Ed Victor Ltd, agent
Many years ago, George Weidenfeld, my first employer and lifelong mentor, said to me: “You will be the last of my generation of publishers.” For once he was wrong, because he, and he alone, was the last of his generation. Men like George, André Deutsch, Fred Warburg and Jamie Hamilton were the founding fathers and the bedrock of today’s publishing business. These were tough men in a tough business: smart, shrewd swashbucklers who survived often by flying by the seats of their pants.
I worked for Weidenfeld & Nicolson between 1964 and 1967, golden years in London and in the publishing industry. George was a dynamo, constantly travelling all over the world, doing business in the many languages he spoke. His contacts were endless, his energy boundless, his intellect astounding.
Like all the great practitioners of the art of publishing, his business life and his social life were intertwined, each aiding and abetting the other. I look back with awe on the legendary parties he gave in the 1960s, where you would see everybody who was anybody in London, from the prime minister to the latest supermodel. George was a master of working the room and often pitched book ideas to guests who then went on to become his authors. But as gifted as he was socially, he was always a serious, never a frivolous man. He gave prodigious amounts of his time, energy and effort to a variety of charitable and political causes both at home and abroad.
George was a man with a remarkable range of interests coupled with an equally extraordinary ability to focus. I had lunch with him last month, and found him, at 96, as sharp and engaged as he ever was, talking about all the things he was doing and thinking.
We have lost one of the true giants of our industry.
Simon Sebag Montefiore
“Would you like to come over for a quick tour d’horizon?” he would say in his soft Viennese accent and with George there was no limit to his horizon: sitting in his chair in his Papal apartment surrounded by Old Masters and books, or meeting in Israel or New York, he would discuss the world, switching from German to Israeli to British politics, and onto publishing, opera, art, gossip (always fascinating, outrageous and illustrated by George’s perfect mimicry—he had known everyone, everywhere, in so many worlds). Then it was on to literature and back, seamlessly, touching on his spectacular life, his escape from Vienna, his working for President Weizman, his friendships with prime ministers, chancellors, Popes, writers, nabobs, rogues, adventuresses. But he was always fascinated with the new, the future and the follies, delights and hilarities of mankind.
The very personification of that vanished world of cultured Viennese-Jewish sophistication, he re-created it in his apartment, in his conversation and whereever he happened to be. With George one sometimes felt one was in the cabinet of Cardinal Richelieu or Mazarin, at other times in a Schnitzler, Proust or Disraeli, or a Joseph Roth or Philip Roth novel. He was the most kind, loyal friend, even to someone much younger like me, for over 20 years. I owe him so much. He invited me, and many others, into that great world of his and opened it up to me with the warmest generosity, always holding dinners to launch my new books.
But it was not the parties but the kindness, the words, the ideas, the conversations that were golden. Disdainful of political correctness, he was a fearless fighter for freedom in its real sense, always building bridges between worlds, always putting together amazing, often unlikely constellations of people.
Publisher, aesthete, raconteur, powerbroker, philanthropist, wit, world historical character, visionary, wonderful friend, lover of women, man of the world, George Weidenfeld was simply extraordinary. He was always unique. An era has ended, and I can only say I am so lucky to have known him. At his 95th birthday, the international winners of his Weidenfeld Scholarships stood up and thanked him, a moving moment. It says much about him that, at 96, he was setting up a charity to help Syrian/Iraqi Christians persecuted by ISIS—and had invited me to a dinner party next week. I was already looking forward to our “quick tour d’horizon”, and I miss it already . . .
Head of Zeus, chairman
I first met George a ridiculously long time ago; I wrote a book on Richard III for a series on The Kings and Queens of England in 1975, so I knew of him very well before we went into business together. In 1992 I started the Orion Publishing Group. He rang up and said: “I want you to buy Weidenfeld & Nicolson and take over from me as chief executive.” I had just been let go by Random House and I felt I deserved six months off. He said I had to start at once. “I want you to start on Monday.” So on Monday I did.
George said: “I want you to run the whole thing and I’ll be the impresario.” That’s how it started and that’s how it went on. George drew a considerable salary, all spent on parties for authors. We never had a cross word in 10 years. We almost had a cross word in year 10, when we bought a book about the mistreatment of political prisoners which made some critical comments about Israel’s secret services. George was outraged, but I said: “I can’t remove [the section].” So we had a bit of a froideur. That gave me the clue to George; he treated publishing rather as a game, but the one thing he was really serious about was Israel. He had been a senior aide to Ben Gurion before he took up London publishing, and that allegiance remained to the end of his days.
In publishing, he found the hunt more interesting than the kill; once an author was secured, he moved on to the next. They were like trophies on the wall. I don’t think he took quite so much interest in the publishing of titles.
His greatest publishing achievement? He never stopped doing what he was good at, he never lost his enthusiasm for it. People get bored, or promoted into management and are never seen again, but he lived for the publishing meeting.
His most successful project was probably that little series, The Kings and Queens of England. Antonia Fraser edited it and it was fantastically successful.
There are many good stories about George’s over-generous commissioning of books. I loved the one when he asked his secretary to ring Mrs Williams [Marcia and later Baroness Falkender] to invite her to lunch as he would like to commission her autobiography. But when George reached the restaurant he found that she had rung Mrs Shirley Williams, so he commissioned hers anyway.
In his heyday, George was well known on his return from a trip abroad for distributing the book projects he had signed up so enthusiastically to the editors who, without any prior consultation, had to carry them through. But those of his authors lucky enough to be invited to dinners in his apartment, soon found that it was an international embassy for literature with a fascinating array of guests.
George’s passions for books, politics and the cause of peace were all utterly genuine and nobody could have been more generous in his advice, nor more stimulating in his conversation.
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, publisher
He had a passion for book ideas, though he didn’t get much involved in the editorial process. What struck me was how truly connected he was—he knew [Pope] Jean Paul II extremely well, and in 2005 we published his Memory and Identity solely because of that. But he had no sense of hierarchy. He might have been a daunting figure because of his great grandeur, but he had no aloofness, he was always interested in young people.
He was, oddly, the reverse of a name-dropper. George Orwell went to the launch party for Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 1949 in Brown’s Hotel in Mayfair. I saw the guest list and said: “I never knew you knew George Orwell.” He replied: “I didn’t know him that well...we’d have lunch twice a week at the BBC canteen [when we both worked there].” Far from dropping names, he was so connected he assumed everyone else was too.
W&N, former editor-in-chief, now a ghostwriter
George worked tirelessly, and a proposal or more a day was par for the course. Often he would return in triumph after a lunch to settle into his interior-decorated office, perched high above Clapham Social Services in a dingy office block off Clapham High Street: “I have signed up X for £Y but laid off the advance with a serialisation in the Mail.” “But George, we still have to sell the book to make any money.” Get in quickly enough with a sensible objection to the duds and he would happily back down. But there were as many gold-plated ideas as duds (and the duds were kindnesses, usually the result of social obligation). The chases, however, could be wonderfully exotic: lunch at the George V Hotel in Paris with Pierre Bergé (Yves St Laurent’s lover and manager); a couple of days among the treasures in the library of Coburg castle, lunch at The Ritz with Princess Diana’s father and helmet-haired stepmother; listening to George propose the same idea to the chairmen of both Sotheby’s and Christie’s on the same day...“why waste a good idea?”
Andrew Nurnberg Associates, m.d.
Everyone knows that George was one of the great publishers of the 20th century. What is less known was his passion for furthering international debate in all things political, cultural and literary. Participating in some of those small conferences he would organise was as much a privilege as it was inspiring.