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The New Statesman profile: publishing giant George Weidenfeld (1919-2016)

A profile from the New Statesman archive of the publisher who has died, aged 96, written by Quentin Letts in 1999.

If he were a character in fiction, George Weidenfeld would work best as a baddie: the bulbous-eyed, mittel-European Herr Fixit who dabbles around power, enjoys the company of lithe-legged lovelies and knows the Pope. What the devil is he up to?

A plot featuring this ubiquitous, turbo-charged, hedonistic old man might strain belief. One moment he seizes a statuesque wife (Barbara Skelton) off his pug-faced friend Cyril Connolly; the next, Connolly bags her back, and all London titters. The scene changes and we find our hero with His Holiness himself, strolling through the gardens at the papal pad at Castel Gandolfo, hands behind his back, discussing freedom and theology. But another quick switch, a skip of those oddly slim ankles, and Weidenfeld is back at his infamous London lair, beads of sweat on his brow as the beau monde cascades through his door and George's chipolata fingers press in to the moist palms of Peter Mandelson, Baroness Jay and other new Labour luminaries.

Weidenfeld flourished under Wilson and Callaghan, prospered under Thatcherism, and pressed on in those joyless Major years. On the night of Black Wednesday where was Norman Lamont? At the Treasury? Befuddled at his club? No, he was at Weidenfeld's, honouring some duffer of a book by Cecil Parkinson.

Throughout the years Weidenfeld has effected introductions, eased access, nurturing ideas and pet projects like a cook with a range full of steaming, spitting cauldrons. And now the master concocter has pulled off another triumph. His spacious flat on the London Embankment by Chelsea is once again the place to be seen. And where did the now fallen Mandelson state that "it is not a matter of if, but when, we join EMU"? Why, at one of the bi-annual meetings of senior politicians from France, Germany and the UK organised by Weidenfeld.

For cynics the frustrating thing about Lord Weidenfeld is that he is almost universally regarded as a force for the good. He is convivial and kindly, they say, above all civilised - as widely loved, it sometimes seems, as Trollope's Duke of Omnium. In his posthumously published diaries, Woodrow Wyatt was disobliging about the standard of trough chez Weidenfeld, and the wine, it is true, is only ever modest, but the conversation is premier cru. George does charitable works, frets about his friends' happiness and spends probably more money than he should entertaining. The great party giver himself does not drink alcohol, but that is just one of many little contradictions in his remarkable life.

At the age of 79 - with his publishing imprint, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, about to notch up its half-century - George is still bubbling and, according to one close friend, happier than he has been for years. He sold the firm to the Orion Group, making himself £4 million (admittedly a modest sum by the standards of his acquaintances) and still retains an office and an active interest. The incumbent Lady Weidenfeld (No 4) is youthful, uncomplicated and bonny. George has always been able to "pull" the girls, despite the Private Eye nickname, Popeye. Below his broad girth is said to lurk an attentive, octopus-limbed, accomplished lover.

He has long been seen as a man of the left. It is a liberalism that is comfortable with material grandeur and the social swirl of a political and capitalist elite. He has little time, one suspects, for the self-denying edicts of feminism and the mirthless codes of multiculturalism. In friendship and business, his political tastes are catholic and his greatest allies include the Telegraph's chairman Conrad Black and his wife Barbara Amiel. Mrs Black is a former flame of Weidenfeld but they remain excellent friends and she has been seen on Paris shopping expeditions with Lady Weidenfeld.

Weidenfeld's connections, indeed, can be as tangled as the wires in a telephone sub-station. A few weeks ago, for instance, he threw a dinner for Robin and Gaynor Cook, intended as a friendly boost to Cook and his shy new wife, who have been much buffeted in the past year. How useful, furthermore, for the Foreign Secretary to plug in to George with his amazing Middle East connections, his expansive internationalism, not to mention his deep-pocketed north London network which includes Tony Blair's tennis partner Lord Levy and Sir Ronald Grierson.

But look at the forthcoming titles on the Weidenfeld and Nicolson list, and what do you find? Margaret Cook's autobiography. This is the hotly awaited book in which the former Mrs Robin Cook is expected to torpedo her ex-husband's reputation.

Weidenfeld's reputation is that of a formidable thinker, a man of the broadest horizons and enviable learning. However, publishing sources suggest that the nitty-gritty of the book trade - reading manuscripts, checking galley proofs, correcting grammatical errors or a sloppy index - may not be Weidenfeld's forte. "Like many great publishers he is not a great reader," says a senior colleague. "He is more interested in the entrepreneurial aspects of the trade, the deals and the chase. He has access to the right drawing rooms and his own drawing room is a pool of activity. But reading? Ahem."

And he must be a snob, mustn't he? Here, after all, is a man whose chief obsession in life seems to have been knowing the prominent people of the age. He himself recounts how, in his early days in London, he would go and sit in the Waldorf and study the English rich. To this day he likes dining at the Connaught - though his women and his doctors have often placed him on diets, he finds the steak and oyster pie hard to resist. Yet he always wants to know what the next generation thinks. What are the young saying? That hardly squares with being a snob.

Weidenfeld has known what it is like to ride low in the water. He was born to a scholarly, successful Viennese family. He studied law at the University of Vienna and then went to the Konsular Akademie (diplomatic college), where he is said to have fought a duel. He tasted, just, the end of a central Europe enriched by Jewish engagement, a world of coffee houses and philosophical discussion, of courteous manners.

But in 1938 the Nazi bovver boys marched in and Weidenfeld fled his homeland. He travelled to England with little more than a postal order for 16 shillings and sixpence. To understand George Weidenfeld today it is vital to bear in mind the upheaval he endured - how far he has had to come, and how close his persecuted people came to obliteration.

Home in those early days was a boarding house near King's Cross, but he pressed his face against the windows of fine houses in more prosperous parts of town and promised himself that one day he would live in such splendour. It would take a while, but by God he has done it.

During the second world war he worked for the BBC. Once Hitler was out of the way he started to plan for peacetime and in 1949, having married a Sieff, he set up in publishing with Nigel Nicolson. One of their first authors was a Labour MP called Harold Wilson, whose published offering was entitled New Deal for Coal. New deal . . . sound familiar?

Wilson, Lyndon Johnson, Golda Meir and Henry Kissinger - whose third volume of memoirs comes out this year - have all been Weidenfeld authors. So, infamously, was Vladimir Nabokov. Publication of a British edition of Lolita helped to establish the firm's reputation.

Weidenfeld brought business nous and a certain Continental intellectualism, which might have been considered pretentious in a native Brit, to the partnership with Nicolson; Nicolson provided an entree to the old establishment. The contact-building began in earnest: Gettys, Flicks, Saul Bellow, Pakenhams, Pinters, Edna O'Brien, Spender, Toynbee, Claus Moser, the Prince of Liechtenstein (although Weidenfeld is not that big on royalty), Roy Jenkins, Graham Greene, Helmut Kohl . . . the list is almost endless. Social climbing? Or intellectual mountaineering? "George is a barometer," says a friend. "When Barbara Follett started turning up at his parties in the early nineties it was a sure sign Labour were going to regain power."

With his foreign background, Weidenfeld suffered from none of the class shyness his British counterparts might feel, and he never bothered to alter his Austrian accent. It was a positive assistance not to belong, not to be easily pigeonholed. There have been some enemies, but remarkably few for a man so involved in salon society. The knighthood came in 1969, provoking a memorably bitchy letter of "congratulation" from the then president of the Publishers' Association, who said: "I am sure all your fellow publishers are aware of the hard work which you have put in to attain your knighthood." Weidenfeld enjoyed running the letter in full in his (actually not wildly successful) autobiography, Remembering My Good Friends.

The life peerage followed in 1976. Weidenfeld, who sits on the cross-benches, is only an occasional attender in the House of Lords, but he has enjoyed the title. "The parliamentary handle has been useful to him, opening a few doors that might otherwise have remained closed," says a friend. "All George really now hankers for is a regular slot on television." He is, it is said, more than a little vain.

Jilly Cooper is one of his fans. "He is a very sympathetic man, so agreeable - like an adorable French bulldog." Early in her career Cooper was lunched at Wilton's by Weidenfeld and quizzed hard about her desire to write books. "I actually ended up with another publisher but George's professional courtship was very seductive," she recalls.

Other authors praise the standards set by Weidenfeld and Nicolson. "Most publishers muck books about and make them worse," says Andrew Roberts. "Weidenfeld supplies good ideas and helps you make them work." This winter's list is strong and characteristically highbrow, including a new series of short biographies (of the likes of Proust and Joyce), a Rudyard Kipling study, a Richard Strauss biography and, for a canter, a gossipy set of memoirs from the former Tory MP Gyles Brandreth.

Herr Fixit may no longer be signing the advances himself, but his presence is still being felt, and his parties are still the surest sign that you have arrived. He is palpably pleased that Labour is in office; Labour should be equally pleased to have him on its side.

This article first appeared in the 01 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An earthquake strikes new Labour