Publishing “Lolita” Was Hardly His Most Controversial Move

From a New York Times book review by Alexandra Jacobs headlined “Putting Out ‘Lolita’ Was Hardly His Most Controversial Move”:

Thwarted megamergers and private-equity acquisitions, buyouts and layoffs, self-publishing and artificial intelligence: It’s hard to find a glimmer of glamour in the book business right now.

Against this tech-inflected landscape, Thomas Harding’s more than serviceable new biography of George Weidenfeld, long a force of letters in England and briefly in the United States, floats as if on stained foolscap. We won’t see the likes of this fellow again is its continual subtext.

Weidenfeld’s most historic move was probably publishing “Lolita” in the United Kingdom in 1959, overcoming strong resistance from the government and the waffling of his business partner, Nigel Nicolson. Started a decade earlier, part of an industrywide surge of cultured Jewish refugees following World War II, Weidenfeld & Nicolson would assemble a catalog bulging with many of the 20th century’s most important authors: literary novelists, philosophers, scientists, celebrities, democratic leaders. Also — rare among its peers — Mussolini, Hitler and their associates.

“George was the opposite of cancel culture,” the German media mogul Mathias Dopfner, a friend more than 40 years his junior, tells Harding, probably understating the case.

“The Maverick” is an organizational feat: 750,000 pages of company and private papers, winnowed to 19 chapters focusing on significant titles. (The firm, still active, commissioned the book from Harding, a prolific journalist who has written about his own family’s escape from the Holocaust, but did not require final approval.)

Weidenfeld lived and worked until he was 96, and difficult choices seem to have been made to keep the book under 300 pages, plus juicier-than-usual endnotes. We get good goss about the tetchy Saul Bellow but not Norman Mailer; Mary McCarthy but not Joan Didion; Mick Jagger, who was “seduced” into writing a memoir for the publisher but couldn’t deliver, but not Keith Richards, who lucratively did.

Though he enjoyed his comforts, Weidenfeld was less motivated by riches than ideas and people. He was a connector, a “convener” and a champion of ideas: defiantly throwing a news conference at the Savoy and advertising James Watson’s “The Double Helix” in movie theaters, for example, after Francis Crick threatened to derail the project.

Weidenfeld was born, with the first name Arthur, to an insurance salesman and a homemaker in Vienna in 1919: a breech baby, left-handed, Jewish and an only child, the last of which, he said in adulthood, was “the most significant fact about my life,” making him a frenetic socializer.

Even more significant, perhaps, was that he escaped the Nazis, after an extraordinary public sword fight with one, part of an initiation rite into a Zionist student fraternity. His parents followed him to London; his grandmothers were not so fortunate. Conversant in several languages and interviewed by the BBC for a job monitoring European radio broadcasts, he told them his interest was history — specifically, “turning points.”

The unspoken keyword was “networking.” Hired and eventually promoted to correspondent and commentator, Weidenfeld lunched with his colleague George Orwell, roomed with Diana Athill and started a New Yorkerish magazine called Contact (rejecting Orwell’s essay on “Politics and the English Language”), which, because of paper ration rules, had to be printed under the shell of a book publisher. He conscripted Nicolson — the younger son of the diplomat Harold Nicolson and the poet Vita Sackville-West — who invested money in (and contributed a piece to) the new venture. George reciprocated by giving Nigel romantic advice.

Portly and balding from a young age — the writer Antonia Fraser likened him to Louis XVI, with “enormous rolling eyes, like gooseberries” — Weidenfeld had a reputation with women, but what it was isn’t completely clear from “The Maverick,” a title with discordant “Top Gun” echoes.

He referred to his childhood nanny as “that slut from the country,” saying she’d locked him away so she could sleep with her boyfriend, and at 17 lost his virginity to a married Milanese lady over twice his age. Michael Korda wrote in his memoir “Another Life” that he once overheard Weidenfeld refer to himself as “the Nijinsky of cunnilingus.” He wed four times, twice to heiresses who, it’s suggested, contributed financially to his business, and was not always faithful. He may or may not have slept with the philanthropist Ann Getty, with whom he started an ill-fated American company, called Wheatland after her hometown, that for a time took over the storied Grove Press. A longtime assistant insists he “was not a groper.”

But “there’s a word that keeps coming into my head,” Sackville-West’s granddaughter, Vanessa, tells Harding about his subject’s habit of getting too close at parties. “It’s ‘creepy.’ ”

There were a lot of parties — and yet Weidenfeld was in some respects remarkably abstemious, drinking milk, Earl Grey tea or apple juice instead of alcohol or coffee. He was not religious, but cared hugely for Israel, enough that he let the Netanyahu family censor parts of a biography of its scion Yoni, killed during the Entebbe raid of 1976. “I thought George in every way a loathsome human being,” its frustrated author, Max Hastings, wrote in 2021.

The satirical rag Private Eye, which with a whiff of antisemitism lampooned Weidenfeld & Nicolson in a comic strip called “Snipcock and Tweed,” scoffed that his elevation to a peerage by the prime minister Harold Wilson, whose books he published, was pure cronyism. Isaiah Berlin also regularly trash-talked Weidenfeld, who published his “The Hedgehog and the Fox” in 1953, questioning his morality and integrity and wondering “why, in Aristotle’s sense has his personality no weight, only lightness?”

Judging from Harding’s work, Weidenfeld was neither hedgehog nor fox, but — aptly, considering his beloved Nabokov’s favorite hobby — butterfly. He’s colorful, but flitting and hard to fix. Often his biographer resorts to sentence fragments, as if exhaustedly jabbing pins. “Piles of books everywhere” is how he describes the publisher’s early Oxford Circus offices. “Stacks of chairs that needed to be placed behind desks. Framed pictures covered in brown paper leaning against walls. Men in aprons coming in and out pushing dolly carts full of boxes. Editors trying to read manuscripts, despite it all. Secretaries tapping away at their typewriters.”

Doesn’t it sound nice?

THE MAVERICK: George Weidenfeld and the Golden Age of Publishing By Thomas Harding.

Alexandra Jacobs is a book critic and the author of “Still Here: The Madcap, Nervy, Singular Life of Elaine Stritch.”

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