Obituary: Peter Janson-Smith

Obituary: Peter Janson-Smith

Best known as Ian Fleming’s literary agent, Peter Janson-Smith, who died at the aged of 93 on 15th April, was a fine and effective agent of the old school, combining courtesy with hard-headedness, conviviality with shrewdness, and an accurate insider’s knowledge of the book trade with a humorous love of gossip. The son of the rector of Wimborne St Giles in Dorset, he was born on 5th September 1922 and educated at the Cathedral School, Salisbury, and St Edmund’s Hall, Oxford, where he took a wartime degree: he also spent part of the war working on “ack- ack” [anti-aircraft artillery] units in London.

In 1952, drawn to the world of books and writing, he started his career with the literary agent A D Peters. Two years later he moved on to Curtis Brown, where he managed its foreign rights department. He was to prove particularly adept at selling foreign rights and dealing with European publishers: he became a popular and active figure at the Frankfurt Book Fair, often travelling out with his close friend André Deutsch. Peter always relished the company of those European publishers who had done so much to revitalise British publishing after the war—including Deutsch, George Weidenfeld, Ernest Hecht and Klaus Flugge.

The thriller writer Eric Ambler, one of Peter’s earliest clients, encouraged him to set up his own agency; Peter Janson-Smith Ltd opened for business in 1956. The firm started out in Artillery Mansions, a gloomy red-brick block on Victoria Street, but for many years he shared offices in Great Russell Street with fellow agents Elaine Greene and, for a time, John Wolfers; and from there he moved to offices in Stoke Newington.

His other clients included Gavin Maxwell, whom he encouraged to write Ring of Bright Water; C Northcote Parkinson, whose Parkinson’s Law (plus sequels) sold in their tens of thousands for John Murray; the early Anthony Burgess novels, including A Clockwork Orange; spy novelist Alan Williams, author of The Beria Papers; and the young Richard Holmes, only recently down from Cambridge, whose Shelley: The Pursuit immediately established him as the leading biographer of his generation. Among the members of staff who joined the firm was the equally young Deborah Rogers, who in due course set up on her own and soon established a reputation as an outstanding literary agent.

Janson-Smith acquired Ian Fleming in 1956 on the recommendation of Ambler. After Fleming’s death in 1964, he chaired Glidrose Publications, later renamed Ian Fleming Publications, the company which held and controlled the rights in Fleming’s work. As well as keeping his work in print and in the public eye, Peter authorised the publication of Kingsley Amis’ James Bond sequel, as well as later sequels by John Gardner and Raymond Benson. He also managed several major literary estates for the Authors’ Division of Booker PLC, including those of Agatha Christie, Georgette Heyer and A A Milne.

Peter became further involved in the affairs of the A A Milne Estate via his long service as a trustee of the Royal Literary Fund (RLF), a charity established in 1790 to relieve distressed authors. After acting as its treasurer, he served as its president from 2003–2005, succeeding Sir Stephen Tumin, the former inspector of prisons, and preceding Sir Ronald Harwood. In 2001 Peter concluded complicated and hugely beneficial negotiations between the A A Milne Estate, the Garrick Club, Westminster School and Walt Disney Enterprises, which brought the RLF some £80m in capital reserves, enabling it to launch various new initiatives including the RLF Fellowships Scheme, which funds some 70 writers to teach in universities and other institutions.

At some point in the late 1970s, Peter worked, rather improbably, as an editor for Oxford University Press. The press’ general division, headed by Sir John Brown, had recently moved from London to Oxford, leaving a small rump of editors rattling about in Ely House, the grand 18th-century building in Dover Street long occupied by the press’ London end. Peter seemed ill at ease there and made little mark as a commissioning editor. His office boasted an enormous fridge; I worked for the press at the time, and remember how Peter and I would often meet Kingsley Amis to discuss his forthcoming New Oxford Book of Light Verse. On the dot of 11.15 a.m. Amis would invariably say ‘Peter, that fridge looks interesting.’ The first of many corks was pulled, and progress on the book ground to a halt.

Peter married three times, had four children (Patrick, Diana, Alice and Deirdre), seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Deirdre mounted international exhibitions for the Wellcome Trust, and Patrick— an ebullient, successful and much-liked publishing editor—launched the successful Black Swan imprint. Peter’s third wife was the Polish translator of Gone with the Wind and literary scout Celina Wieniewska, who died in 1985. He is survived by Lili Pohlmann, widow of the Austrian actor Eric Pohlmann.

Jeremy Lewis is a writer.