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George Whitman: Owner Of Shakespeare and Company Bookstore In Paris, Dies At 98

George Whitman

JENNY BARCHFIELD   12/14/11 04:43 PM ET   AP

PARIS — George Whitman's life was packed with the type of adventures that filled every nook and cranny of his bookshop, Paris' iconic English-language Shakespeare and Company.

A bohemian traveler, Whitman was once nursed to health by Mayans in the Yucatan during a 3,000-mile (5000-kilometer) trek across Latin America and sometimes bragged that he had lived in Greenland with a beautiful Eskimo woman.

At home, Whitman was best known as a pillar of Paris' literary scene. For more than half century, his eclectic Left Bank shop was a beacon for readers, who spent long hours browsing its overflowing shelves or curling up with a good book next to a drowsy cat.

Shakespeare and Company was also a haven for every author or would-be writer passing through the City of Light.

For them, Whitman reserved a welcome that turned Yeats' famous verse – "Be not inhospitable to strangers / Lest they be angels in disguise" – into deed: He took in aspiring writers as boarders in exchange for a helping hand in the store.

Whitman died Wednesday in his apartment above the bookstore, two days after his 98th birthday and two months after suffering a stroke, the store announced on its website.

He "showed incredible strength and determination up to the end" and read every day with his daughter, his friends and his cat and dog, according to the statement. "Nicknamed the Don Quixote of the Latin Quarter, George will be remembered for his free spirit, his eccentricity and his generosity."

The store was shuttered Wednesday, and longtime customers, students and anonymous book-lovers lit candles on its stoop to pay their respects.

The store will live on under the management of Whitman's daughter, Sylvia Whitman. In an interview with The Associated Press earlier this year, she summed up the unique store this way: "My father says it's a Socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore."

Whitman was born on Dec. 12, 1913, in East Orange, New Jersey, although he grew up in Massachusetts.

His twin loves of the written word and foreign travel were nurtured early on, when his father, a physics professor who authored several science books, took the family along for a yearlong sabbatical at a Chinese university in 1925.

That was the first of a series of adventures that later saw Whitman wander Latin America, sail to Hawaii and hitch his way across the United States.

After graduating from Boston University with a degree in journalism in 1935, Whitman enlisted in the U.S. Army. During World War II, he was trained as a Medical Warrant Officer and treated the wounded at hospitals across Europe, according to the store's statement.

Whitman moved to Paris permanently under the GI Bill in 1948. Three years later, he founded his bookshop in a rickety old building directly across the Seine River from Notre Dame cathedral. Initially baptized "Le Mistral" after the blustering winds that blow in off the Mediterranean, the shop's name was later changed.

The original Shakespeare and Company bookstore came from legendary literary matron Sylvia Beach, and the place was a magnet for English-speaking expats like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. She opened that store in the early 1920s in a Left Bank district not far from its current home, on the rue de l'Odeon. The shop gained fame by publishing Irish writer James Joyce's banned book "Ulysses."

World War II forced it to close, and Whitman gave Shakespeare and Company a new life in new digs in 1951.

Over the decades, Whitman's refuge for literary souls from far and wide became a Paris institution. It's widely regarded as an honor for authors to give a reading at the store, where eager listeners jostle for a spot among the stacks of first, second- and thirdhand books lining the walls and floors.

Whitman was made an officer of arts and letters by the French Culture Ministry in 2006.

He is to be buried in the city's venerable Pere Lachaise cemetery, where the remains of literary giants including Oscar Wilde, Balzac and French poet Guillaume Apollinaire rest, the posting said. The date of the funeral has not yet been set.

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Associated Press writer Elaine Ganley contributed to this report.

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Filed by Jade Walker  |