George Weidenfeld, ennobled by Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson in his dissolution honours list in 1976, was one of the last of a sadly diminishing roll call of European émigré publishers who did so much to enrich Britain’s post-War culture. A timely reminder, if one were needed, of the extent to which refugees have benefited our nation, intellectually, practically, commercially.
Lord Weidenfeld was perhaps the most prominent and certainly the most glamorous of the group, frequently in gossip columns for whose editors he provided much fodder, personally and professionally. His name has been linked with many people down the years but synonymously, of course, with Nigel Nicolson. A Savoy luncheon in 1947 led to the young Nicolson joining Weidenfeld’s new-born Contact magazine as assistant editor. In what was to set a pattern for friends and wives, he also invested in the project. (Nicolson also provided W&N with a sensational bestseller: Portrait of a Marriage.)
The magazine lasted for two years but the business relationship endured and led to the founding of Weidenfeld & Nicolson, at which company innumerable young publishers began their careers, among them Barley Alison, Tony Godwin, Michael Dover, Colin Webb and Antonia Pakenham, who would go on to a successful career as Antonia Fraser, historian and biographer. Then there were the authors: Cyril Connolly, Isaiah Berlin, Vladimir Nabokov, Saul Bellow, Mary McCarthy, Eric Hobsbawm, Margaret Drabble, Edna O’Brien, John Berger, Bernard Lewis, whose Double Helix made him the Stephen Hawking of his day. And there were endless politicians, from Britain and abroad, all of them part of George’s vast circle of friends. Name another publisher who attended conferences at the Papal summer residence, Casta Gandolfo!
Born in Austria, young Weidenfeld arrived in London via Dover with just a suitcase and took up residence in dreary lodgings near Kings Cross. Six months later, Hitler marched into Prague and the BBC began recruiting linguists for its monitoring service, placing an ad in the Times. George was offered employment for three months or for the duration of the National Emergency, whichever was sooner. So, as it was for many of his generation, the Second World War was the making of him. His early years were spent in monitoring and analysis and then he became a commentator on European affairs for what would become BBC World Service, his remit to liaise with “so-called governments in exile”. The role brought him into contact with young would-be politicians such as Patrick Gordon Walker (father of publisher Alan) and Richard Crossman, whose Diaries he would later win the right to publish after a protracted and ground-breaking legal battle.
Weidenfeld was, he told me in an interview in 1999 to mark 50 years of W&N, “a one-man script factory producing talks and features on occupied Europe”. At 23, he wrote his first book: The Goebbels Experiment, published by John Murray. “The War made me willy-nilly a walking encyclopaedia of the Third Reich and I went straight from the BBC into publishing. I made a virtue out of necessity: I knew Europe, I had languages. I was going to do a lot of translation and a lot of reporting.”
His first aim was to be a magazine publisher, hence Contact. Then came news that paper was to be rationed so he and Nicolson decided to be “real publishers”, launching W&N with A New Deal on Coal by a young MP named Harold Wilson. Both Weidenfeld and Nicolson “learned on the job” though he confessed neither of them had a financial brain. Their first member of staff was Nicholas Thompson, who stayed for 25 years before heading up Pitmans.
It was Lolita that put W&N on the map in 1959. Helped by the DPP, it became the first bestseller. The decision to prosecute the publisher was delivered to Weidenfeld at the novel’s Ritz launch party. “It ushered in a very exciting decade which coincided with the rise in publishing before a recession.”
In more general terms, one of the important contributions Lord Weidenfeld made to his own company and to publishing in general was his “invention” of international co-edition publishing, hitherto restricted to art publishing. “We were the pioneers of a certain kind of illustrated book. For instance, Nigel’s book Monarchy was a biography, illustrated throughout… Rainbird went on to do the same thing exclusively, but we blazed a trail, creating this concept of international co-editions. Co-editions, particularly for a company that’s not particularly cash-rich, are a very good thing, because they spread the burden. It’s a simple thing now, but not so obvious then.”
Weidenfeld would visit the US four or five times a year, lengthy trips with a briefcase stuffed with 40 dummies and 200 outlines – Colin Webb, his “bag carrier”, went on to be a successful publisher in his own right. He was the ultimate ideas man, one who could pick up the phone to publishing friends around the world to test out his latest brainwave, suggest a deal for a new series or a new author - £1,000 a book, half now, half on publication. “And the publisher would say done! A deal done in about three minutes. I filled the lists of certain publishers.” Small wonder that in 1969 his first author, by now PM, knighted him for services to publishing.
But his publishing career remained just one thread in a larger, richer tapestry. Politics, education, the arts – all overlapped seamlessly in his life. Indeed, he saw them as part of the whole. Doors were open to him in capitals around the world and his editors were used to being told that this or that former president or diplomat would shortly be requiring their attention. At various times, Weidenfeld was Vice Chancellor of the Open University Development Programme, Senator of the University of Bonn, chairman of the board of governors of the Ben-Gurion University of Beersheba… Only last year he set up a fund to aid Christians in Syria threatened by ISIS. “I find it all interfaces easily with my publishing work. It sounds a lot, but we publishers have some minor aptitude for lateral thinking.” Lord Weidenfeld was a networker long before it became a media buzzword.
That lack of financial nous and Weidenfeld’s largesse led to problems as publishing was reshaped in the 1980s and he found support from Ann Getty before, in 1991, W&N became part of Anthony Cheetham’s new Orion Publishing Group which itself became part of Hachette. Lord Weidenfeld himself never ceased to be involved and his influence and contact book could be seen in every catalogue. But W&N, a once singular publishing house, was inevitably diluted, becoming an imprint like any other, a few star names sprinkled among others at which the good Lord must have looked askance. Few working in the book trade today realise how important it was, how significant its founder.
Publishing will never see his like again for it no longer attracts renaissance figures. Indeed, Lord Weidenfeld observed that “the best people no longer go into publishing, in part because the rewards are so poor, the security non-existent. I try not to say it was better in the past, but I’ve come to the awful conclusion that it is so. There’s a lowering of standards everywhere.”
So would he have done it all over again? “Yes, I’d very much like to do it again. Publishing would suit me best.”
Liz Thomson is a freelance journalist.