Bill French—A Sister's View

by Bettina French

When I first discovered this web site, almost four years after my brotherís death, I was astonished Ö then sad, as I relived painful memories Ö and finally grateful that a total stranger was touched by Billís life enough to create this tribute.

I donít know much about Billís specialized field of knowledge, but I did know him as my kid brother and an absolutely unique human being. Here are some memories of the Bill I knew.

Childhood

My first memory of Bill is seeing a bundle in my motherís arms when she came home after a mysterious absence in February, 1943—a bundle that turned out to have red hair the exact shade of my own. Our family moved a lot while we were growing up, but Chappaqua, NY, was closest thing we had to a home town. Wherever we lived, I was always trying to fit in and Bill was always a rebel.

Gradually the family realized that Bill was unusual. He started collecting books early (among his favorites were Blake and Faulkner), his IQ was spectacular, he seemed incapable of anger or violence, and he had a distinctive sense of humor, most of it directed against the absurdities and hypocrisy of everyday life.

This, of course, got him into trouble at school. My parents got numerous notes from teachers, suspension notices, etc. Next came a series of private schools, none of which could deal with him. The last was a fancy school for underachievers in Neuchatel, Switzerland. After a few months the somewhat offended headmaster wrote our parents: "Apparently Bill finds no challenge here. The teaching is geared to passing examinations; he finds it dull and uninspiring. He feels that he would be better off at home with his books. When we go on tours and I suggest that he come along, he told me, with a certain amount of pride, that he prefers not to go with the crowd."

Finally, my parents discovered a wonderful boarding school in midstate New York that welcomed unusual, bright kids who don't go with the crowd. There Bill fell in love with another talented misfit, Garland Eliason, who later became his wife.

I was away at college when Bill lost his eye at around age 14. He had been outside playing with his friend Cleve. (Cleveís parents didnít approve of Bill and later forbade Cleve to associate with him.) Bill came to dinner with his hand over his eye. Since he often did weird things, my parents ignored him—until they saw the blood. They rushed him to the hospital, but it was too late to save his eye. He told them he and Cleve had been shooting bee-bee guns at empty cans and one of them richoceted and hit his eye. Twelve years later, he told me the truth: Cleve had "playfully" pointed the gun at him and accidentally shot him in the eye. Bill did fine with one glass eye. The only time you could tell was when he smoked pot and one eye—the real one—got bloodshot.

Around the World

Our father rose to become an executive in a big chemical company and our parents moved from Chappaqua to Greenwich Village. Bill graduated from prep school at 16 and discovered New York and Walter Goldwaterís book shop. At 17 he entered New York University, and after a semester he persuaded our parents to pay for him to travel instead of for tuition.

In May, 1961, he left on a freighter to Tangiers. For the next two years he hitchhiked around the world—to Paris, then east through Asia. He wrote hundreds of letters to me, his parents, and Garland, all of which were carefully typed by my mother.

He was young and vulnerable, often at the mercy of strangers, and often sleeping outdoors or in public places. But he was fed and housed and clothed by some of the poorest people in the poorest countries. He was never robbed until he got to Australia, his next-to-last stop before the US, where all his possessions were stolen. And the only time he was molested was after he landed in the US and was hitchhiking home to New York. His 1961 passport picture shows a slightly chubby, innocent-looking boy. When he arrived home in May, 1963, he was 30 pounds thinner and much more cynical.

Radical Politics

His trip politicized him. Of course it was the '60s, when it seemed that everyone was into left-wing politics, but Bill found a permanent home there. The first visible sign was that he stopped cutting his hair and grew a beard. Both his politics and his hair disturbed and bewildered our father. Mom went along with Dad, but down deep she was also a bit of a rebel.

He was further radicalized by confrontations with the police. When the city closed Washington Square Park because of anti-Vietnam demonstrations, Bill joined the folksingers who went to the park. He was promptly arrested, jailed, and charged with resisting arrest and kicking and bruising the arresting officer (Bill was wearing worn-out sneakers at the time and he never hit or kicked another living thing in his life). My father hired the best defense lawyer he could find—Ed Koch, before he became mayor. Dad wanted to sue for false arrest, but Koch told him that the best we could hope for was to have the charges dismissed because "every cop in New York will lie."

There was a place called Big Whitey that had a huge sign saying "Just say Big Whitey," which struck Bill as stupid. One day he went in and just sat there saying "Big Whitey" until he was arrested for loitering, whereupon he explained that he was just following instructions. I laugh every time I think of that.

Bill wanted to be drafted so he could burn his draft card but they didnít want one-eyed soldiers in Vietnam. So he settled for demonstrations like burning fake draft cards, distributing radical pamphlets and posters, and becoming a "Yippee." He got to know others who used humor to fight the establishment, like Abbie Hoffman and Tuli Kupferberg (who came to his memorial service).

He did his best to radicalize me. He was my inspiration when I picketed for integration while living in North Carolina and when, after I moved to Chicago, I protested at the 1968 convention, opened my home to visiting tear-gassed Yippees, and later marched in the "Chicago Seven" protests.

The Good Years

In 1963 Bill got a job in Walter Goldwaterís University Place Book Shop. (If I ever said "store" instead of "shop" I was firmly corrected.) Walter was the perfect mentor for Bill. The book shop was the perfect place for him to develop his expertise in documents and literature dealing with third-world countries, radical politics, and Black culture. The timing was right, too, as interest in those areas was rising. The original University Place Bookshop was a thriving part of "Booksellers Row." When Walter became ill with leukemia Bill took over the book shop, and when Walter died in 1985 he left it to Bill.

In 1968 Bill married Garland Eliason, a talented artist by then, and they had a son, Will. They found an affordable apartment in the Marshall Chess Club building on E. 12th street where he lived for the rest of his life.

These were good years, shadowed only by Garlandís health problems. Will went to a wonderful parent-run pre-school , and Bill and Garland became close friends with the parents of his sonís best friend, Zachary Brown, who remained his friends and supporters to the end.

The Sad Years

This is the part thatís hardest to write. Booksellers Row was dying out, and the new landlord kept raising the rent on the shop, which was really a 9th floor loft with crumbling walls, minimal plumbing, and books and pamphlets in piles everywhere. The rent became far more than Bill could pay. The "mob" was extorting money from him to take the trash. Meanwhile, Garland was diagnosed with HIV contracted from a blood transfusion she received in 1982, just before they started testing, and she needed more and more care. Bill was devoted to her.

Bill would have moved the shop, but he couldnít move Garland and he couldnít be far from her, so he tried to keep going by selling parts of his collection. In 1995 he was evicted and sued for nonpayment of rent. A goodhearted lawyer, Dan Schneider, took his case pro bono, so he didnít have to pay back rent, but he lost the store. In 1996 he took a break from caring for Garland and came to the Chicago area for our motherís 85th birthday, looking haggard, but with flashes of his old humor. He sold the remainder of his collection to NYU, then stayed home with Garland until she died in June, 1997. Bill was devastated. He died five months later, officially of cardiac hypertension.

Here are some of the things said by people who came to his memorial service.

"Bill was an anarchist; he inherited Walterís attitude as well as his shop." — Billís closest friends, the Browns

"I first saw Billís name in a newspaper article headlined "3000 Beatniks invade Washington Square." Then we became friends. Bill proved that you donít have to be working class to be radical." — Tuli Kupferberg

"I met Bill when I started working for Walter in 1966. I was a witness at Billís wedding. I had a great friend for 30 years." — John Fiske

"He was brilliant and hilarious. The world was terrible, but he was still funny." — Another man who worked in the shop

"The first person I asked to join our board Ė even before Noam Chomsky Ė was Bill. He had the sense of humor I lacked. And he knew that preserving the history of the poor was aiding in the struggle for the poor." — Larry Lawrence, chairman of the John Brown Society

"His knowledge was incredible. No matter how chaotic his shop looked, he always found what you wanted in a pile or a drawer. He was totally honest and never profiteering." — A book dealer whose name I didnít get

"What I remember most is the strength of the love between Bill and Garland, and their love for Will." — Lois Lord, family friend

"I was there when he was clearing out the loft. The last piece of furniture was his desk. He turned it upside down and found a letter dated 1800 from the first general of Haiti." — David Johnson, rare book collector

19 October 2001

© 2001 Bettina French, published on The Autodidact Project site with her permission


A Memorial Tribute to Bill French

The Bill French Center
An information center for the documentation
of bookseller Bill French and the University Place Bookshop,
co-sponsored by The C.L.R. James Institute



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