The Freest Spirit: The Much-Needed Biography of George Whitman

George Whitman photographed above his bookshop in 2008 © Olivier Meyer

In our Biographies We Need series, Signature writers look at the lives of some extraordinary individuals and ask the nagging question: Where's their definitive biography? 

In mid-December, 2011, when the legendary bookseller George Whitman died, former residents of Shakespeare & Company -- estimated at 35,000 aspiring writers, bibliophiles, and vagabonds -- mourned the man who was undoubtedly one of their greatest patrons. (Full disclosure: I number among those 35,000.) By the time I was there, just weeks before he died, Whitman was virtually uninvolved in the day-to-day operations of Shakespeare & Company, the bookstore he founded in 1951, but the mark of his distinctive bohemianism was everywhere: from the "wishing well" on the ground floor into which tourists throw 5 cent Euro coins, to the nook in the children’s book area upstairs, where visitors from all over the world post notes to the "Mirror of Love." As Vanity Fair writer Bruce Handy put it in a recent profile of Whitman’s daughter Sylvia, Shakespeare & Company is less a bookstore than a "half-planned, half-accreted, site-specific folk-art masterpiece.”

An evasive, self-mythologizing man (which will make him a fascinating, if troublesome, subject for a biographer), Whitman was born in 1913 in New Jersey, but spent most of his childhood in Salem, Massachusetts. Though he told people in later years that he was related to Walt Whitman, any kinship was purely spiritual in nature. According to his New York Times obituary, he was first seized with wanderlust when his father took the family to Nanking, China, during a sabbatical year from teaching; he spent his years after college in Boston traipsing through North and South America, only to return after "getting bogged down in a swamp in Panama." During World War II, he enlisted in the army, after which he remained in Europe. He began operating a lending library out of his tiny Left Bank hotel room, which he said he did to satisfy his inner frustrated novelist. (Note for potential biographers: please track down some of his attempts at fiction.) Eventually, he earned the trust of the influential bookseller and publisher Sylvia Beach, who bequeathed the name of her store to him (this is a point of some historical dispute). In 1964, Whitman redubbed his store, by then a brick-and-mortar establishment, Shakespeare & Company, and a shelter for the world’s literary weirdos was born.

As the paterfamilias of the scruffy Shakespeare’s family, Whitman could be alternately dictatorial and magnanimous. As an actual father -- to Sylvia Beach Whitman, the product of George’s one attempt at marriage -- he was rather absent, once handing off his toddler daughter to two customers for a few hours respite. As a storeowner, he was significantly more successful, playing host to scores of famous poets and authors for more than four decades. Zadie Smith, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (a good pal of Whitman’s), William Styron, and Anais Nin (though somewhat unhappily) have all read there in some fashion, either aloud or to themselves in one of the ratty armchairs.

For many of those years, Whitman himself lived in a small apartment above the two-story shop, and that is where he passed away in 2011, just two days after his ninety-eighth birthday. He left behind a massive, messy archive filled with scraps of paper, which editor Krista Halverson is currently sifting through and organizing in hopes of publishing a history of the store. It’s unclear how much of the history will place George at its center, but even if he's well covered in that volume, his life clearly had enough stories for more.

The "Mirror of Love" in Shakespeare & Company

Mirror of Love