The passing of a publishing giant

A personal reminiscence about the late George Weidenfeld.

FROM LEFT, standing: Shulamit Amir, Weill’s secretary Shoshana, Rodney Franklin, Hannah Amit, Alex Berlyne, Andrew Griffel, Ina Friedman; seated: Asher Weill and George Weidenfeld. (photo credit: ZEV RADOVAN)
FROM LEFT, standing: Shulamit Amir, Weill’s secretary Shoshana, Rodney Franklin, Hannah Amit, Alex Berlyne, Andrew Griffel, Ina Friedman; seated: Asher Weill and George Weidenfeld.
(photo credit: ZEV RADOVAN)
Acres of newsprint have been devoted over the past few weeks to the distinguished British publisher George Weidenfeld, who died on January 20 at the age of 96 and was buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem a few days later. I had the privilege and good fortune to know and work with Weidenfeld for many years, and it is his particular connection with Israel and Zionism on which I wish to elaborate here.
Weidenfeld was not a man of his times. He was born in Vienna in 1919, but could equally have been born there a hundred years earlier. His depth of European culture (he spoke English, German, French, Italian and Spanish – and a smattering of Hebrew), his grounding in Central European mannerisms and politesse, his famous – notorious might be a better word – success with women. He had four wives, three of them statuesque beauties who towered over him. His urbanity and charm and above all, his understanding and knowledge of European politics and his intimacy with European politicians, gave him a unique stature among the wheelers and dealers of three continents.
He was a welcome visitor in the papal residence of Castel Gandolfo in the Vatican, and in the seats of powers of Bonn, Berlin, Paris and Rome, as much as in his palatial apartment overlooking the River Thames in London’s Chelsea, where he entertained the great and the celebrated of the world’s – and especially Europe’s – leaders. The popular British satirical magazine Private Eye dubbed him “Lord Popeye” because of his rather protuberant eyes and delighted in lampooning his ample girth, his social successes, his womanizing and his lavish parties.
His list of distinguished authors is long and has been amply recorded elsewhere, among them of course Vladimir Nabokov, whose Lolita was an early Weidenfeld best-seller, partly because of the intriguing possibility that the book’s publisher might be prosecuted for indecency. The list, consisting of hundreds, includes pope John Paul II, Isaiah Berlin, Harold Wilson, Saul Bellow, Henry Kissinger, Simone de Beauvoir, Charles de Gaulle, Jorge Luis Borges, Daniel Barenboim.
THE EXTRAORDINARY thing is to what extent the face of British (and world) publishing was influenced after World War II by a group of Jewish refugees, of whom George Weidenfeld (later Sir George and later still, Baron Weidenfeld of Chelsea) was only one.
Paul Hamlyn (from Berlin) virtually invented the genre of inexpensive popular art, cooking and picture books; André Deutsch (from Budapest) published some of the greatest novelists of the 20th century including Philip Roth, Norman Mailer and John Updike; Walter Neurath (from Vienna) founded Thames and Hudson, one of the world’s leading publishers of distinguished art books; and Robert Maxwell (from a small shtetl in Czechoslovakia) who founded Pergamon Press, a leading publisher of science and scientific translations. (The controversial Maxwell, referred to by Private Eye as the “Bouncing Czech,” drowned in mysterious and still unexplained circumstances in 1991 and is buried, like Weidenfeld, on the Mount of Olives).
Weidenfeld, who was himself a non-practicing but deeply committed Jew, had a fervent belief in Zionism, as well as a lifelong love affair with Israel.
His practical involvement began when he became chef de cabinet to Chaim Weizmann, the president of the new state. He took the job on for one year so that he could then rejoin the new publishing house of Weidenfeld and Nicolson which he had cofounded in London together with Nigel Nicolson, the son of the poetess and novelist Vita Sackville-West and the diplomat Harold Nicolson.
During those frenetic 12 months, Weidenfeld met virtually all of Israel’s elite of the time and became personal friends with many, some of whom he already knew, like Teddy Kollek, Ehud Avriel and the archeologist Avraham Malamat, with whom he had grown up in Vienna when they were all members of the Blau-Weiss Zionist youth movement.
Others become personal friends and eventual authors, such as David Ben-Gurion, Yigael Yadin, Yigal Allon, Moshe Sharett, Shimon Peres, Moshe Dayan, Chaim Herzog, Abba Eban and many more.
Following the Six Day War in 1967, and with a growing list of Israeli authors and at the urging of Teddy Kollek, Weidenfeld began to consider the idea of setting up a subsidiary publishing house in Israel. He and I had known each other for several years when I was chair of the Israel Book and Publishing Committee of the Prime Minister’s Conference and Weidenfeld spoke at the annual meetings.
He asked me if I would be interested in running the new company, and after initial research, including sending out his managing director, a charming Old Etonian called Nicholas Thompson who introduced me to the arcane world (to me at least) of cost accounting and cash flow, Weidenfeld and Nicolson Jerusalem was duly established in 1969 with Weidenfeld as chair, Chaim Herzog as deputy chair and myself as managing director. My first task was to arrange a lunch at the King David Hotel to mark the great man’s 50th birthday and the launching of the new company.
The aim of WNJ, as the company became known, was four-fold: to recruit additional talent to the company’s already long list of Israeli writers, novelists, academics and political personages, secondly, to utilize the (then) cheap printing prices for the type of illustrated books in which Weidenfeld and Nicolson excelled, thirdly, to exploit the post-Six Day War euphoria which was bringing tens of thousands of enthusiastic tourists to the country’s bookstores, and fourthly, to enter the field of Hebrew publishing, rather than selling Hebrew rights to existing publishers as had been done until then.
The first task was to find staff for the premises I found in Herzog Street, Jerusalem.
First was Hanna Amit as Hebrew editor, who was joined by Ina Friedman, an American-born editor at the Encyclopedia Judaica, as English editor.
A lawyer, Andrew Griffel became production manager; Lincoln Rosenberg, the accountant, and Rodney Franklin from South Africa, sales manager. A key colleague but not on the staff was the late Alex Berlyne, the literary editor of The Jerusalem Post, as house designer and artist. (Veteran Post readers will remember his marvelous weekly column “With Prejudice.”) After the demise of WNJ, Ina and Hanna went on to distinguished careers in writing, editing, translating and journalism, Andy returned to law, while Rodney continued as Weidenfeld and Nicolson’s sales representative in Israel.
HIGHLIGHTS OF the hundred or so books published by WNJ included Story of My Life by Moshe Dayan, Bar Kokhba and Hazor by Yigael Yadin, My Country by Abba Eban, My Life by Golda Meir, Pilgrims to the Holy Land by Teddy Kollek and Moshe Pearlman, Shield of David by Yigal Allon, War of Atonement by Chaim Herzog, David’s Sling and From These Men by Shimon Peres. All these books broke sales records for Israeli books in the country and overseas in the many languages for which we sold publishing rights.
In the five years of WNJ, the company created a minor revolution in Israeli publishing. All the books were carefully language edited, which was not the case with many publishers, and great attention was paid to production standards, including the introduction of artistic dust jackets, together with highly successful marketing campaigns (like turning a Steimatzky shop window into a desert landscape complete with sand and replicas of archeological artifacts to promote Yadin’s Bar Kokhba) All this is commonplace today but was revolutionary 40 years ago.
But all good things come to an end, and WNJ with them. In 1974, in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, tourism to Israel drastically declined for many months, together with book sales, as much of the post-1967 euphoria collapsed, harsh economic circumstances sent Israeli printing costs sky high so that it was no longer viable to print big international books in Israel, and some authors were still on active service and could not meet their writing commitments.
In 1975, to his great embarrassment and reluctance, Weidenfeld was not able to contradict his hard-nosed financial advisers in London, and WNJ was closed and its stocks sold off at bargain- basement prices.
The closing of the company haunted Weidenfeld for many years. It probably made financial sense at the time, but for a committed Zionist it was a hard thing to do and was criticized in the press and in the Israeli publishing community.
At our frequent meetings thereafter, he seemed to be seeking some form of absolution, or at least reassurance.
The Hebrew rights to many of the WNJ authors were acquired by Edanim Publishers, a company I founded in 1975 in partnership with the Yediot Aharonot newspaper, and which I headed for the subsequent 17 years, so there remained an organic continuation with Weidenfeld and many more Israeli authors were published by Edanim in Israel and by Weidenfeld and Nicholson in London.
However, since the days of WNJ, as far as I know, there has not been another foreign investment in the country’s book publishing industry.
George Weidenfeld devoted a large part of his long life to the cause of both the State of Israel and the state of the Jewish people. At various times he was Chairman of Ben Gurion University and a governor of the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot. He was among the architects of the first Jerusalem International Book Fair in 1963 and received the award of “Friend of Jerusalem” for his contributions.
In 2009, he was awarded by the Jerusalem Foundation the Teddy Kollek Lifetime Award for services to the city.
At the same time he was an internationalist in the best sense of the word.
He strove for reconciliation with Germany and was close to Konrad Adenauer, Helmut Kohl, Willi Brandt and latterly, Angela Merkel. He was the recipient of innumerable British and foreign awards and honorary degrees.
His massive intellect, his ability to communicate was infectious, and the vast panoply of thinkers and writers he published made him undoubtedly one of the most influential publishers of the 20th and early 21st centuries.
He was a colossus of his time and the world of publishing in general and the State of Israel in particular, is poorer for his passing.