"It dates back to my friendship with Helmut Kohl . . ." Lord George Weidenfeld is talking about his high-powered international think-tank, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which he founded in 1996 after a talk with the former German chancellor. The think-tank, which aims to build bridges between countries, has brought him close to many of the movers and shakers of the world including Mikhail Gorbachev, Tony Blair, Henry Kissinger and Pope John Paul II (the last two ended up being Weidenfeld & Nicolson authors).
In our talk, Weidenfeld peppers his conversation with the names of the great and the good. It is not name dropping—these are simply the people he associates with. Yet not only is Weidenfeld terribly well connected by dint of his publishing and think-tank activities, he seems to have had the knack of meeting high-rollers, or soon to be high-rollers, throughout his life.
Take when he arrived in this country in 1938 as a nearly penniless Jewish refugee from Nazi-occupied Austria. When his own visa and his mother's expired, they had to meet with a Whitehall official. His father, still in Austria, had had his assets frozen by the Nazis and the Weidenfelds could not prove they would be able to support themselves if they remained in the UK, so the official told them they would have to leave the country. Weidenfeld's mother began to cry. He says: "The man looked at us with ill-disguised contempt and said: 'All right, give me the visas,' and stamped them. That man, I later learned, became the head of MI6."
Sixty years young
This September Weidenfeld celebrates his 90th birthday; this summer the company he founded with Nigel Nicolson (son of Bloomsbury Group couple Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West) its 60th anniversary. Part of the W&N celebrations include new limited editions of some of its best-known works including Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, Alice Walker's The Colour Purple and Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind. A party is being thrown for Weidenfeld himself at his friend architect Sir Norman Foster's Swiss château. The guest list is at 350, and climbing. "I am very touched," Weidenfeld says. "I thought, 'who is going to come all the way out to bloody Switzerland to see me?' but they are."
He started W&N after working during the war for the BBC as the occupied Europe correspondent for World Service-precursor, the Empire North American Service. It was at the BBC that he met such people as Charles de Gaulle (a future W&N author) and Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel, for whom Weidenfeld later worked after taking a sabbatical from his early publishing career.
Though the company is famous for high-browed literature and history, money was made in the early days by a series of cheap and cheerful children's books that it sold through Marks & Spencer.
W&N also pioneered the use of illustrated book techniques in general non-fiction, a practice long followed on the continent, but not in the UK. "That might be my legacy," Weidenfeld says.
The company's first employee, famously, was Antonia Fraser, who remains with W&N today and will be coming out with a memoir of her life with Harold Pinter in 2010. "Point a gun to my head and ask who is your number one star author I would say her, for the quality, the loyalty, the decency, in the good times and bad."
Some lean times forced Weidenfeld to sell the company to Orion in 1991. "Extremely happy" with the Hachette regime, he remains chairman, has no day-to-day responsibilities, but is still active in commissioning. It is the part of the job that still excites him: "I have always been most interested in bringing in authors and ideas. I was never much good at things like administration, cashflow and hiring and firing people."
His greatest triumph is not Lolita, he says, though his love and admiration for Nabokov are obvious. He is particularly proud of the 40-volume History of Civilisation series, but a single standout book he cites is James Watson's The Double Helix, which W&N published in 1968. Again, it was a contact which worked in his favour. "I got a phone call from a friend at Harvard University Press who said: 'Something big has come up, but I can't talk about it over the phone. Can you fly to Boston tomorrow?'" HUP's board had declined to publish the book so Weidenfeld snapped it up and it was one of the firm's greatest successes.
He remains incredibly busy outside of publishing, including his think-tank, a Weidenfeld Scholarship with Oxford University, and writing eight columns a month for German newspapers and magazines.
He shows no sign of slowing down: "I couldn't just be playing golf. I would go mad. I have five or six major projects on the go and I would like to see them out. I have a three-year plan, and if the chairman of the board upstairs gives me another three years, I think I will."
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