Obituary: Tom Maschler

Obituary: Tom Maschler

Tom Maschler

Born 16th August 1933
Died 15th October 2020


Rogers, Coleridge & White managing director Peter Straus remembers the late, acclaimed publisher

Like many of the impressive publishers to emerge after the Second World War, Tom Maschler was a Jewish émigré from Europe. He was born in Berlin in 1933. His father Kurt worked as a book salesman and later a publisher, dealing with such writers as Erich Kästner (of Emil and the Detectives fame). The family escaped first to Vienna in 1938, and then to London.

Maschler did not want to be a publisher at first. After the war, Kurt had set up a joint venture company with Faber & Faber. But Maschler was determined to be an entrepreneur. He first attempted to get into film, and only when this failed did he turn to publishing, at the age of 23. He began at André Deutsch, and then, when offered the job of production director at a lower salary than the previous incumbent, he left and got a job at MacGibbon & Kee.

One of the first books he edited and published there was a book called Declaration, which was an idea inspired by seeing John Osborne’s seismic play “Look Back in Anger”. This was an original collection of eight essays by young writers. It was Maschler’s idea to “provide readers with an insight into the minds of some of our writers of today who may determine our society tomorrow”, including Kenneth Tynan, Colin Wilson, and one woman, Doris Lessing—a ratio that proved not to be atypical for him. This publication brought Maschler to the attention of Allen Lane, who hired him as assistant fiction editor, tasked to acquire around 70 paperbacks a year for Penguin. But Maschler longed to do some original publishing and came up with the idea of Penguin New Dramatists. The first volume, with plays by Bernard Kops, Lessing and Arnold Wesker, sold over 200,000 copies. Maschler sought a promotion to become a fiction editor. Lane refused, and so Maschler’s friend Tony Godwin suggested he meet Michael Howard from Cape—this led to Maschler being hired as editorial director. This was in May 1960, barely a month after the founder Jonathan Cape had died. The imprint was in a transitional phase, with one star on the list in Ian Fleming, whose books, recalled Maschler, sold well but not momentously well. Maschler enjoyed reading them, but admitted that he did not really rate them as literature. 

He immediately set about trying to bring in the most exciting new voices. On his first business trip to New York, he made fruitful connections with a young editor at Simon & Schuster, Bob Gottlieb, and a key literary agent Candida Donadio. Back in London, Lane tried to buy Jonathan Cape’s shares, planning to install three seasoned publishers from Michael Joseph to run it, but only on the condition that Maschler was let go. The chairman of Cape, G Wren Howard, stood by Maschler and dismissed the approach.

Maschler set about repaying this faith. He enquired about an interesting-sounding book Catch-18 [Catch-22’s original title] and was told that Secker & Warburg had asked to be released from the contract, finding it “too American” to work here. It was then offered to Cape, but the seasoned reader Daniel George concurred with Secker. Maschler read it overnight, and convinced the editorial board to take it on. Maschler claimed that the novel would sell more copies in the UK than in the US in that first year. Almost two decades later, Joseph Heller inscribed a later novel to Maschler with the words “To Tom who’s made Fred Warburg look short-sighted, in hindsight, by realising that Catch-22 might have some appeal”. His friendship with Gottlieb and Donadio led him to acquire another great début in Thomas Pynchon’s V.

Maschler was quickly building a reputation as a formidable publisher. He was known for being a very fierce critic, often disarmingly frank, and gained a reputation for being cautious with advances. One agent wanted to give this cocksure young man a few sleepless nights and so sent a first novel he described as “a fascinatingly horrible spine-chiller”. Maschler read it in an evening and immediately saw the book’s commercial potential. John Fowles’ The Collector, with its distinctive Tom Adams jacket, became a global hit and set its author on the road to literary fame. Fowles’ equally successful The Magus and The French Lieutenant’s Woman followed.

Maschler’s ability to see and exploit the maximum potential from an author’s work, and publish them in a distinctive and original way, led him to acquire some of the most acclaimed writers of the ’60s from other houses. Edna O’Brien joined Cape from Hutchinson, Len Deighton, who slipped through the net with The Ipcress File, then moved from Hodder. Kingsley Amis, whom Maschler had unsuccessfully tried to commission in Declaration, came from Gollancz, as did J G Ballard and Nadine Gordimer. American writers such as Philip Roth came from Deutsch and presented Maschler with Portnoy’s Complaint; Kurt Vonnegut gave him Slaughterhouse-Five; William Styron Sophie’s Choice. They were joined by J G Farrell from Hutchinson and Lessing from Michael Joseph. He published such Canadians as Brian Moore, who came from Deutsch, and Leonard Cohen, who moved from Secker. Australians came: Clive James joined from Faber and Patrick White from Eyre & Spottiswoode. White was delighted to join what he considered to be the best list, and four years later he was to be the first Australian to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Carlos Fuentes and Italo Calvino came from Collins, Jorge Luis Borges from Weidenfeld. Maschler ended up publishing 15 Nobel Prize winners. It was these great authors who made the list great, for great writers help create great publishers. The day after Ben Okri won the Booker Prize for The Famished Road, John Fowles commented that Maschler’s author had won the Booker Prize again. On being told a different publisher was responsible, Fowles’ response was “all authors come in to the arms of Maschler sooner or later”. Maschler also began many well-known authors’ careers, including from these shores Martin Amis, Jeffrey Archer, Bruce Chatwin, John Fowles and Ian McEwan. And on the children’s side Quentin Blake, John Burningham and Posy Simmonds.

At this time, his boundless energy and creative imagination combined to produce more original results. He door-stopped John Lennon outside a Beatles Fan Club in Wimbledon and persuaded him to produce a book of his drawings, In His Own Write. Maschler was a superb salesman, brilliant at selling rights. Gottlieb stated that Maschler urged him to import 15,000 copies of the Lennon title; the book became an instant bestseller and was followed by A Spaniard in the Works. He pursued Desmond Morris, then a curator of mammals at a zoo, and the result was another legendary bestseller, The Naked Ape.

There was a tradition in Europe of publishing powerful works of non-fiction and literature in a smaller size, and Maschler saw that Suhrkamp in Germany was producing elegant paperbacks. He chose to emulate this with his own series of Cape editions, small-scale jacketed paperbacks with distinctive colours and type. He also set up a series of beautiful-looking poetry books under the Cape Goliard imprint, and published such writers as Pablo Neruda.

Maschler was also prepared to do things other publishers were not. At a Latin American conference, he acquired five books by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, of which the second, A Hundred Years of Solitude, would go on to introduce a huge audience of readers to Latin American literature; he was prepared to take on numerous plays of Edward Albee, one of which was “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”; he stuck by Tom Wolfe for years and ended up with the gargantuan bestseller The Bonfire of the Vanities; he was prepared to publish a new author’s collection of stories when another publisher would only commit to two books, and so gained one of the most important British writers of his generation, Ian McEwan.

Another extraordinary quality was his eye for children’s books, and his ability to match writer with illustrator. The supreme example of this was his work with Blake, and in putting him together with Roald Dahl, he helped form one of the most iconic children’s writing pairings of the late 20th century. But his illustrative imagination also enabled him to commission and publish many books by Simmonds and Burningham, and create such pieces of glorious pop-up book-making as The Human Body, with text by Jonathan Miller, and Kit Williams’ Masquerade.

He was the major force behind creating the British equivalent of the Prix Goncourt, the Booker Prize. Ever one for a media opportunity, Maschler attempted to get the Queen to present the inaugural award. Over its first 25 years, Cape was the greatest single beneficiary, with as many shortlisted books (20) and as many winners (four) as the next two publishing houses combined. The prize itself became a reflection of Maschler’s publishing gifts; it gave books noise and exposure, and ultimately, in some cases, extraordinary sales.

An eye for talent
Maschler also had an ability to find and encourage gifted colleagues. Susannah Clapp, Philippa Harrison, Liz Knights and Frances Coady were just a few of the superb editors he hired. Mike Petty, who worked at Cape from 1970–77, said: “I got a first-class education, and Maschler supplied the inspiration. Working for him was exhausting, maddening and stimulating. He could be brusque, impatient, sometimes breathtakingly rude; yet he was such a huge presence.” Other editors added to the lustre of Cape. Maschler hired Liz Calder from Gollancz after she published a book he had wanted, John Irving’s The World According to Garp. Calder brought writers such as Margaret Atwood, Julian Barnes and Anita Brookner to the Cape list, and acquired Salman Rushdie’s second novel Midnight’s Children. As with Catch-22, a reader had first given it a bad review (“a fat ramble”), yet Maschler loved the book. There was never any doubt that Cape would publish it.

This powerful presence could also be a challenge, and Maschler’s directness sometimes led to problems. Quite a few of the authors he published stayed for a time and then moved on; one of them, Lessing, wrote to him: “You are very peculiar indeed about money [and] you must reckon with the possibility that people are not necessarily going to remember you as you see yourself.” This is perhaps borne out with his 2005 memoir, Publisher. In the early ’90s, Maschler was diagnosed with manic depression [biopolar disorder] and later admitted he had “probably been manic since I was a young man”.

There have been other great publishers of course—less hubristic, less charismatic—but Maschler’s legacy is a large one. It is fitting to end with the words of two of Maschler’s authors. Lessing wrote to him that he was “the most insightful creative publisher of his time and his remarkable energy was like watching a rocket explode everywhere”. McEwan wrote that Maschler “had instinctive good taste and also understood commerce—a rare combination when he started out... His cultural influence has been immense. Over the years, millions of people have read good books in which Maschler had a hand, a big, generous hand at that.”