Toby Eady: in memoriam

Toby Eady: in memoriam

Toby Eady (28th February 1941–24th December 2017), who died at his London home on Christmas Eve after a long illness, was for many years one of the most original and independent literary agents in London. His client list ranged from Sister Wendy Beckett to Mrs Anwar Sadat, via Derek Raymond (author of the horrific police thriller I Was Dora Suarez) and the murdered Russian dissident Anna Politkovskaya.

His first success was with Margaret Powell, who sent him Below Stairs, the autobiography of a kitchen maid which became a bestseller (1968). She became a national star and her brutally frank account eventually inspired the television series “Upstairs Downstairs”. Another early success followed when a little-known advertising man and crime writer, Ted Lewis, sent Eady his second novel, “Jack’s Return Home” (1970), and Eady sold the film rights at manuscript stage to Michael Klinger, who retitled it Get Carter and sold it on to MGM.

Eady was the son of the novelist Mary Wesley and Heinz Ziegler, a Czech émigré academic who was shot down with RAF Bomber Command during the Second World War. He was raised as the younger son of Carol Swinfen, 2nd Baron Swinfen, his mother’s husband at the time of his birth. He read History at Wadham College, Oxford, and started work as a private banker with a family friend, but quickly reverted to his passion for books. 

After an apprenticeship working for the theatrical agent Leslie Linder, Eady realised that he had found his métier. Following a brief period as a junior editor at Secker & Warburg, he founded Toby Eady Associates in 1968, aged 27.

For a period in the 1970s Eady abandoned London and moved his business to New York. There he developed a passion for modern jazz and met a young television producer called Bernard Cornwell, who had just finished his first novel—and who was his client for the next 45 years. In Manhattan, Eady sought out young editors such as Dan Frank and Eugene Stone, as well as veterans such as Sonny Mehta and Elizabeth Sifton. For relaxation he disappeared for extended periods in Africa, which eventually introduced him to the conservationist author Kuki Gallmann.

Eady had an immediate and instinctive sympathy for the underdog and the unconventional, and often demonstrated an emotional loyalty to the work of his clients, who eventually included Nell Dunn, Karl Miller and Alasdair Gray. He acquired a number of prima donna authors, and in defence of their work earned a reputation among publishers for being difficult. His brusque and abrupt telephone personality was in complete contrast to his usual manner. But Liz Calder, founder of Bloomsbury, never experienced any such difficulties with him and instead acknowledged his ability as a fierce and loyal defender of his clients, and his passion for their work. She also admired the way in which he constantly championed international writers.

Novelist Rachel Seiffert recalled “his formidable energy, his delight in challenging convention and his warm and generous spirit”. Publisher Christopher MacLehose, a close friend for many years, remembered Eady’s joy in giving summer parties in his country cottage and his extraordinary ability as a fly-fisherman, frequently on the River Test.

Although he had never shown any interest in organised games at school, Eady enjoyed watching rugby and his annual pre-Christmas party at Twickenham, with tickets for the Varsity Match, was keenly awaited by his friends. Another regular pilgrimage was made to Cardiff, often with Cornwell, to watch England succumb to the Welsh at rugby.

In the 1990s Eady developed a passion for Chinese culture and became a great champion of unknown Chinese authors, twice leading delegations of British publishers to China to arrange translations of young writers just starting their careers. In 1991 he sold Wild Swans for Jung Chang, and the book went on to sell 20 million copies. In 2002, having met and married Xinran Xue, he oversaw the worldwide success of her book The Good Women of China. Eady also supported and became chairman of Xinran’s charity The Mothers’ Bridge of Love, which reaches out to Chinese children all over the world and works to bridge the gap in understanding between Western and Chinese cultures.

To his deep regret, Eady had no children but he was an affectionate and devoted step-father to the literary agent Jessica Woollard and her brothers, Alexander and Julian Woollard, and later to Pan Xue, son of Xinran Xue.

In 2015, as his health began to fail, Eady came to an arrangement with Anthony Goff and sold his agency to David Higham Associates. As always, his chief concern was to obtain the best possible protection for his clients’ interests.

He was married twice, to the artist Isobel Macleod (marriage dissolved) and then to Xinran, who nursed him with extraordinary devotion through his last illness.