“This remarkable memoir is a treasure-trove for anyone interested in literary, political, or business life in twentieth century Europe. At times, Weidenfeld does not so much name drop as name carpet-bomb, and his dozens of digressive anecdotes come close to tipping over into free association. The...”see full review » see other reviews »
“This remarkable memoir is a treasure-trove for anyone interested in literary, political, or business life in twentieth century Europe. At times, Weidenfeld does not so much name drop as name carpet-bomb, and his dozens of digressive anecdotes come close to tipping over into free association. The author, though, is invariably congenial and generous, and those who read along for the ride are invariably rewarded – and often entertained – on every page.
Conventionally, the story begins with Weidenfeld's family background and his early years in Vienna: his father was academically inclined but obliged to go into business, where, although he struggled, he built up a sales force of impoverished aristocrats as insurance salesmen. His father’s sister Mathilde, was "assistant and close friend of Alfred Adler", but there were few notable social connections besides the "statuesque and ravishingly beautiful" Countess Vera Fugger. Student days were during the rise of the Nazis, and involved an obligatory duel; Weidenfeld subsequently made his way to England, followed by his parents.
War-time work with BBC Monitoring brought contacts that led to the association with Nigel Nicolson and the creation of Contact, a series of books designed to circumvent rules about paper rationing for magazines. The first volume published in the series had the title Deal for Coal, and it helped advance the career of its young author, Harold Wilson – decades later, Weidenfeld was part of Premier Wilson’s inner circle.
Weidenfeld made his own way as a publisher – other British publishers are only minor presences in the book, although one of the most memorable lines is a piece of advice given by Stanley Unwin: "Any book on Mary Queen of Scots will always sell. No book on Latin America will ever sell. Beyond that you are on your own". It seems that Weidenfeld got more useful assistance from Cass Canfield, the chairman of Harper’s in New York, and Weidenfeld describes him as his "idol and mentor" (in a typical spin-off story, Weidenfeld advised Stanislas Radziwell not to leave his wife for Jacqueline Kennedy's sister Lee Bouvier, who at the time was herself married to Michael Canfield, Cass Canfield's adopted son). Another "friend and ally" in the USA was Victor Weybright, and there’s a passing reference to Weybright's enthusiasm for a series of books on the history of religion, edited by RC Zaehner; it's a shame there’s not more about Weybright in the book, given that Weybright’s own (also highly informative) memoir devotes several pages to Weidenfeld.
Weidenfeld also forged links with publishers in Europe, such as Plon and Mondadori. One particularly fascinating chapter – and essential reading for anyone interested in the study of the Nazi regime – describes post-war dealings in Germany to secure the rights for primary materials concerning the Third Reich. Projects that emerged from this included Hitler’s Table Talk, edited by Hugh Trevor-Roper and assembled with the assistance of François Genoud, "a shrewd businessman who became something like a self-appointed executor of the Third Reich".
Literary and society associates are too numerous to summarise, but they included Moura Budberg, Ann Fleming, Sonia Orwell, Mary McCarthy ("I learnt from her biographer... that at one point Mary had suffered a minor nervous breakdown in Florence and had woken one morning thinking she was me"), and Vladimir Nabokov; Weidenfeld took on obscenity legislation by publishing Lolita, although his decision fatally damaged Nicolson's political prospects. Reading Weidenfeld's memoir in late 2012, with James Bond mania engulfing the UK, it's interesting to read that Ann Fleming looked down on her husband's literary efforts, and that Ian Fleming learnt that her friends openly made fun of "the commander" (incidentally, one small blip confuses the first Bond film with the first book; but it seems that Weidenfeld has little interest in fiction).
Weidenfeld also married into the Sieff family, early and unhappily; his fledgling publishing career helped to keep him from being drawn into the family business of Marks & Spencer, although he describes various personalities connected the firm, in particular Flora Solomon.
Weidenfeld's publishing career was juggled with a commitment to Israel – he was part of the 1940s Zionist "scene" in 1940s London, and he took a year-long sabbatical from publishing to work for Chaim Weizmann. Weidenfeld has a particular interest in the development of the Negev, and he is keen to preserve the memory of Theodore Zissiu, who saw the often-overlooked region as crucial to the Zionist project but who died in fighting during the war. Weidenfeld published a wide range of memoirs by Israeli leaders, as well as Yigael Yadin's Masada. The book was "lavishly illustrated with original photography", and "pioneered a genre of publishing which has since been widely adopted and adapted". There is perhaps a hint that Weidenfeld is not supportive of Israeli settlement in the West Bank, although not much more than that – he maintains a friendship with Bibi Netanyahu, despite a Weidenfeld & Nicolson biography of Yoni Netanyahu by Max Hastings which was not well-received by the Netanyahu family (relations with Hastings, by contrast, were subsequently "glacial").
Although an anti-communist and a fervent Zionist, Weidenfeld comes across as urbane and tolerant of diverging views – for instance, he enjoyed friendly relations with Isaac Deutsher (although he was annoyed when Deutsher suggested a physical resemblance to Enver Hoxha). Perhaps this is the temperament required of a publisher whose specialities include memoirs; Weidenfeld & Nicolson's list includes a book on Guy Burgess by Tom Driberg. The final chapter describes Weidenfeld’s interest in Jewish-Christian relations, including activities with Cardinal Koenig and Krysztof Michalski, and a couple of meetings with Pope John Paul II.
Weidenfeld also talks frankly about his failures as a husband: he and Cyril Connelly, for instance, managed to cuckold each other with the same woman.”