PARIS (Reuters) - The man who nurtured a generation of aspiring writers at a rickety English-language bookstore in Paris, offering supper and a bed to literature fans providing they dusted the shelves or penned their memoirs, has died aged 98.
George Whitman, an American, died in the little apartment at the top of his Shakespeare and Company bookstore where he hung with Beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac half a century ago and until recently hosted literary tea parties on Sundays for anybody who cared to come by.
Decorated with a French medal for his contribution to the Paris literary scene, Whitman became a father figure over six decades to a stream of would-be writers from around the world who would curl up in his second-floor library for weeks on end.
Henry Miller once called his store, open since 1951 on the arty left bank of the Seine, “A wonderland of books”.
“Thousands of people from around the world ate his clam chowder and strawberry ice cream and survived thanks to his generosity,” said Pia Copper, 38, an art dealer who worked at the store in the 1990s and remained a close friend.
“He offered them the possibility of living across from Notre Dame for free while they penned their first novel or painted a picture. There were a lot of books and poems written there.”
The green-fronted store was shuttered on Thursday and well-wishers left votive candles, flowers and novels at the door, where a formal announcement of his death said he would be missed by bibliophiles around the world.
Handwritten tributes cellotaped to the store thanked Whitman for his generosity in providing a haven for “aficionados” of literature or apologised for not finishing novels.
“I’m sorry I was so bad at the poetry reading,” said one note. Others were left inside a wine bottle whose label read: “Messages in a bottle: For George. Something for you to read on your trip.”
Whitman, who liked to dub his bookstore “The Rag and Bone store of the heart”, after a T.S. Elliot poem, was born in New Jersey and spent part of his childhood in China.
After studying journalism and travelling extensively, he moved to Paris in 1948 with a bicycle and a cat as his only possessions and slept in a university garden, as he liked to tell the story. Once settled, he began collecting books and started a lending library in his dingy hotel digs.
He opened his bookshop, “Le Mistral”, in 1951 and renamed it several years later as he incorporated books from the original Shakespeare and Company store frequented by James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway before it shut down during World War Two.
Opened by American-born Sylvia Beach in the 1920s, also on the Left Bank, the original store won fame for publishing James Joyce’s banned book “Ulysses”.
Whitman’s shop became a stopover for writers like Miller, James Baldwin, Samuel Beckett, Anais Nin and later on Lawrence Durrel, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso and Ginsberg. Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti became one of Whitman’s closest friends.
It grew into a tourist landmark and gathering point for anglophone expatriates, attracting eccentrics, nomads and dreamers. When an American ambassador once popped in for a visit, Whitman cheekily offered her a corner to sleep in.
Living by a motto taken from Yeats — “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise” — Whitman helped out bohemian souls in return for them lending a hand in the shop or cooking supper. Hundreds left behind handwritten notes telling their life story.
“I was in my early 20s and just arrived in Paris when I wandered in and sat down to read. George appeared and said ‘You’re an old China hand like me. You start work tomorrow,” said Pia, who was just starting out importing art from China.
Whitman suffered a stroke in October, but refused to stay in hospital. He had an ambulance crew carry him home, up two cramped flights of stairs and past wall-to-wall bookshelves to his bed, laughing with happiness to be back.
The store was his whole life and he rarely left it, except to take the odd trip to wildly exotic locations, Pia recounted.
Whitman, who penned many essays but never wrote a book of his own, will be buried on December 22 in Pere Lachaise cemetery, resting place of such literary luminaries as Oscar Wilde, Moliere and Jim Morrison. His family plans to mark his grave with a statue of Don Quixote, one of his favourite fictional characters.
His daughter Sylvia, who sat at his bedside as he grew weaker but refused to stop reading, will now run the store.
Additional reporting by Tim Hepher, editing by Paul Casciato