Sunday, January 8, 2012

Remembering George Whitman, and Paris


George Whitman in front of "Shakespeare and Company" which he owned

Remembering George Whitman, and Paris

Like many other people must have done, when I read about the passing of George Whitman in the New York Times, I thought of Paris. As the proprietor of the Shakespeare and Company bookshop, George Whitman was there for so long I don’t think anyone would have expected him to not be there forever.

I read the article and thought of my first visit to Paris, five weeks in 1974, with Charles Henri Ford. Charles introduced me to some very interesting people, and George Whitman was one of the first people he took me to meet. We visited him in the bookshop often after that first time. He was very unassuming, and I didn’t have any idea then of the icon that he was. I remember a cat sitting there, and a little upstairs gathering space where people would stay for a few days or longer. There was a coffee pot and a little sofa where people could sleep.

I liked going to the bookshop, and since Charles had his apartment on the Ile St Louis, It was very close by for us, just over the bridge, past Notre Dame. For years to come, whenever we were in Paris, Charles was always very happy to see George. Usually they’d speak in French, so I couldn’t understand much of it. French was Charles’s second language and he always spoke French in Paris, but despite the classes I took at the Alliance Francais, I was never able to really follow a conversation in French. I liked everything in Paris except the language.

George Whitman in his bookshop
One of the people I met in Paris during that first visit was Man Ray. I didn’t know anything about him at that time, of course, and I don’t remember many of the details of the visit because my English was still so limited, but it was very obvious to me that Man Ray had something special about him. Everyone I met through Charles was in someway influential, that I understood, but I had no idea who any of them were. There was Edouard Roditi, who Charles had known since the 1930s when they both published work in the French Surrealist magazine, transition, there was Mary McCarthy, who always invited us to her elaborate parties, we had lots of visits with Brion Gysin at his place, and many times we visited Leonor Fini, who would sit like a grande lady on the sofa in her living room, surrounded by cats. She was somebody who Charles had known since his View magazine days in the forties.

Sometimes Charles and I would make a rendezvous with Ted Joans if he was in Paris when we were, and we’d always arrange to meet him at Shakespeare and Company. We’d say hello to George Whitman, and then we’d go for a big long walk together, always with a destination in mind, an art opening or a movie, and we’d walk for hours. We took many, many long walks in Paris, for miles and miles. I remember the wonderful old-style book and postcard sellers along the river, and the way that they would just lock up their wooden book boxes at night like trunks and go home. Ted Joans spent lots of time in Paris, too. He always had a little tiny apartment somewhere, different ones, that he would call his nest. Ted’s nest was always packed with books, there was always a wife or a girlfriend, and sometimes when he’d be leaving Paris for a while he’d have to find a place to store all his boxes full of books, and I remember more than once going to help him haul all his stuff to Charles’s basement.

For me, that early period of my life with Charles, going around to different cities and visiting different people, was a time of listening more than talking. I just went along and listened. That was a big part of my education. I also went to the first museums of my life in Paris, many of them, and I saw a lot of movies.

I think the last time I saw George Whitman in Paris was in 1986. He was there in his bookshop, just like he always was, and we were glad to see him the way we always were. He was one of the more quiet presences out of all those people I met, and I don’t remember any particular conversations with him, but I liked him, and thinking of Paris will always remind me of him. He was two years and two days short of living to be exactly 100, a long life of quiet influence on many people who will no doubt remember him for a long time to come.

George Whitman December 12, 1913 – December 14, 2011

You can read the New York Times article here: