Tribute to Lord Weidenfeld, One of the Last Great Émigré Publishers

In Feature Articles by Roger Tagholm

Lord Weidenfeld, with (left) his wife Annabelle, and Lady Antonia Fraser

Lord Weidenfeld, with (left) his wife Annabelle, and Lady Antonia Fraser

By Roger Tagholm

George Weidenfeld — Lord Weidenfeld — whose death at the age of 96 was announced yesterday, was a towering figure in the industry, someone who seemed to embody not just the history of publishing, but the history of Europe itself. The co-founder of the UK’s Weidenfeld & Nicolson, he will be remembered as one of the last great figures from the days when individuals gave their names to publishing houses.

He is also almost the last of that distinguished line of great Jewish émigré publishers who fled the rise of the Nazis in Europe. Some came to the UK — Paul Hamlyn, Andre Deutsch and Souvenir’s Ernest Hecht (who is thankfully, and magnificently, still with us); others to the States. Fred Newman (Manfred Neumann), the founder of trade journal Publishing News, (where I worked until its closure in 2008), was also part of that exodus — in his and Lord Weidenfeld’s case, from their native Austria. The pair had a warm relationship that may have had its roots in this shared history. I can hear Fred now saying: “I’ll call George and see what he thinks.”

Weidenfeld was not part of the establishment when he arrived on UK shores just before Hitler invaded Poland, but he ended up very much so. Indeed, his meeting with Nigel Nicolson gave him a fast track into that world, Nicolson being the son of diplomat, diarist and politician Harold Nicolson; and Vita Sackville-West, celebrated poet, novelist and garden designer.

The pair first started a magazine — Contact — which was followed in 1949 by their own publishing house, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, whose list of authors would go on to include Antonia Fraser (the first employee), Saul Bellow, Margaret Drabble, Edna O’Brien and, famously, Vladimir Nabokov, whose Lolita it published in 1959. There were to be many more, including at least one Pope, a Python and the Rolling Stones.

He received his peerage in 1976 and in 2007 was the recipient of the London Book Fair Lifetime Achievement Award, in recognition of his achievements across six decades of publishing. It was presented by fellow eminent publisher Christopher Maclehose, who praised Weidenfeld’s “openness to writers, illustrators and artists from across the globe” and his embodiment of the “way Europe bred with British publishing [to] revive and enrich” the industry.

He continued working well into his nineties, long after W&N had become part of Orion and then part of Hachette. His office was close to that of Weidenfeld Publisher Alan Samson who kept an eye out for him, rather in the way Weidenfeld had kept an eye out for him when he hired Samson as a young 21-year-old trainee more than 30 years ago. Samson told The Bookseller: “I shall miss George more than I can say. Not only his publishing genius, but his kindness, his boundless curiosity and passion for books.”

That kindness was marked by a recent act last November when Weidenfeld helped fund 2,000 Christian Syrians fleeing ISIS. He explained that he wanted to do this because he had been helped by Quakers and Plymouth Brethren to escape Nazi persecution before the war and he wanted to repay the debt. He established the Weidenfeld Safe Havens Fund to provide 12-18 months’ paid support for refugees. He told The Times: “It was Quakers and other Christian denominations who brought those children to England. It was a very high-minded operation and we Jews should also be thankful and do something for the endangered Christians.”

Weidenfeld was famous for lavish parties at his apartment on Chelsea Embankment in London, with guests at one including the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson, Henry Kissinger, Princess Michael of Kent and the ageing Lawrence Olivier, who collapsed on a tray of drinks and had to be rescued by Edna O’Brien.

He was married four times, and Lady Weidenfeld (Annabelle) was frequently at his side at publishing events, among them the Orion group’s annual author parties. They cut a striking image, one all smiles and glamorous hair piled high; the other more severe looking, with the industry’s most fabulous eyebrows, escaping like grey wisteria above deep eyes that had seen so much history.

The last words should belong to his long-term business partner with whose name he will forever be associated. In his memoirs, Long Life, Nigel Nicolson recalled a letter he wrote to Weidenfeld when the latter received his peerage. “Dear George, you have deserved this more than any of the other honorands, for you started with the least advantages, and by courage, hard work, intelligence and enterprise, you have created something of enduring value …”

To which many will say a quiet, respectful “hear hear.”

About the Author

Roger Tagholm

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Roger Tagholm is based in London and has been writing about the book industry for more than 20 years. He is the former Deputy Editor of Publishing News and the author of Walking Literary London (New Holland) and Poems NOT on the Underground (Windrush Press).