THE GOLDEN AGE OF PUBLISHING. Thomas Harding is a bestselling British author. His award winning books have been translated into more than eighteen languages and include “Hanns and Rudolf”, “The House by the Lake”, “Blood on the Page”, and “White Debt”. His most recent book is “The Maverick”.

You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.

Thomas Harding, “The Maverick” is your biography of the renowned publisher George Weidenfeld. Why this title “The Maverick”? 

George Weidenfeld was a bit of a maverick. The maverick is somebody who knows their own mind, somebody who goes their own way. In America, especially, the word “maverick” has a very positive connotation. Someone who does great things, but not the way most people would do it: an unusual person, an individual, somebody who treads new ground. George Weidenfeld in many ways was that man. 

The publisher George Weidenfeld was a displaced person from Vienna who became a British Lord, very much a public figure, but you think that he was a lonely man? 

This is what he said. I wrote a book about someone I never met so I had to gather the information from people who knew him, from documents, from letters, memoirs from his many interviews. I was very lucky to have access to some of the more private interviews which were never published in which he confessed that he was extremely lonely. He was one of the most networked people on the planet. He knew everybody, and yet, inside himself, he was very lonely.

“An unusual person, an individual, somebody who treads new ground. George Weidenfeld in many ways was that man.”

Thomas Harding The Maverick

In “The Maverick” Thomas Harding tells the captivating story of the famed publisher George Weidenfeld, from his struggles as an Austrian-Jewish refugee in London to his rise as a world-renowned literary figure.

Thomas Harding, why did you decide to write your book about George Weidenfeld?  

I got a phone call out of the blue from the publisher Weidenfeld and Nicolson, the publishing house he created, saying, “Would you like to write a book about George Weidenfeld? Because you never met him you would bring a fresh eye to it.” Also, I share some of the backgrounds. My family is German-Jewish. My family had to flee Berlin before the Second World War. Like George we lost members of our family in the Holocaust. So I think that’s why they asked me to write the book. 

Did Weidenfeld and Nicolson give you access to their archive?

In the various moves and shake ups of this business over the years they did not know where their publishing files were and did not even have a list of books they had published, but I was able to reconstruct the list at the Oxford Bodleian library. Over 6,000 books were published while George was associated with the company, and the publishing files had not been lost, thankfully. They had been sold to an Irish book shop in Galway, and they had sold them to Princeton University, where I found 405 boxes containing hundreds of thousands of documents. To make sense of all this I decided to tell his story through 19 of the books that he was associated with. 

George’s real name is Arthur. Born in Vienna he had quite a troublesome adolescence before moving to London in the late 1930s? 

He was a curious, highly intelligent young man. He went to two universities at the same time, one of which was a diplomat’s academy. This coincided with when Germany occupied Austria, the Anschluss, and he was no longer able to study. A friend of his, Kurt Waldheim, one of the other students, brought his books to him and becomes an important character later in life. George’s father was arrested by the Gestapo and held in prison for many months. It wasn’t safe for him to stay, so George found a way out of Austria, made his way through Europe, and arrived in 1938 in London, with no money and no contacts. 

Could he speak English?

Barely. By himself and very worried about the rest of his family, who were still in Austria, he based himself at the old fashioned Strand Palace Hotel in London, which happened to be founded by my family – a little coincidence of our stories – and he started writing articles for various newspapers in this gathering place for European Jews and intellectuals. When he heard about the BBC calling for people to help with their monitoring service, he applied for the job. Obviously he impressed them and he started working for the BBC, listening to German broadcasts hour after hour, and writing down the key parts. That’s what he did for the next two or three years during the war in London. 

“He had this extraordinary appetite and ability to bring people together to make them feel good. And yet he was deeply lonely.”

Thomas Harding, George Weidenfeld didn’t like being a journalist and wrote a very badly reviewed book on Goebbels and propaganda, so what was his next move? 

After he left the BBC, he decided to start a magazine called Contact, vaguely modelled on The New Yorker. Because of rationing, at the time it was impossible to get paper to print on, but he was advised that you could get around that if you called yourself a book publisher not a magazine publisher, because a book publisher could get paper.  So he called it Contact Books, and he packaged it like a book with hardcovers, and started publishing these magazines. 

In fact Contact helped him also to make contacts and he hired Nigel Nicolson, who then became his partner. 

He met many people, like George Orwell and the great writers of the day. Nicolson was the son of the writer Vita Sackville-West and the diplomat and novelist Harold Nicolson. He began very quickly to gain access to the aristocracy and crucially money. He persuaded Nigel Nicolson not just to join him as an editor, but also to bring money from his family to invest in this new project, which then became a book publishing company called George Weidenfeld and Nicolson. It was shortened later on to Weidenfeld and Nicholson.

How did his Jewish identity affect his progress? 

He experienced anti-Semitism from the Sackville-West family and other members of the British establishment. It wasn’t easy, but he was able to muscle through. George came from a long line of rabbis on his mother’s side. He wasn’t a practising Jew but the cultural side was absolutely important to him and after Israel was founded in 1948 he said to Nigel Nicolson – they had just set up their new publishing house – you don’t mind if I go away for a year? And he became chief of staff to the first president of Israel, Chaim Weizmann. Israel was always part of his life. 

At the same time, he remained very close to German or Austrian culture and the German language? 

He loved German culture, and was very keen to remember what Germany was like before Hitler.  I can relate to that because my grandmother was similar. She left Germany in 1936, came to England, and was always looking over her shoulder back at Germany. From the very beginning until the end of his life George made links with Germany and was close to Konrad Adenauer, Helmut Kohl, Angela Merkel, and Mathias Döpfner the head of media group Axel Springer. He was fascinated how this great country was taken over by fascism. Again and again his new publishing company would publish books by Nazi leaders including Adolf Hitler, Bormann and Rudolf Hoess the Commandant of Auschwitz and Albert Speer. He also published the memoirs of Benito Mussolini.  When people criticized him for giving these war criminals a platform he said it’s important to understand your enemies, to understand how they think so it doesn’t happen again. He’d add an introduction by an academic or an expert who set what the fascists were saying in context, basically saying, “Don’t believe everything you’re going to hear, here’s the actual framework”. And also, these books made money. He was a businessman and he realised that these books sold. It’s important to always remember that aspect of George. He was a literary entrepreneur. 

Was it also helpful that he was a very social person? 

He built this universe of social contacts: presidents and kings and queens and rock stars. He famously knew everybody. He would sometimes have two or three social gatherings a day, a breakfast, a lunch, a tea, a dinner maybe for 50 people and then another 100 people would come afterwards. He had this extraordinary appetite and ability to bring people together to make them feel good. And yet he was deeply lonely. 

Thomas Harding The Maverick

Arthur Weidenfeld passport, 1937  © Laura Weidenfeld

Thomas Harding The Maverick

George Weidenfeld and Chaim Weizmann © Laura Weidenfeld

Thomas Harding The Maverick

First edition of Lolita 1955 courtesy John Atkinson Books

Thomas Harding The Maverick

Antonia Fraser, George Weidenfeld and Antonia’s mother Elizabeth Longford, 1966 © Laura Weidenfeld

Thomas Harding The Maverick

George Weidenfeld with Ann Getty and Arianna Huffington 1980s © Laura Weidenfeld

Thomas Harding The Maverick

George Weidenfeld on the dance floor at grandson Rowan’s wedding 2008 © Henriette Olbrisch

“George had extraordinary stamina. He maintained the heights of his performance decade after decade. He was a survivor.”

Thomas Harding, George Weidenfeld published the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who publicly praised him but privately said he was too frivolous?  

The public view is of Isaiah Berlin being very fond, kind, admiring of George. He wrote letters for his various birthdays. He was there at the wedding when he married Annabelle in the 90s, one of the few people at their wedding in Israel. And yet then privately you see in his letters, scathing, sneering, quite cruel at times I think, laughing at George for his body size, his business failures, his lack of learning,  his unreliability; him being, as you say, frivolous. So you get these two sides: the private side and the public side. Which one is correct? Maybe they’re both correct. 

He published over the years Saul Bellow and many other famous novelists, but books like Nabokov’s Lolita nowadays would be terribly controversial. 

It was controversial at the time. The newspapers called it pornographic and the British government banned it. Through a series of very clever actions he mobilised the literary greats of Britain to write letters saying how wonderful it was. He tricked the government by publishing just a couple of the books and making sure that they didn’t go after him. After going through 30 printers who refused to print the book, he then found a printer. He was tenacious. He had a team of editors who supported it. He was very smart in the way he did it. Once the book was published, he generated enormous amounts of publicity to make it into a bestseller. It then opened the way for other books to be published such as “Lady Chatterly’s Lover”.

He also discovered many other exceptional new writers?

For example, he was at a dinner in London in the 1950s, and the man sitting next to him was a Harvard academic who nobody had heard of. It was Henry Kissinger. Kissinger had by then been rejected by eight other publishers but George published his book and they had a lifelong relationship. As well as being a diplomat Henry Kissinger was a brilliant writer, and George was able to see that. It was as if he had a secret source to time and again identify greatness. 

What became really controversial was when he published his student friend Kurt Waldheim’s book? 

Yes, decades later, Waldheim had been the president of the United Nations and then was running for president of Austria. The memoir that George commissioned didn’t mention that Waldheim had been a Nazi, and this was hugely controversial. It was exposed by The New York Times after some research by a Jewish organisation. It was in many ways a turning point between Austria and the rest of the world. Austria was shunned. It became known as the Waldheim Affair, and George stood by his childhood friend Kurt Waldheim.

He seems to have liked these quarrels, because he published also the book of David Pryce-Jones on the British socialite Unity Mitford, which was ferociously attacked by Lord Lambton and many others. Unity Mitford was one of the famous Mitford sisters and the one who was most pro-Nazi because she was in love with Hitler. 

She went to Germany. She was put up by the Nazi establishment. When she tried to kill herself, Hitler paid for medical care. He then paid for her to go back to England. She was a real Nazi sympathizer, and when David Pryce-Jones started working on the book about Unity he decided to be honest about it. Scores of aristocrats wrote to George, saying, if you want to be part of the establishment, you can’t publish this. When the book was published, they then wrote letters to the newspapers. Oswald Mosley, who was the head of the British Union of Fascists before the war and was Unity’s brother-in-law sued George and David Pryce Jones. It became this big melee and George stood by David Pryce-Jones, and, to their credit, the British publishing establishment supported George. This was a turning point because up till then the British aristocracy had kept their connections with the fascists before the war very quiet. There was this deep-seated anti-Semitism in the British establishment, which hadn’t really been talked about, and this book, this affair, this crisis exposed this and after that it changed. George must get huge credit for that, and David Pryce-Jones, for standing up to these bullies of the great and the good. 

At the end of the day, which is your impression of George? 

I would hope by the end of the book people would have more of an idea about who he was than at the beginning. When I was getting close to what I thought was George Weidenfeld I had a sense of this man who was an extraordinary person. Often when we hear about people’s lives they have these moments of greatness and then there’s the rest of their life. George had extraordinary stamina. He maintained the heights of his performance decade after decade. He was a survivor. He’s certainly a complex character. I would like people to read the book and make their own mind up. I don’t give a judgement. 

Thank you very much for this conversation and for writing “The Maverick”.

Portrait of Thomas Harding © Christian Jungeblodt