George Whitman, owner of Paris bookstore Shakespeare and Company, dies at 98

December 14, 2011

George Whitman, the owner of Shakespeare and Company, a bookshop that became the center of English-language literary life in Paris and might be the most famous and beloved bookstore in the world, died Dec. 14 in his apartment above the store. He died two days after his 98th birthday.

According to the store’s Web site, he had had a stroke two months ago.

Mr. Whitman was an American expatriate who found his way to Paris after World War II and never left. He opened the bookstore, directly opposite Notre Dame cathedral, in 1951.

In time, Mr. Whitman’s jumbled shop, with its sloping shelves and teetering stacks of books, became something of a cathedral in its own right and a required stop for Americans in Paris.

For decades, Mr. Whitman presided over the store with a benign if somewhat mercurial presence, holding poetry readings and providing free room and board to thousands of would-be Hemingways. It has been featured in books, documentaries and the recent Woody Allen film “Midnight in Paris.”

Mr. Whitman originally called his store, at 37 rue de la Bucherie, Le Mistral.

“I came to Paris in 1946 and stayed on,” he told the Literary Review in 2003. “I started a little lending library for American GIs who had stayed on in Paris. I finally decided I’d open a bookstore here to make room for all my books.”

The shop’s early customers included Beat Generation writers William S. Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg, as well as novelists Richard Wright, Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell.

An earlier incarnation of Shakespeare and Company, founded in 1919 by American expatriate Sylvia Beach, had been a gathering place for the “Lost Generation” writers of the 1920s. Beach published James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses” in 1922, and her store was described in Ernest Hemingway’s Paris memoir “A Moveable Feast.”

Beach closed her store in 1941 rather than sell her final copy of Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake” to a Nazi officer.

Mr. Whitman befriended Beach in the 1950s and bought her stock of books before her death in 1962. Two years later, on the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth, Mr. Whitman renamed his store Shakespeare and Company in Beach’s honor.

“He tried to carry on the tradition of the bookshop as a nurturer of writers and artists,” said Noel Riley Fitch, the author of the 1985 book “Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation,” in an interview Wednesday. “He had the same kind of hospitality — helping writers make connections and meet people.”

Fitch had an apartment in Paris for 20 years and knew Mr. Whitman well.

“He could be a real cranky guy, but he had a big heart,” she said.

He was notoriously thrifty and often collected discarded food from restaurants and hotels. He trimmed his hair with a candle — dousing the flame with water — bought his clothes at rummage sales and was seldom seen without a cigarette in his hand.

At his bookshop, Mr. Whitman staged poetry readings, served tea in the afternoon and offered to put up young writers in beds that were tucked among the bookshelves. His only requirement was that each writer had to read one book a day and write a short autobiography before leaving Paris.

On the wall of the store, he prominently displayed a welcoming verse: “Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise.”

George Bates Whitman was born Dec. 12, 1913, in East Orange, N.J., and grew up in Salem, Mass. He sometimes suggested — against all evidence — that he was related to the poet Walt Whitman. In fact, his father was a physics professor named Walter Whitman.

In 1925, Mr. Whitman spent a year in China with his family, an experience that gave him a love of travel. After graduating from Boston University in 1935, he traveled on foot through Mexico and Central America.

He was a cable-car conductor in San Francisco, a hobo and a Harvard graduate student before serving as an Army medic during World War II.

Mr. Whitman was known for having a series of much-younger girlfriends. His only marriage, to Felicity Leng, ended in divorce. Survivors include a daughter from that marriage, Sylvia Beach Whitman, who was born in 1981 and now runs Shakespeare and Company.

Over her father’s objections, she installed a telephone and set up a Web site but has otherwise maintained the same atmosphere of dusty discovery that people came to expect under her father.

“People have nostalgia for a place like this,” Mr. Whitman said in 2003. “There is no place like this in the whole world. People say they feel so much at home. People say that this is the first place in Paris that is what they expected to find.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.