corner into the next room.
The first time I "met" Mr. Whitman was in 1997, one of the thousands (millions?) of strangers who have visited him there, caught in the above photo, taken by my sister Nancy. She and I spent two weeks in Paris after our mother died with Alzheimer's. Nancy had been Mom's primary caregiver for six months, and this was Nancy's much deserved vacation; she invited me along. Mr. Whitman stamped my Collected Poems of Phillip Larkin with this emblem of the shop (right). Read my first blog post at my Paris blog (Paris Deconstructed) in April 2006, about the time Mr. Whitman asked if I had a place to sleep, here.
I would love to type up more for you to read about George Whitman, but I must keep this short. You can read his story in this NYTimes article upon his death yesterday. He was a legend, and in case you're wondering, the NYTimes article seems to lay to rest the question about whether George was related to Walt Whitman. I will always think fondly of him, for the way he opened his arms to me one day in 2004 and asked if I had a place to sleep. Has anyone ever been sorry they had a place to sleep? I was that day, and I regretted saying, "yes."

My then sister-in-law Donica snapped this photo in 2004
 of George Whitman while he was asking me 
if I had a pillow for the night (fuller story here);
he invited writers and bibliophiles to sleep in his upstairs guest room, 
as long as they agreed to sweep up and help around the shop;
but my sister Boots (Ginnie)
and her then wife Donica and I already had a place

an upstairs room before a poetry reading (not by me!) on my solo trip in 2006; 
authors and poets like Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Samuel Beckett,
 James Baldwin and Allen Ginsberg read in his bookshop  
I love this board in front of the bookshop, with his brief but wonderful
autobio that ends with ". . . it is my daughter's turn" which refers to
Sylvia Beach Whitman, who now runs the store and was 
named for Sylvia Beach, the woman 
who owned the first Shakespeare & Co bookstore; 
history of Shakespeare & Co at wiki here
me in front of the bookstore in 2004;
George Whitman was already old then,
and I wondered if he'd live to be 100

Oh, and in case you have never seen it, you can witness
the extraordinary way Mr. Whitman "cut" his hair in this video;
there is a bonus if you watch and listen.


Below is the view of the Notre Dame cathedral just across the Seine
from Shakespeare & Co, when Don and I
stepped out of the bookstore in 2003, and a storm was brewing.
-Here is
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24 comments:

Maureen said...

Such a marvelous shop, as is your memory of being there and meeting Mr. Whitman. Legend indeed!

I hope you feel better very soon, Ruth.

deb colarossi said...

Simply amazing.

and yes Ruth, heal heal and put this glitch behind you.

sending love .

Louise Gallagher said...

I visited his story many times when living in Paris during the summer's of my teen years.

And sadly, never understood the value of the place I was passing through.

when in Paris as an adult, his store always fascinated me.

As for you, missy! Heal. Heal. Heal.

Sending white light and healing hues your way.

Shari Sunday said...

What wonderful pictures. I can't wait to read more. On my way to my new part time job. I'm so sorry you are having trouble with your hands and arms. Hope all is well soon and you have a great Christmas!

Deslilas said...

Bel hommage à un honnête homme.
Puisse son message inspirer nos dirigeants actuels si durs envers les étrangers.

"Auntie" sezzzzzz... said...

-sigh- I have such an ache in my heart, reading this... For something not done, when I had the chance.

In 1999, my husband gave me "Springtime in Paris", for our 40th Wedding Ann. :-) We walked by "Shakespeare & Co." And did not go in. I knew of it so I can't blame lack of knowing. But we were in a hurry to get to another old spot, I wanted to visit and.........

And of course, I will not be able to go back...

If you have a chance to do something - Take it!!! If you do not do so -- You will regret it, all the rest of your life!!<--My "Wisdom101" for the day.

Sorry about your computer issues. Thank you for giving us this post, even though you probably shouldn't have done so.

Gentle hugs,
"It is good to be children sometimes,
And never better than at Christmas."


~~Charles Dickens

Margaret said...

I am here to sit for a spell and soak in many of your posts I have missed. The weather is fantastic here in central NC and I laugh when people say it is cold. It must get down below 30 degrees and be windy to be cold for this Northern Michigan gal! :)

...each dream, each midnight, any star
are garment thoughts of her put on.

Beautiful! What a character he (sadly) ... was. But what a full life he led. Does he have any published works as I would love to purchase them. I googled but couldn't find any... but I came up with this article (if you read it make sure to read the 5th paragraph... I loved closing my eyes and imagining it!)

Hemingway at Shakespeare & Company

I hope that link works.

I hope you heel properly as we NEED your typing fingers and arms in perfect working order.

Bruce Barone said...

What a wonderful post!!!

rosaria said...

Ruth, what a beautiful share!
Thank you!
Do take care of your hands,wrists, arms. Inflammation is a nasty thing. Let yourself be spoiled for a while, and enjoy the fuss around you.
Happy Holidays.

Gwen Buchanan said...

Beautiful memories Ruth.. the lives some people live are novels in themselves...

Grandmother said...

Great story of this amazing man and his bookstore. Thank you for sharing him with us. But wait! You have it backwards- take time off from work to heal properly and use your little typing time here- not the other way around! Seriously, may your healing be swift and total.

Amish Stories said...

I'm just stopping by different type of blogs and thought id say hello folks. So greetings from an Amish community in Pennsylvania, and wishing everyone a merry Christmas and a healthy and happy new year. Richard from Amish Stories

George said...

Thanks for this great post, Ruth. I've been in Shakespeare and Company many times and loved every visit. Yes indeed, you should have denied that you had a place to sleep, but you have redeemed yourself well with the recollection of your memories. We need not worry about old George in heaven. Surely, he is "a moveable feast" that will fare well in any venue.

The Solitary Walker said...

Such an extraordinary and wonderful man! I've never been in 'Shakespeare and Company', but have read about it many times - and about Sylvia Beach - in various accounts of Parisian literary and bohemian life. Beach, an even more extraordinary character if that's possible, was, of course, the first publisher of James Joyce's 'Ulysses'. I've read many amazing stories about Hemingway's and Henry Miller's connection with the shop. Well, much more than a shop: a refuge, a salon, a hub of the cultural universe. I suppose in the future such inspiring, essential 'thin places' will only be stumbled upon in the literary chatrooms of cyberspace: a slightly disturbing thought.

Great pic of the two of you...

Ruth said...

Friends, thanks again for your kindness about my hands. I'm on Christmas break now, so they will be resting from all day on the computer!

I feel quite grateful to have talked with George Whitman and to have spent time in his shop, even though I never knew about it or him before that trip to Paris in 1997. To be such a person, who opens his arms and life to anyone who wants to come into them, really does create a "thin place" as Robert wrote (and George wrote in a recent post) where heaven is touchable (and moveable).

Nancy said...

Thank you so much for sharing these memories. I love the question - do you have a place to sleep? Wow. That says it all, doesn't it? That and the worn look of those red steps.

Arti said...

Thank you Ruth for such a wonderful tribute to George Whitman! What an extraordinary man, and exceptional bookshop / resting place. Let's just hope his daughter will continue the great legend started by Sylvia Beach. We all need a place like this, a sanctuary for writers and readers alike. I've appreciated too that amidst your pain and inconvenience, you've written this post. My heart-felt wishes to you Ruth for a complete recovery from the inflammation and that you'll enjoy peace and joy in this Christmas Season.

steven said...

ruth - my gratitude for posting this extraordinary story through your pain. i've been in a similar spot and the words burned through my arms regardless of commonsense!!! steven

Ginnie said...

I'll never forget it, of course, Sister. You have more memories of it than I...more visits...but I cherish what I have of it, especially through your eyes!

Montag said...

Thoughts here and there...
this week NY Review of Books has a cover review on a book about Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil, and I think it says George lived upstairs at Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare & Co. for 10 years in the 20's or 30's.

ds said...

Such a beautiful tribute. Amazing bookstore, amazing man. Beautiful "surprise" at the end.
Thank you so much for sharing this, especially through your pain my friend. Now, rest!

Oliag said...

What a rich life he lead...and what a generous spirit! If it were me I would also be regretting having a room at the inn till the end of my days!!

I am truly in synchronicity with you in that I have been trying to rest a bicipitus tendenitis and partial rotator cuff tear...It is amazing how much sitting at a keyboard can make a shoulder hurt! I can do it if I am standing by the kitchen counter with the computer on the counter:)

Jeanie said...

Well, first, it is testament to my absence from blogging that I did not realize about your hands. I hope you can rest them this holiday, give them warmth and healing.

I read of this in the paper and was sad indeed. I, too, have visited Shakespeare & Company, but unlike you never that the opportunity to encounter Mr. Whitman. I'm the poorer for it -- he was a treasure in his role as shopkeeper; more so, I think for many reasons, far more personal to you.

Your photos bring back a part of Paris I love. All beautiful in every way.

Montag said...

Thank you for the wonderful story.