Peter Owen, founder of the publisher Peter Owen, has died at the age of 89.
Owen died peacefully surrounded by friends and family yesterday morning (31st May 2016) at the Whittington Hospital, London, after a short illness.
Owen founded his publishing house in 1951 and has published writers including Hermann Hesse, Shusaku Endo, Jean Cocteau, Yukio Mishima and Tarjei Vesaas in the English language. He was honoured with an OBE in 2014 for services to literature.
Nick Kent, m.d. of Peter Owen publishers, together with Peter's literary assistant James Nye, said: “Throughout his career Peter remained determined to publish high-quality literature, while being unafraid to innovate.”
Owen was born Peter Offenstadt, the only child of an Anglo-German Jewish couple in Nuremburg, Bavaria, and had “vivid and chilling” memories of the rise of Nazism and the Second World War, according to Kent and Nye. He was forced to emigrate to Britain in 1933, with his “lonely childhood” assuaged by reading books from his eccentric Uncle Rudi’s extensive library – a selection that included Robert Graves’s ‘Claudius’ novels, Tolstoy, D.H. Lawrence, Dickens and Thackeray.
“This early taste for classic English novels and quality world literature was to prove a formative experience, influencing the choices Peter later made as proprietor of his own publishing house,” the pair said.
They added: “Throughout his career he remained determined to publish high-quality literature, while being unafraid to innovate; his publishing house pioneered books on gay rights, was an early champion of women’s issues and writing and produced books on politics, social issues, drug culture and ecology many years before specialist publishers in these areas came into existence.”
During his time at the company, Owen hired novelists Muriel Spark and Elizabeth Berridge as his first and second editors, while carrying out much of the packing, sales and distribution himself. He counted Francis Bacon among his friends and thrice visited the Spanish home of Salvador Dalí to gain the English language rights, illustrations and signatures for the arch-surrealist’s only novel, Hidden Faces. He also met and published Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit (with illustrations by John Lennon), Anaïs Nin, Anna Kavan, Paul Bowles, William Donaldson (Henry Root) among many others.
In 1953 he married Wendy Demoulins, who became a successful novelist under the name Wendy Owen, and they had two daughters and remained on good terms after divorcing in 1976.
“His legacy is the still proudly independent publishing house that bears his name and which is having something of a renaissance, last month announcing a merger with Istros Books,” Kent and Nye said.
Owen became chairman of the publishing house last July, with Kent taking the reins as m.d and his eldest daughter Antonia Owen taking up the position as publishing director. Antonia Owen will now become publisher of the company.
Peter Owen leaves behind Antonia, a younger daughter, Georgina, and a son, Benedict.