Michael Dover remembers George Weidenfeld

Michael Dover remembers George Weidenfeld

I joined W&N from Penguin Books – then a semi-Marxist organisation editorially, dedicated equally to the self-improvement of the working man and the rooting-out of Establishment ills through a series of Penguin Specials – in 1983. I worked for and with George for the next nearly 30 years. The transition from a somewhat ascetic environment to the rich, heady, slightly rackety life as a director of W&N was a culture shock. Sherry with Oxford and Cambridge (and occasionally Manchester) dons was replaced by a series of glamorous chases in pursuit of book ideas prompted by George’s fertile mind.

My predecessor, Mark Boxer (a galaxy of high-profile men and women have sailed with the good ship W&N over the years), took me out to lunch in then highly fashionable Langan’s Brasserie on my first day and told me all I needed to know was that for George life was all about the chase; the pursuit of ideas, of authors, of women. The acceptance and consummation, or rejection, of the first two was up to me. But I needed to move quickly if I wanted to nip something in the bud.

Sensible and timely advice – George worked tirelessly, and a proposal or more a day was par for the course. Often he would return in triumph after a lunch to settle into his interior-decorated office perched high above Clapham Social Services in a dingy office block off Clapham High Street: "I have signed up X for £Y but laid off the advance with a serialisation in the Mail." "But George, we still have to sell the book to make any money." Get in quickly enough with a sensible objection to the duds and he would happily back down. But there were as many gold-plated ideas as duds (and the duds were kindnesses usually the result of social obligation). The chases however could be wonderfully exotic: lunch at the Georges V in Paris with Pierre Berge (Yves St Laurent’s lover and manager); a couple of days amongst the treasures in the library of Coburg Castle, lunch at the Ritz with Princess Di’s father and helmet-haired stepmother; listening to George propose the same idea to the chairmen of both Sotheby's and Christie's on the same day ("why waste a good idea…"); a gooseberry at a lunch a trois with the gossip columnist Nigel Dempster, as George and Nigel compared, competitively, their astonishingly complex love lives before going on to talk about book ideas; squeezed uncomfortably at the opera between two big men, George and Stan Remington, head of Book Club Associates, then a powerful force in publishing, as they snored stentoriously through Tcahikovsky’s Mazeppa.

Fascinating locations, extraordinary people with wonderful stories to tell, his social and intellectual antennae opened all doors. Perhaps the most extraordinary of all was a week in Moscow with George and Ann Getty and an American editor (flying to and from in Ann Getty’s private 747 with a fleet of black limousines – one each ­– to meet us) as the guests of the Soviet Writers Union. Amongst the great and the good of pre-Glasnost Russia, a dreary place with little to eat and a publishing industry paralysed by the coming threat of "economic self-determination" we met Colonel-General Volkogonov, head of Military Intelligence. Sitting around a samovar we listened to him say that in his post he had inherited Stalin’s bookcase (which loomed behind us). He had read all the books in it, and all the marginalia Stalin had scribbled in them – he knew Stalin’s mind. Back in the hotel afterwards George ushered us into the bathroom and turned on the taps so we couldn’t be overheard. Perched on the bath and the lavatory we discussed the events of the day. Volkogonov’s Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy was subsequently published by W&N.

George was not only a chaser of ideas and authors, he was also one of the Great and the Good himself, who made things happen. He lunched and dined tirelessly at his wonderful Geoffrey Bennison-designed apartment overlooking the river at Chelsea Embankment, all black lacquer and brass with his collection of popes everywhere, a Bernini bronze, a Bacon, countless others - it was often said he would have made a marvellous Renaissance pope. Here he hatched and debated ideas, endlessly curious about people and the ways of the world. He was generous, a wonderful mentor, and worked to advance the lives of those who came into his orbit. At a lunch for one of my authors, a then little-known tutor at the V&A, he invited virtually the whole of the panel chosen to select the new director of the National Portrait Gallery. The speech he gave and my author’s response alerted the panel to a new star and the appointment was duly made and a stellar career as a museum curator launched.  

He worked tirelessly for good causes, usually in the field of reconciliation between warring nations, whether the Middle East or Middle Europe, where he put his uncanny ability to make things happen behind the scenes, by matching X on one side with Y on the other. George knew everyone, was indifferent to tribal labels, thought the best of everyone (not always reciprocated) and tried always to make the world a better, safer, more intellectually stimulating place. We shall miss him.

Michael Dover joined W&N in 1983 and retired in 2012. He is now a ghostwriter.