|George Weidenfield and Joan Collins|
Buccaneer of the book world: Baron Weidenfeld
My hero / George Weidenfeld by Antonia Fraser
WEDNESDAY 20 JANUARY 2016
Do you know what a happy man looks like? He looks like Baron Weidenfeld of Chelsea, installed in a comfortable armchair by a marble fireplace in his vast apartment on Chelsea Embankment. At 93, he resembles a dandyish boiled egg in a houndstooth three-piece, with matching flashes of scarlet from tie, socks and the kerchief erupting from his breast pocket. He doesn't get up to greet me, apologising - he's had an operation on his leg - but, if he's a shade creaky on his pins, by golly, his mind is sharp.
I say 'vast apartment'. I don't get the full tour, but the couple of rooms I pass through are each of a size in which, you feel, an averagely big helicopter could bemanoeuvred. Books line the walls nine shelves deep, though space has been made for a smattering of antique-looking cameos, a well-stocked drinks trolley and a huge portrait of Innocent XII facing another of Gregory XIII across the room. The history of the Catholic Church is a hobby - though, he says, he's interested in the Church as a repository of political power rather than spiritual authority. There - characteristically - is his shrewd eye to the power in the room.
This is the home of a man who fled Nazi-occupied Vienna for London, aged 19, with a postal order for 16 shillings and sixpence and a three-month temporary visa. He went on to found one of our great publishing houses and, on the strength of his charm and business nous alone, has ended up not so much at the table of the great, as owning the table around which the great sit when they want a proper off-the-record chat. This, it's fair to say, is a seriously remarkable dude. He seems to have lived at least four lives. Spending 1949 as chef de cabinet to Israel's first president, Chaim Weizmann,would be the high point of many biographies; for him, it was a sabbatical.
George's first autobiography, published in 1994, was called Remembering My Good Friends - an oddly valedictory and self-sidelining title, but one that points to an important part of his character. He has known - and knows - as the cliché has it, everybody who is anybody. There are 16 different Rothschilds mentioned in the index of that book alone. His life story is one in and out of which stroll Nabokovs, Waughs and Greenes, Kissingers and Blairs, Mikhail Gorbachevs and Eric Schmidts. Helmut Kohl is a 'great figure in my life... a mentor'. Literati, glitterati and political elites have, for decades, worn smooth his sitting-room rug with their feet.
If you ask him which of these luminaries is his favourite author, he says (actually said, before I asked the question): 'It is Antonia Fraser.' He gave Antonia her first job and, from secretarial work, she soon moved on to writing a series of illustrated children's books for him. Afterwards, acting on the advice of the veteran publisher Stanley Unwin, who had told the young Weidenfeld that books about South American politics never sold but the public couldn't get enough of Mary, Queen of Scots, she wrote a biography of her. The rest is history, so to speak.
It's been hinted that he and she were lovers at one point, but he says their relationship was 'not a love affair. Not at all. I was, if I may say so, her father confessor in many ways'. Harold Pinter once sat right opposite him, where I'm sitting now, 'like one of the characters in his plays', and grilled him about Antonia. What had she beenwearing when he first met her when she was an undergraduate? Could he remember? 'I could remember.'
He can remember everything. He's achieved enough since his late 70s - when most of us give up - to merit a fresh volume of memoirs, this time in conversation with the extremely Establishment-friendly biographer and historian William Shawcross.
'I'm probably busier than I've ever been,' he says. There's his international-affairs think-tank, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue; the new Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford and his programme of Weidenfeld Scholarships for overseas students; and the 25 visiting professorships at Oxford and Cambridge that he established. On the side, he writes a column or two a week for German newspapers, which is 'great fun'. He's deeply involved in politics, but is not a politician (he sits as a crossbencher in the Lords, having been made a peer in 1976). Rather, he's a facilitator of deals, a convenor of 'fireside talks', a hoster of salons. He clearly has a considerable gift for friendship - 'Being an only child, I've always had a longing for company, for friendship and so on' - but he also uses it as a tool. 'I see everything,' he has said, 'even socialising, as a means to an end.'What I'm really interested in doing, you see, is building bridges across countries, cultures and ideas, doing various things, with the common denominators of anti-radicalism, Western unity and also, underlying, the future - the survival - of the Jewish people. My whole life is bound up in the State of Israel.'
The reasons for his twin preoccupation with European peacemongering and Israel's fortunes are not hard to find. Born to a Jewish family in Vienna in 1919 - his mother was from a very distinguished rabbinical clan, his father much more on the secular side - George grew up in an atmosphere of Mitteleuropean high culture. As an eight-year-old, he lingered outside the Café Bazar in Salzburg, collecting the autographs of the opera stars who hung out there. ('I had a good relationship with the head waiter,' he says - a networker even then.) The Nazi annexation put an end to all that - and to the autograph collection. Two days after the Anschluss, there was a dawn knock and George's father was carted off to jail.
What does the CV that took him from there to here look like? It is one of opportunities deftly taken and bizarre turns of chance. During his early days in London, he hung out in the lobby of the Regent Palace Hotel writing articles for German-language newspapers and befriending 'pretty Scandinavian au-pair girls who came there on their days off'. There, he was approached by the Honorary Consul General of Honduras - yes, actually - to do some under-the-table translation work. It turned out that this spivvy character was selling arms to both sides in the Spanish Civil War. George hastily extricated himself from the connection - but not before swapping his father's old fur coat for the Honduran visas with which he was able to bring his parents out of Vienna to London.
Not long afterwards, he answered an ad for a job and found himself monitoring broadcasts for the BBC's wartime propaganda department. This brought him into contact with Harold Nicolson and his son Nigel, with whom he conceived the ambition to set up a literary magazine called Contact after the war. A dodge around rules about paper shortages meant that the magazine morphed into a publishing house - Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Its first book was an obscure monograph on the future of the coal industry by a young Labour backbencher called Harold Wilson. Weidenfeld went on to publish Lolita in the UK for the first time, as well as Portrait of a Marriage, The Double Helix (after Harvard University Press turned it down) and the memoirs of Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle, Golda Meir and, and, and...
He even managed to coax Pope John Paul II's memoirs out of him through their personal connection. How do you get to be friends with the Pope? They hit it off over several years of George's being a guest at the annual villa-holidays-cum-talking-shops JPII held in the Apostolic Palace, Castel Gandolfo. They were 'very informal. Over the years, we got to know each other reasonably well. He had a wonderful way of talking - politics, literature, everything - but he had a very lofty manner. He wouldn't descend to gossip.' This is said with, I fancy, a flicker of regret. Did the Pope make jokes? 'Well-meaning jokes, yes. But still - you knew where he stood on certain issues.'
In 1991, George arranged to sell Weidenfeld to the publisher Anthony Cheetham to be the flagship non-fiction imprint of his new Orion Group. George remains chairman, but doesn't run the day-to-day business. When I ask him what, if he had to put a profession on his passport, he would say, he takes a long while to answer - 'very challenging question' - but replies, finally, 'publisher'. This interview concludes with him giving me a lift in his chauffeur-driven Lower Manhattan-sized Lexus and, between Chelsea Embankment and Leicester Square, offering me two fully formed book ideas and the hint that he might like to publish them; so I'd say 'publisher/diplomat'.
One friend describes him, surely rightly, as being 'a 19th-century figure, really - Metternich on the Chelsea Embankment'. He even fought an honest-to-God duel as a student. 'I fought perhaps the last duel before the Anschluss, against a Nazi,' he says cheerfully when I bring the subject up. 'It was a ludicrous situation. I had to provoke him several times before he would allow me to fight him.'
In order to join a Jewish student society at the University of Vienna, the young George was tasked with squaring up to the biggest Nazi he could catch hold of. 'Your shoelaces are undone,' he told the big Nazi ('six foot two or three'). The man checked his shoelaces, which weren't undone, and that impertinence was enough for their seconds to meet in a café to arrange a duel. But George was refused the satisfaction because he wasn't Aryan, so a bigger insult was required.
He tracked his Nazi down, found him having lunch and called him a coward in front of his friends. That clinched it. They went 92 rounds before they called it quits and declared a draw.
The story has a sequel; actually, two. After the Nazis took over and George's father had been thrown in jail, a big Brownshirt rang his mother's doorbell, asking for him. She reported (with some relief, presumably) that her son was, by then, in London. The Brownshirt said: 'Oh, I'm glad. I was the one who fought a duel with him. Is there anything I can do for you? He was such a brave opponent.' Years later, George looked him up in post-war Vienna. 'He'd lost a leg in the war and was very emaciated - so I plied him with sausages and beer and so on. It was the last time I saw him because he died shortly afterwards.'
George speaks or reads upwards of half a dozen languages: ancient Latin and Greek, Hebrew, English, French, German, Italian and a bit of Dutch. He can kind of decipher Spanish and he once had a bash at learning spoken Latin. I ask him what language he dreams in. He spends a lot of time thinking about it, before concluding - torn, it seems, between English and German - that he dreams in images.
All that accomplishment and yet I read somewhere that he couldn't boil an egg or drive a car. 'That's true. That's true.' Was he never curious to try? 'I'm just clumsy. Clumsy and sort of hopeless. I don't know anything about Twittering. Anything in that field is done superbly by my wife. She's constantly on the internet. I know nothing about it.' Does he welcome it? 'One can't stop progress.'
Where, then, for this insider-outsider, is the centre of gravity? Where is home? 'It's a question I'm often asked. I would say that I have three loyalties. My obvious one is to Britain, because the British saved my life. They allowed me to bring my parents over. That's the first loyalty. Another, which is more tribal, like a family kind, is to the Jews. I'm not a religious Jew but I'm a Zionist in the pure sense that I believe in the redemption of the Jews, in a homeland. I have from the age of 14 or 15 been active in this field and it is still my tremendous passion. My third loyalty is to German culture - ideas, literature, music - transmitted to me as a child.'
|George Weidenfeld And Sandra Meyer|
He's also keen on women - and he has a reputation for being extremely attractive to them. George has been married four times - first to Jane Sieff of the Marks & Spencer clan; then to Barbara Skelton, whom he stole from Cyril Connolly, though he hastily arranged to hand her back after she introduced a cat and a drunken butler to their menage and turned up to his dinner parties in tennis shoes; then to the American heiress Sandra Payson. His fourth wife is Annabelle Whitestone, a convent-educated Brit 25 years his junior, whom he met at the 80th birthday party of the mayor of Jerusalem and who shares his love of music. (She lived, previously, with the pianist Arthur Rubinstein.) He has a daughter, Laura, from his first marriage, and four grandchildren.
George Weidenfeld and Jane Sieff
George has been described as a 'turbo-charged hedonist'. One anecdote has his former flame Barbara Amiel (naked in some versions) wriggling through a serving hatch to retrieve his biscuit tin from a locked kitchen. He and Amiel - now married to former newspaper tycoon Lord Black - are still friends, incidentally, and he stuck by the couple after Conrad's conviction for fraud. 'We're in touch. My feeling is that they're going to come and live here. He's a force of nature. I think he - er - was responsible for his own misfortune by being too rough. I mean, he could have avoided the whole thing but he's been very aggressive with some of these people. But I believe he's innocent and admire the way he's lived through it all. It has strengthened his character.'
What's the secret of his romantic success? 'I can't say that. I can only put it the other way round. I find women very attractive because I find them superior beings, works of art. And, what can I add? I've been married four times and I made mistakes. But I am immensely happy and vindicated by not giving up, as it were. Annabelle and I have been married for 21 years now and I'd call it an ideal marriage.'
In his autobiography, he talks of having Siegfried syndrome - the fear that he'll succeed right up until failing at the last battle. Does he still have that? Are there regrets that niggle him? 'Obviously, I could have been a far richer man if I hadn't been an underwriter at Lloyd's. There was a fire sale of Francis Bacons and things like that. But I don't lie awake at night.'
Of all the many periods he's lived through, he says: 'Curiously enough, I'm probably happiest now. I'll tell you why. I obviously can't be the hedonist I was before, because now I'm happily married, but I've proved that I can live with somebody else and somebody can live with me - fulfilment in human relations.'
He adds: 'I have some very good friends.'