Fleeing for his life due to the shock of the Anschluss, a Vienna-born refugee arrives without resources or prospects. But he seizes whatever opportunities a free nation can offer him, and he turns himself into a sophisticated, wealthy, and well-connected publisher. His bestselling books bring him and his authors acclaim and popularity. As the saying goes, it could happen only in America.
Except that it happened in Great Britain, where George Weidenfeld (1919 – 2016) cofounded the eminent publishing house that bears his name. Nigel Nicolson, the son of a blue-blooded diplomat, provided the capitalization; Weidenfeld made the literary judgments that guaranteed the prosperity of the firm. While his taste was not without flaw, his picks proved quite extraordinary. He fought censors to give British readers the chance to tackle Vladimir Nabokov’s transgressive Lolita. Under Weidenfeld’s aegis, the biologist James Watson recounted the discovery of DNA in a thrilling narrative called The Double Helix. In 1946, Weidenfeld’s business partner, Sir Harold Nicolson, published an admired account of the Congress of Vienna. But Weidenfeld chose a fellow Jewish refugee, Henry A. Kissinger, to rival that book with A World Restored.
The polyglot publisher took special pride in his cosmopolitan catalog. He not only reached out across the Atlantic for writers, but he also found them across the Channel. Like many Jewish thinkers, Weidenfeld helped to deprovincialize his fellow citizens. But, as author Thomas Harding points out, not all of Weidenfeld’s pursuits were successes. The Netanyahu family fiercely objected to a biography of the martyred hero of Entebbe, Yonatan Netanyahu. Nobel laureate Saul Bellow was notably difficult to work with. And Weidenfeld could never extract a much-anticipated autobiography out of Mick Jagger.
Weidenfeld claimed descent from a long line of rabbis. The intensity of his Zionism is incontestable, and he published several volumes by or about Israeli politicians. The fourth of his marriages was consecrated in Jerusalem, where he is also buried. Unable to wriggle out of the reputation of an arriviste, or escape the snobbery of English antisemitism, Weidenfeld was lonely and insecure. He managed his self-doubt by maintaining a packed social calendar. He married wealth; his first wife was Jane Sieff, whose retailing family created Marks & Spencer. Numerous women found Baron Weidenfeld of Chelsea too charming to resist. His final years were unhappy, however. Too much red ink forced him to sell his celebrated publishing house. Even so, Harding’s lively biography is right to highlight its subject’s “remarkable perspicacity.”