The first time I saw George Whitman was the mirror of the last. If not the first at least the first up close: I must have been fifteen and had run away from home to be a writer — not too demanding since home was a few blocks down the Seine; and even then we all knew that Le Mistral Bookstore, as it was then called, was "an offbeat mix of open house and literary haven" where "Whitman provided food and makeshift beds to young aspiring novelists or writing nomads," — at least according to his obituary. In the real world, that night, George wandered into the upper room where I was hoping to settle in for a few hours, gave me the withering sneer of the professional Beatnik, and wandered off again, and I left.
Not a problem: writing of Vienna in the 'twenties, Elias Canetti mentions that even the name of Freud (suggesting "Joy" in German), was a promise that sustained you; and Paris in the 'sixties would sustain you, George or no George: there was Sartre, and Lacan, and the Jazz musicians, folks you felt were there for you if you were up to meeting them on their own turf; folks who hated the tourists and the gawkers, but who had some respect and infinite patience for those who wanted to be more than that; for whom the building of a community, an interpretative community, was a simple, a practical matter of their own survival; meanwhile, folks named George (be it Plimpton or Whitman) were busy turning Paris into a version of their own hellish New York, where you were never good enough for whatever community they'd happened to concoct — where some day you'd begin to wonder if the whole point of concocting a community was to create the gawkers and the squares and subscribers who paid the rent.
The last time I saw George was in his bookstore, a few years back. He gave me a big smile of recognition — the smile he gave to every potential customer I suspect; forty years had passed, and maybe he was too stoned, or old, to recognize me; but his smile meant the same as that first sneer: that you're always good enough to play square to us hipsters, never good enough to join — that in fact there is nothing to join at all, and never has been. My partner tells me when she turned up at George's bookstore, back in the 'seventies, he was quite welcoming. That could be simply because she's a guril, but I suspect it's because she turned up in the 'seventies: and George had spent a good part of the late 'sixties and years beyond nurturing the myth that he'd once been welcoming, back in the 'fifties and early 'sixties.
And this, I say, is the real shame behind the name that George borrowed for his store: Shakespeare and Co, which he'd taken from Sylvia Beach's legendary bookstore further in on the Left Bank: all brand and no product; not even his own brand. Rather than building a community he borrowed the image, even the name, of a community, and skipped the hard, giving work of building one.
12/15/2011; revised 1/2/2012.
The last time I saw George Whitman.