Samuel Beckett introduced me to George Whitman on August 15, 1983, in Paris. Or rather, I arrived in Paris on the morning of August 15, 1983, after finally finishing college, having been given by my father, the playwright Israel Horovitz, a one-way ticket and a date with Samuel Beckett.
The date with Sam was that same bleary morning. Café crème cigars cut with cups of actual café crème. Sam, inquiring how long I would be staying and who I knew in town, promptly suggested that I might go see George at Shakespeare & Company, a bookstore near Notre Dame. I hadn’t given any good answers to Sam’s questions about my prospects in Paris, and I suppose he was concerned that as a friend of the family he could end up being responsible for my well-being. This was not, it has been written, his strength.
“I’m here to see George Whitman. Samuel Beckett said to say he sent me.” I was corralled up to an apartment at the top of the building and handed over to a whisp of a man with a large dog and a small child. George’s first words to me were: “Hurry up, will you? Get this gingerbread made. The poet Robert Bly is coming to tea.” It was a Sunday and in those days at the bookstore there was a regular Sunday tea party (and nightly midnight snacks I learned a bit later). There was also an immemorially beautiful young woman named Felicity, mother of the small child, hurriedly cleaning mismatched glasses and teacups.
I didn’t know how to make gingerbread, but I was young—and good enough company and possibly even nice to look at (despite my unflattering Laura Ashley)—and I furtively managed to get someone to help me fix the cakes as George raced in and out muttering the word “Beckett” under his breath and occasionally looking in my direction. I didn’t know how much more to explain about myself but suffice it to say that when Bly walked in the door and said “Rachael, what are you doing here?!”—being friends with a famous writer was about as close to a secret password as you could get with George—I found myself locked inside the bookstore for the good part of the next year, which, well-known to those dear to me, became the best year of my life.
George gave me a home in the writer’s room (except for the nights Ferlinghetti came through town), a job looking after the front desk, and after his equally arresting-as-her-mother daughter Sylvia, and usually Baskerville, the dog, too. George was a bookseller who lived on recycled scraps of food, habitually disappeared early in the mornings on his Mobylette, never saying where he was going or when he would be back. I spent afternoons with Sylvia in the park behind Notre Dame dreaming of Paris even though I was in Paris, waiting for George to come back to 37 rue de la Bûcherie, kilometre zero. I spent nights waiting for the midnight snack, which meant time with George. When he liked you, he had no clock, no attention deficit, no interest in the world other than the conversation he was having with you at that moment.
In those conversations, George made it clear that a non-literary life was unacceptable. He ordered me to write my autobiography. These talks were circular—his demands and my excuses—I was only twenty-one, for God’s sake. This went on for more than twenty-five years, my story still unwritten. I let him down and went into the film business. When I would return to Paris every May on my way back to New York from Cannes, I would nervously climb the steps to his door. Would he still want to see me? Would he be angry? Dismissive?
He never disappointed. He often gave me his own bed and sat nearby as we watched real movies on his old TV. He could not have been less interested in the films I was working on, which over the years included “Blue Velvet,” “About Schmidt,” and “Moneyball.” He was still my teacher, talking through the dubbed classics we watched together most nights till dawn, eating jars of peanut butter and drinking sweet tea. He was a presence like no other: handsome, witty, attentive, and sly. He thought Beckett was the star, but boy was he wrong. I will start my autobiography immediately.