A new biography of George Weidenfeld shows how times have changed in publishing.
George Weidenfeld was the first publisher to buy my first book, Debt Shock, and he’s always been a hero to me. I met him very briefly in 1982 at his home on the Embankment in London, not realizing at the time that he was one of England’s most famous publishers.
My literary agent, June Hall, arranged the meeting. She told me beforehand that since “George” didn’t have to refer his decisions to a committee, he could say, “I’ll buy it.” But, she added, he may not. She and I met in a coffeeshop before going to the meeting with Weidenfeld, and when she asked about possible book topics, I started talking about the burgeoning global debt crisis.
We decided to pitch that, and 10 minutes into my explanation to Weidenfeld, he said, “I’ll buy it.” Then he asked me to go into another room while he and June discussed terms. In the end, he offered a fairly generous sum for world rights and a much smaller sum for U.K. rights. June, anticipating a bigger sale in the United States, approved.
Now comes a new biography by Thomas Harding, The Maverick: George Weidenfeld and the Golden Age of Publishing. The book is structured around some of the publisher’s boldest efforts, starting with the 1959 publication of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita in the face of threats to sue him for obscenity.
It turns out that Weidenfeld, who was granted a life peerage in 1976 and was addressed as lord, was preoccupied in 1982 with the publication of Kurt Waldheim’s memoirs and the scandal over Waldheim’s failure to disclose that he was a member of the German army throughout World War II and had not been discharged in 1941, as he’d claimed.
Weidenfeld, although a refugee from Nazi rule who arrived in England from Vienna in 1938, occasionally published works by former Nazi officials, including Albert Speer. His belief, as evidenced by his publication of Waldheim’s In the Eye of the Storm in 1985, was that everyone was entitled to have their story told.
The Jewish refugee was also a lifelong Zionist, however, and a political adviser to the first president of Israel, Chaim Weizmann. It was one of many connections to top political figures; it was Labour prime minister Harold Wilson who put Weidenfeld on the list for a peerage.
Weidenfeld was a bon vivant renowned for his parties. He was married four times and was known euphemistically in the parlance of the time as a ladies’ man. Harding discusses all this in his biography, though he doesn’t dwell on it.
Weidenfeld died in 2016 at age 96 after retiring and devoting himself to philanthropy. In 2011, I related in the Independent some of this story from my writing career. The historical thriller about the Baghdad railway I mentioned in that earlier column was self-published that year, and I was happy with it. But it’s not the same as selling a book to Lord Weidenfeld, and I’ve long missed the maverick publisher who took chances.