Obituary: Peter Owen

Obituary: Peter Owen

The death of Peter Lothar Owen (1927–2016) marks a significant end to old-school, maverick independent publishing of the type Peter pioneered with obsessive conviction and commercial success for 60 years.

Peter’s seminally innovative decades were the 1960s and ‘70s. Advice taken from James Laughlin, his American counterpart with publisher New Directions, helped him procure names such as Hermann Hesse, Cesare Pavese and Ezra Pound, among others. Hesse’s novels in translation, particularly Siddharta, appealed at the time to a new acid-drenched generation, and Siddharta proved to be a continuous bestseller for Peter’s company.

Unusually loyal to his authors and with a brilliant sixth-sense to pick up on marginalised writing, on which he would commercially build, Peter’s astute business acumen enabled him to publish successfully without compromise, invariably, in his optimal decades, with Keith Cunningham-designed book jackets. Bestsellers in this period included Violette Leduc’s lesbian memoir The Bastard and Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit, published with doodles by John Lennon.

Peter was rarely the original publisher of writers who gravitated to him. Paul Bowles’ first three books were previously published by John Lehmann in the UK; Anaïs Nin also had a publishing history; and Anna Kavan, whom he retrieved in the last decade of her life, had largely exhausted mainstream options. It was part of Peter’s greatness as a publisher to rehabilitate forgotten or neglected talent to his highly prestigious list and re-market them under his cult umbrella.

Totally disinterested in the creative process or how authors survived financially, he paid minimal advances, but gave unfailing moral support to the books in which he believed. His dictum so often expressed to me was: “I don’t mind losing money on good books, but not on bad.” His habitual response to most submissions was a cursory: “Why would anybody want to read this crap?”

A solitary focus

Peter was by nature solitary, and obsessively absorbed in his work, his singular focus. He lived semi-reclusively in his Regency town house on Holland Park Avenue, in the exhaust of two failed marriages— the first to Wendy Demoulins and the second to Jan Treacy—preferring to drink, anecdotally reminisce and compulsively listen to Radio 2.

His reading, rarely if ever for pleasure, was disappointingly conventional, his enthusiasms going to the likes of Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope and Charles Dickens. Throughout our long friendship he maintained an ambivalent relationship with the book as increasingly culturally expendable, and yet at the same time vital to his personal continuity. It was this combination of pessimism versus an obdurate drive for personal recognition that kept Peter in the game long enough to receive an OBE in 2014, in recognition of services to publishing.

A Soho bohemian, recognised by the loud floral pattern of his Thai silk shirts, a natural eccentric who regularly told me that employing staff “was like managing an asylum”, Peter regulated life on his own terms, surrounded by a home interior of family heirlooms and eclectic antiques picked up serendipitously from Portobello Road.

Our friendship, begun in 1989, was an enduring fact in his life, involving visits on my part every second Friday of the year to his low-lit Notting Hill home. I’d usually find him drinking wine, misanthropic, disillusioned, hypochondriacal, complaining of low book sales and threatening to give up; and given my bias for psychological extremes, the most wonderfully sympathetic company.

Forced by ill health to leave his Holland Park Avenue retreat in 2013, he unhappily relocated to Crouch End to live with his daughter Antonia, feeling geographically isolated and complaining of his dislike of anywhere that wasn’t central. Increasingly out of touch with modern publishing—something that had started, in his case, in the ‘80s— but determined to keep on, he continued to front the company, resigning only in the last six months of his life.

Jeremy Reed is a poet.