Publishing colleagues have continued to pay tribute to George Weidenfeld's "passion for book ideas" and his supportiveness to colleagues young and old, in the wake of his death yesterday (20th January) at the age of 96.
Malcolm Edwards, former deputy c.e.o. and group publisher at Orion, now its consultant publisher, told The Bookseller that yesterday was a "very sad" day. "On the one hand we knew he couldn't have gone on for ever, but he had gone on so much longer than expected that you thought he could [continue]," he said. "I came to Orion in 1998, but took over Weidenfeld in 2003, so worked more closely with him for the last 12 years. He was always immensely supportive and full of plans – more than any publisher in the building. Whenever he met anybody he wanted to see what book they had in them – as he got older, he felt he had less time, [so it became even more important]."
Former Orion c.e.o. Peter Roche commented: "He had more ideas in a day than most of us had in a year – he always had projects on the go, he was a man of enormous energy and he tried to combine his view of publishing with his view of the world [i.e. his political activity, including with the Club of Europe which brought national leaders together for dialogue]. It was all to do with helping less privileged people. He was an advisor both to the Israeli government, the German government and the Pope all at the same time, which I thought was pretty impressive.
"The quote I always remember from him, is that when he bought a small book from someone, he would always say, 'It is is a sprat to catch a mackerel' – ie 'This is a small book but this author has a big book in them'. I would say to him, 'When has a sprat ever turned into a mackerel?' It very rarely did, but he was a huge optimist."
Weidenfeld & Nicolson publisher Alan Sansom, who worked closely with George Weidenfeld from 2003, commented: "He always had ideas for books, 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 Jean Paul II extremely well, and in 2005 we published Memory and Identity [a book of personal reflections by the Pope] 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 Browns Hotel in Mayfair – I saw the guest list and said, 'I never knew you knew George Orwell'. He said, 'I didn't know him that well, we'd have lunch twice a week at the BBC canteen [when both were reporters]'. When Benedict XVI became Pope, I said, 'George, you know Jean Paul II, do you know this new Pope?' George said, 'Well, I've had dinner with him a couple of times. No, I wouldn't claim to know him that well.' Far from dropping names, he was so connected he assumed everyone else was too."
When he heard that W&N had won Imprint of the Year at the Bookseller Industry Awards in 2015, he was "really thrilled", added Sansom, and his first reaction was to say to him: "I'm going to ring [German chancellor] Angela Merkel and tell her."
Edwards recalled: "He was basically very curious about people, so whenever he met somebody he wanted to know what they had to say. He very much liked to listen, not just talk. He started W&N the year before I was born, and I'm the next oldest in the company – that establishes how he was a figure from a different era, one of those Jewish emigrés who founded independent publishing houses, like André Deutsch and Fredric Warburg. Publishing was both his career and his life and he made the two intertwine."
Sansom pointed out how his political work with the Club of Europe and think tank the Institute of Strategic Dialogue culminated with his work to rescue Yazidi Christians from ISIS last year. "That sums George up," he said. "He mentioned it at the beginning of last year, I said 'That's a stretch, even for you' but he DID manage to do it. He was very tenacious about projects he wanted to pursue."
The funeral will be held in Israel on Friday (22nd). A memorial service will be held in London at a later date.