Lord George Weidenfeld
A POWERFUL FORCE
Nicholas Clee meets the publisher whose inauspicious start in this country was overcome by his energy and talents
A bright young woman, fresh out of Oxford, was once heard to gush: ‘I’ve just met George Weidenfeld at a party and he told me I could write a book for him about absolutely anything I like!’ The story may well be apocryphal. But it offers a neat caricature of the style of a man who has spent more than 60 years in publishing and who, at the age of 92, is still active at the imprint, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, that bears his name. The party, the bright young woman, the impulsive commissioning of books: these have been notable features of Weidenfeld’s career.
What rings less true is the vagueness of the commission. Weidenfeld tends to know what he wants. He suggested to the young, Oxford-educated Antonia Fraser that she should write a book about Mary Queen of Scots – a book that became a notable bestseller, launched Fraser’s career, and paved the way for a new generation of historians. He suggested to the young, Cambridge-educated Arianna Stassinopoulos that she should write a biography of Maria Callas – another bestseller. (Later, he advised Stassinopoulos on how to get on in the US; now Arianna Huffington, she is the multi-millionaire co-founder of The Huffington Post.)
However, there has been a great deal more to Weidenfeld’s career than coups such as these. He has published statesmen, political thinkers, scientists, and philosophers; a Jew, he has published a Nazi (Albert Speer), and a Pope (John Paul II); he has published fiction by Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov, and Edna O’Brien. He has been a pioneering publisher of illustrated books. More than this, as he would see it, he has been a promoter of ideas, an advisor of governments, and a catalyst for conciliation across national and political boundaries. And he has achieved his eminence after arriving in Britain as a refugee, with nothing in his possession save a postal order and the address of a refugees’ organisation.
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Lord George Weidenfeld © Graham Jepson/Writer Pictures
newbooks meets Weidenfeld at the publishing office he continues to visit every working day – when he is not on an overseas trip. He is a rare example of a man who has sold his company but retained an honoured place in it. Weidenfeld & Nicolson became part of the Orion publishing group in 1991, and later part of the giant French publisher Hachette. But the various owners, who might have shunted the founder into retirement, have instead recognised that he remains a considerable asset to the company. From this base, he also contributes six columns a month to the German newspaper Die Welt. (He visits Germany every month in his role as advisor to the paper’s publisher, Springer.) For an hour each day, he visits a second office, that of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, of which he is President. He is active in academia through the Weidenfeld Scholarships, the Europaeum network of universities, and the Humanitas Programme of visiting professorships. He betrays few signs of slowing down. There is a great deal that he is ambitious to accomplish, he says.
Lord Weidenfeld, GBE, formerly Sir George, belongs to an extraordinary generation of European emigrés who have enriched the British book industry. They include his fellow Viennese exiles Bela Horowitz and Walter Neurath, who founded the art publishers Phaidon and Thames & Hudson respectively; Berlin-born Paul Hamlyn, who set up Octopus; from Budapest, André Deutsch; and from Moravia, Ernest Hecht, still the proprietor and MD of Souvenir Press.
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Lord George Weidenfeld © Graham Jepson/Writer Pictures
The social climbing label would be very easy to stick on Weidenfeld. His autobiography is, after all, in large part a collection of reminiscences of the important people with whom he has mixed. From the index, here are just some of the ‘A’s’: Abdullah, King of Jordan; Aberconway, Christabel, Lady; Acheson, Dean; Adenaur, Konrad; Aitken, Max; Amiel, Barbara; Anglesey, Henry Paget, Lord; Arafat, Yasser; Arendt, Hannah; Astor (Brooke, David, and Vincent); Attlee, Clement; Auden, WH; Ayer, AJ. But Weidenfeld does not collect these people as if they were trophies. He is interested in what they can teach him, or in what they can produce, or in how they can interact with each other.
‘It was never an effort of climbing, but happened very naturally,’ he says. ‘When I started publishing the magazine [Contact], I knew I needed a literary editor, who could talk to writers and artists and theatre people, and so I met Stephen Spender and offered him the job. He said he was sorry but he was going to America to take up a teaching post, but he knew a nice young man called Philip Toynbee. Toynbee introduced me to Ben Nicolson [Nigel’s brother], WH Auden, and Isaiah Berlin. Harold Nicolson was a Governor of the BBC, and he said to me, “You have these ideas for a magazine: my son Nigel is in the forces, and he wants to stand for Parliament and to have a part-time job.” So that’s how I started in the Bloomsbury world, and the political world, and through the BBC the international world.’ (Nigel Nicolson was to be forced to step down as a Conservative MP in 1959, in part because of his association with the scandalous Lolita.)
‘People said I was striving. It wasn’t striving at all; these things happened. I want to say this – not that I have to justify myself: I have never made the slightest concession over who I am or where I come from. I have strong tribal feelings, coming from my own rabbinical family, which goes back to the 14th century. So I have no reason to feel inferior.’ He has never succumbed to the ‘dangerous tendency’ that some foreigners feel, to try to be what they’re not – ‘though in a curious way, you can get much more credit for it’.
He describes himself as ‘very Jewish. Not so much in the religious way – I’m not a very religious person. But I’m a very tribal Jew. I believe in this family, you see, to which every Jew belongs. And of course I’ve been a Zionist since I was 16.’ Working with Chaim Weizmann as the new Israel developed was ‘an extraordinary experience for a 28-year-old’. He had to return to London, because he felt that he could not abandon Nigel Nicolson and the firm they had created. ‘But I promised to Weizmann that when I got back, not a day would go past when I didn’t wake up and think Jerusalem, and go to bed and think Jerusalem.’
Asked where he thinks he belongs, he says that he is ‘mongrel British, by loyalty and gratitude. I like being in this country, but I’m also central European.’ Some people in these circumstances would portray themselves as outsiders, but not Weidenfeld. ‘There’s no milieu I’d like to be in that I feel rejects me. And sometimes milieus that others find attractive bore me. A Zionist has a built-in pride of where he belongs and doesn’t mind if he doesn’t belong elsewhere. A non-Zionist feels that doors are locked to him because of his origins.’
Weidenfeld’s Zionism has influenced a shift in his political sympathies. Naturally a man of the centre left, he switched from Labour to the Social Democratic Party on the SDP’s launch in 1981, but now sits on the cross benches. Labour and the Liberals, he feels, are both anti-Israel. ‘My priority in political thinking is Israel and the Middle East, so of necessity I’ve become non-left. If I had a vote, I would vote Tory. If I were in Germany, I would vote CDU and not Social Democrat, and if I were in France I’d vote for Sarkozy and not the socialists.’ The standard of politicians in general, he believes, has declined. ‘The Labour party had Richard Crossman, Harold Wilson, Tony Crosland, Nye Bevan. Look at the MPs today. It’s not the same.’
Of the emigré-founded imprints mentioned earlier in this piece, only one, Souvenir, remains independent. The rest are all part of multinational conglomerates. As publishers sold up, many of them felt they were signing away their lives’ work. Not Weidenfeld. ‘It hurt me less than it did others, because publishing was an outlet for my interests. I’d rather be with a very friendly Hachette than struggling along by myself. I’ve never had restrictions in access to financial resources. They leave me alone, and they’re very appreciative.’
Happily married to his fourth wife, as eager as ever to commission books for Weidenfeld & Nicolson, and engaged on numerous other ventures, Lord Weidenfeld remains a vibrant force. He is venerated by his colleagues, and by the authors whose careers he has facilitated – a veneration sometimes tinged with friendly amusement, because Weidenfeld, like many great people, has a kind of naivety that enables him to surmount obstacles over which the more self-conscious stumble. Other publishers have been responsible for fine books; Weidenfeld, one of the great figures of the post-war book world, has been something larger, a figure of social and political force as well.
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Lord George Weidenfeld © Graham Jepson/Writer Pictures
‘If I may say so, I probably read more books than most publishers – not necessarily always books that I publish,’ he says. ‘I am usually reading half a dozen books at the same time.’
Weidenfeld was born in Vienna in 1919, spending the first few years of his life in straitened circumstances before his father, a struggling academic, improved the family’s fortunes by accepting a relative’s introduction to the insurance business. It was a happy and secure childhood, in a culturally rich city; for much of the 1930s the Weidenfelds, and other members of the thriving Jewish population
of Vienna, could not believe that any great harm could come to them. At the time of the Anschluss
(the absorption of Austria into Nazi Germany), Weidenfeld was studying law at the university
and was also attending diplomatic college. As a prominent Jewish businessman, his father was arrested and imprisoned. The director of the college advised Weidenfeld to get away, and Weidenfeld secured a visa after his mother had broken down in tears in an interview with the British passport officer.
‘One evening after a hot day at the end of July,’ Weidenfeld writes in his memoir, the somewhat stodgily titled Remembering My Good Friends, ‘I left for the Western Railway Station with one suitcase, a postal order for sixteen shillings and sixpence in English money, an exam certificate from the Diplomatic Academy, a sheaf of curricular vitae of hapless friends wishing to join me in England and the blessings of many relatives and friends.’ However, once arrived in London, he proved immediately adept at meeting the right people, who introduced him to more of the right people. British society was largely welcoming, he found, if not always tactful: at one tea party, the hostess turned to him and asked, ‘I hear you come from Germany. Did you know the Goerings?’ If he encountered anti-Semitism, he dismissed it. One of the secrets of Weidenfeld’s great success has been to pursue his interests with passion, while ignoring what dismays or bores him.
He got a job at the BBC, producing talks and features on occupied Europe, and editing propaganda sheets in German, French, and Italian. While there, he conceived the idea of publishing a journal, Contact, which would contain serious reportage and analysis. He got it off the ground in 1947, in partnership with Nigel Nicolson, son of the writers Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West. But, in addition to the usual problems attending highbrow publications, there was paper rationing to contend with. A lawyer advised Weidenfeld and Nicolson to publish books, which were not subject to the same restrictions. The partners’ first break came when Israel Sieff, who ran Marks & Spencer with Simon Marks (and whose niece Weidenfeld was later to marry), commissioned them to produce a series of illustrated children’s classics. In 1949, Weidenfeld took a year away from the firm to work as Chief of Cabinet to Chaim Weizmann, the first President of Israel.
Weidenfeld & Nicolson’s early employees included, as well as Antonia Fraser (née Pakenham – she is the daughter of Lord Longford), Clarissa Churchill, later to become the wife of Prime Minister Anthony Eden, and later still (in 2007), to publish her memoir with the firm; and Sonia Orwell, widow of George Orwell. It published memoirs by Mussolini and Tito; the philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox; Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March (which Sonia Orwell acquired); and Margaret Drabble’s novels, starting with A Summer Birdcage. At the end of the 1950s, the firm was the subject of headlines round the world when it committed to publishing Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel Lolita, the narrative of a man’s love affair with a 13-year-old. On the eve of publication, Weidenfeld & Nicolson held a reception for Nabokov at the Ritz, attracting guests including Nabokov’s fellow Russian emigré Igor Stravinsky. It was only while the party was taking place that Weidenfeld learned, thanks to a telephone call, that he would not be charged for issuing an obscene publication.
‘People said I was striving. It wasn’t striving at all; these things happened.'
Eminent publisher he may be, but Weidenfeld has never been a ‘bookman’. The book trade term describes someone – the examples were once all men – who is dedicated to the trade in all its aspects, as both a lover of books and a clubbable member of industry bodies. Weidenfeld dedicates himself to finding authors, matching them to book projects, and striking deals; he is entirely uninterested in every other stage of the publishing process. If he seeks the company of colleagues in the industry, he does not do so because of what they do for a living.
‘I have never been a hands-on publisher like André Deutsch, who knew every bookseller and every printer and so on,’ he tells me. ‘I was not the detailed editor: I was the ideas man, the creator, the wheeler- dealer with foreign publishers. I don’t see many publishers. I think I must be a quite different person from them... I’m not interested in the production or the marketing or the selling, or having long lunches with agents and pretending to be interested in what they have to say.’
Perhaps for this reason, certain sections of the bookish establishment have never taken to him. When, in 1969, Weidenfeld was knighted as a result of his service as an advisor to the Labour Government, he received an outrageously insulting letter from Mark Longman, head of the Longman publishing company: ‘Dear George, It is customary for the President of the Publishers Association to write, on behalf of the Council of the Association, when a member is mentioned in the Honours List – hence this letter. I am sure that all your fellow-publishers are aware of the hard work which you have put
in to attain your Knighthood and I send you this recognition of your achievement.’
The shocking subtext is barely concealed: ‘You are a pushy, social-climbing Jew.’ But Weidenfeld is not inclined to name anti-Semitism as a principal factor in people’s unfriendliness. ‘The publishers who were nastiest when I started out were Victor Gollancz and Freddy Warburg [the Jewish heads of the Gollancz and Secker & Warburg publishing houses]. Whereas Allen Lane [founder of Penguin Books] and Jonathan Cape were friendly and generous.’ Cape, he thinks, was rather pleased to do business with the high-born Nigel Nicolson.
Another unfriendly comment about Weidenfeld is that he does not read. Certainly, it is not worth asking him what he thinks of the latest Martin Amis or Margaret Atwood, or even of works by a good many Weidenfeld & Nicolson authors. The kinds of books he reads tend not to come up as subjects in dinner party conversations. ‘If I may say so, I probably read more books than most publishers – not necessarily always books that I publish,’ he says. ‘I am usually reading half a dozen books at the same time.’
His professional interest in the books he published, however, usually ended at the point when the contracts were signed – although he often hosted, and still does, elegant launch parties for them. He has stuck to what he does best, and to what has interested him. ‘I realised when I started in publishing that I couldn’t compete with the old established houses for the biggest English writers, so I made a point of getting to know Europeans, and many of them, such as de Gaulle and Tito, became bestsellers. I also had the good luck of having editors like Philip Toynbee [the journalist and novelist], Barley Alison [an Australian-born deb who had been with SOE during the war and who was to become Saul Bellow’s friend and editor], Tony Godwin [later to be the editorial head of Penguin], Christopher Falkus [who signed up Olivia Manning, author of the Balkan Trilogy], and Sonia Orwell, who got me involved with leading American novelists like Mary McCarthy, Saul Bellow and Irwin Shaw, and with European writers like Marguerite Yourcenar, Simone de Beauvoir and Heinrich Böll.’ Sonia Orwell had a reputation as a hard-drinking, difficult woman, I suggest. ‘She was difficult in her private life, but I wasn’t involved in that in any way,’ he replies.
‘My own speciality tended towards non-fiction, memoirs, books on the war, and testimonials from the
Third Reich and the Soviet Union. So we had a very wide list.’
He also discovered a taste for negotiating, not so much with literary agents but with international publishers. ‘I was the first person to use the technique of Thames & Hudson and Phaidon to non- art publishing – a book about great houses, for example, or a history of Italy, or the story of Rome.’ The technique was to sell the series – the most ambitious of which was a 40-volume History of Civilization – to foreign publishers before he published them, financing the projects with the proceeds of the advance sales.
‘I liked foreign publishers, who were different from English ones,’ Weidenfeld says. ‘In France, Germany, and Italy they were grands seigneurs – the Gallimards, Mondadoris, Ullsteins and so on [all clans that have given their names to significant publishing companies]. They were all fun.’ One reason for this congeniality, he suggests, is that European publishers were less used to dealing with literary agents.
As a result, they were closer to their authors. ‘In those days, the publisher was the author’s banker, publisher, psychoanalyst, lawyer.’
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‘I was not the detailed editor: I was the ideas man, the creator, the wheeler- dealer with foreign publishers. I don’t see many publishers.