The Mav­er­ick: George Wei­den­feld and the Gold­en Age of Publishing

  • Review
By – November 6, 2023

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.” 

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