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Obituary: George Weidenfeld  

2016-01-31 11:26:39|  分类: 默认分类 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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A world of friends

George, Baron Weidenfeld, publisher and philanthropist, died on January 20th, aged 96

THE glittering, hooded eyes captured guests even before they sat down. His apartment high above the Thames was full of paintings of famous men—he had a penchant for popes—but they struggled to compete with George. (He was rarely, after first acquaintance, “Lord Weidenfeld”.) Somewhere in the room would be the guest of honour: Angela Merkel, perhaps, whom he had befriended when she was still a middling Christian Democrat politician, or an Israeli general. He would invite them to take the floor, with an elegant introduction and a couple of probing questions to stimulate discussion. But it was the rotund, courtly son of an Austrian classics teacher who was the dazzler-in-chief, inexhaustibly unearthing facts, analogies, literary allusions and personal connections from his elephantine memory.  

English diffidence tended to elude him; assiduity was more his thing. Yet the conversational flow was not ponderous or one-way; he was just as interested in new people and ideas as in old ones. And, as he had learned when the Nazis turned his comfortable childhood upside down, you could never have enough friends.

Personal loyalty, in his view, trumped narrower or more abstract fealties. Though an adamantine Zionist, he defended his schoolmate Kurt Waldheim, who was embroiled in a war-crimes scandal when he became president of Austria. Waldheim had bravely helped young George evade Nazi curbs on higher education for Jews; that debt had to be repaid.The breadth and depth of his acquaintance were the foundation of his success as a publisher. The ties could be intellectual, cultural or romantic, and sometimes all three. He cultivated them from pre-war Vienna to the heights of the British establishment—and at the best parties in London. They produced publishing coups, donations, diplomatic reconciliations and sometimes, where his many paramours were concerned, scandal.

Cosmopolitan to his bones, he was patriotically and thankfully British, though for years he did not feel wholly part of the country to which he had come as a penniless teenager. A peerage helped: it was awarded in 1976 by Harold Wilson, the Labour prime minister whose talent he had spotted 30 years before in a dog-eared manuscript about the coal industry.

Once he was an insider, he revelled in it. He loved intrigue (too much, some said) and excitement. The flair and showmanship of publishing—conceiving a book with mischievous, relentless persuasion of anyone with writerly potential, and showily promoting it—appealed greatly. The dull stuff in the middle appealed a lot less. Business partners sometimes found that tiresome, especially when vagueness about their interests was matched with ruthlessness about his.

Though not short of enemies, he did not bear grudges. In the ruins of post-war Vienna he tracked down a Nazi student with whom he had duelled and invited him to breakfast. The towering young thug had become an emaciated cripple, and gratefully wolfed down huge sausage sandwiches at the British Officers’ Club.

His greatest triumph, Lord Weidenfeld reckoned, was outfacing the censors and publishing Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita”. Other celebrated authors in his stable included Isaiah Berlin (“The Hedgehog and the Fox”) and James Watson (“The Double Helix”). Among his fiction writers were Edna O’Brien and Saul Bellow. His forte, however, was personal reminiscence. (His own autobiography, a true gossipfest, was called “Remembering my Good Friends”.) He published memoirs and biographies of De Gaulle (whom he met while working in the wartime BBC), Adenauer, Kissinger, Mussolini and even Albert Speer. The fact that his own family had barely escaped the Holocaust made it all the more important to explain how the Nazi empire worked.

Provincialism and narrow-mindedness were his greatest foes; he had seen the damage they had done to his cherished continent. In the same vein, reconciliation was his paramount cause: chiefly between Germans and their victims and between Jews and Christians. Charm and personal contact could bridge most differences, given a chance. When the Iron Curtain fell he raised money to bring students from the former communist countries to his beloved Oxford. His travels across the Atlantic and the Channel were indefatigable; his hospitality, vigour and erotic energy were legendary to the end of his life.

Tablets of stone

Only on Israel was he unbendable. Its return to statehood he saw as the greatest achievement of the modern age (and one in which, when he briefly worked as an adviser to Chaim Weizmann, he had played a direct part). Nothing must jeopardise its security. Though his heart remained with the Israeli left, he said in later life that his head was with Likud. He was buried on the Mount of Olives, the Jewish state’s highest honour for its dead.

Britons sometimes mistakenly thought him old-fashioned. It was true that he had the manners and polish of a Habsburg literary aristocrat: he was fluent in four languages and could read for pleasure in another three. But that was civilisation, not anachronism. The future enthralled him just as much as the past—especially if there might be a book in it.

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