An aunt of mine who went to Forest Mere Health Hydro some 50 years ago met George Weidenfked there. She even was invited to his famous parties. It was an early introduction to me of one of the most magnetic and charismatic of post war publishers who died this week.
On the Rust we like to dispel some of the hagiographic hyperbole that accompanies the passing of a significant personage. So let me say straight away that I considered Baron Weidenfeld, as he became, more of a literary agent glad-handing with the great and good than a visionary publisher. You cannot compare him to the inventor of the Penguin brand Sir Allen Lane, nor to Faber whos discovered so many authors. Weidenfeld’s chief claim to fame was the publication of Lolita by Nabokov, one of those authors like Joseph Conrad who could and did write proficiently in more than one tongue.
I always thought of him as essentially Viennese, reflecting a city that produced at the same époque Sigmund Freud, Stefan Zweig, Carl Schnitzler, Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. This most fecund city of the arts also spawned cineastes Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder and Fred Zinnemann. Coming here as an emigre after the Anschluss he soon set himself up as publisher. He published The Future of Coal by an unknown Labour MP Harold Wilson who later ennobled him. In those days there were many, some notorious, socialist millionaires like Lord Kagan, Sir Eric Miller and in the Commons George Strauss. Later Weidenfeld moved to the right both in Englishand Israeli politics. He was the Chef de Cabinet of first Israeli President the Mancunian chemist Chaim Weizmann.
He was a womaniser. He believed that women preferred ugly men but I think he had that wrong. He was rich and powerful and those he seduced were not bothered that he was no Adonis with his heavy jowls and corpulence. He did inspire much loyalty and affection. Lady Antonia Fraser would not have a word said against him.
I do not think he left a great literary legacy. Weidenfeld and Nicholson had a raffish reputation and other emigres like Andre Deutsch and Paul Hamlyn enjoyed greater and more enduring success. One of Weidenfeld’s last projects was to establish funding for the immigration of Syrians. His own life attests the impact and input a successful emigre can make.