The great publisher Andre Deutsch was born in Hungary in 1917. His career began during World War II at the publishing firm Nicholson & Watson. After the War he started his first company, Allan Wingate, before forming Andre Deutsch Limited in 1952. His small but influential house ran until the 1980s, employing Diana Athill as an editor and publishing books by Jack Kerouac, Philip Roth and John Updike. He died in April 2000, aged 82.
Here is an interview with him from my book, Singular Encounters.
You’re often referred to as a refugee, but aren’t I correct in saying you came to England of your own free will and had already decided to do so before things became difficult politically in Hungary?
You’re quite right. I came to England because of an uncle. My mother came from a large family, and one other brothers, the most interesting, was an Anglophile. He was a businessman but also a translator who translated H. G. Wells into Hungarian. He had a daughter, and was frustrated in not having a son, so, with my parents’ approval, took care of me in a way. When I was thirteen or fourteen he hammered it home that there was only one country where a gentleman with artistic, intellectual or literary leanings could live, and that was the United Kingdom. I remember having awful rows with my father, because he was a great admirer of Mussolini and thought it was really not necessary for me to leave. I left Hungary in March 1939, when things were still normal at home, and came out of my own free will without my parents’ knowledge.
They stayed on in Hungary. My father was miraculously rescued by Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat, when, as a dentist, he was working in a camp outside Budapest, his own place having been closed because he was Jewish. The news came one day that the following afternoon at three o’clock he would be on a train to somewhere in Germany or Poland. My mother rushed to Wallenberg, and they took him off the tram at the last minute. Both my parents survived and came out in 1946, but hated doing so because by that time pre-communist Hungary was a reasonably comfortable place. When I visited my father, I was amazed at what you could buy. But when they arrived in England, there was rationing. My father said that England smelt of mutton. In Hungary people didn’t eat mutton unless they were very poor.
The next year my parents went back and I nearly had a nervous breakdown at feeling so guilty at not having looked after them properly. My father restarted his practice and then came out again when things got really bad in 1950. That second departure was immensely complicated, but more important was the fact that this time they fell in love with England and England seemed to love them in return. They never looked back.
At one point you were interned on the Isle of Man as an enemy alien. Did you feel resentful or just resigned?
Neither. Hungary came into the war the day after Pearl Harbour, which was 7 December 1941. Horthy, under enormous pressure from Hitler, declared war and joined the Axis. It was then that I was interned. We were shipped first to Manchester, where the zoo had been evacuated – they were afraid of bombs falling and the lions getting out and eating people – and the Hungarians were lodged in what had been the Parrot House. We were there two or three days and I met some very interesting people. Then we were shipped to the Isle of Man, where we spent six or seven weeks. I had good friends who went to the Home Office, and I was later released.
It is because of that internment that I became a publisher. I met a Hungarian called Francis Aldor in the camp. He was an impossible character who was a cousin of Arthur Koestler’s and ran a publishing company. When my release papers came he asked me to work for him for £8 a week, which was a lot of money in those days. I didn’t want to take the job, but the other Hungarians said, ‘Look, for God’s sake, Aldor is impossible, but it’s an occupation.’ So I accepted and worked for him for about three months. I knew nothing about publishing. I’d read many books and I was relatively literate, but I didn’t know how a book was made. I learned quickly and left to take up a new job, working for John Roberts at Nicolson & Watson. Roberts is a nice man, a Welshman, still alive and about ninety.
Has being an exile been a significant factor in your life?
I never considered myself an exile. I thought that, as I lived here and spoke quite a bit of English, I actually was English, so I never had any complex about being a foreigner. And my friends, with very few exceptions, such as George Mikes, were all English.
You came to England out of a conviction that your liberal beliefs would be met with greater sympathy in London than in Budapest. Have you ever been disillusioned?
By and large, no, but there has to be give and take. Of course there are lots of things about England that have disappointed me, but mostly I was glad I came here. In 1937 or thereabouts my father wanted me to go to America, which was the Hungarian dream. I even had a letter from the US Embassy in London to say that my application had gone through. But I didn’t go, because by that time I already thought of myself as an Englishman somehow disguised as a Hungarian. When my parents finally met up with me after the war and heard the story, my father nearly fainted. He said, ‘How could you have missed the land of golden opportunity? Think what you’d be now if you’d gone to America instead of staying here.’
At what point was your fierce resolve for independence as a publisher born?
I started Allan Wingate as an independent company virtually on my own, having been with Nicolson & Watson and learned a great deal about the surface of publishing. There was no depth, but I knew printing, invoicing, selling to W. H. Smith and reading manuscripts. My first great triumph at Nicolson & Watson happened when Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps came in and John Roberts, my boss, said, ‘Laddie, you read this.’ I read it and said, ‘This is a great book,’ and they published it. But afterwards there was a disagreement between Nicolson & Watson and myself. Through George Mikes I had come to know George Orwell, who was then very poor. He was the literary editor of Tribune and he asked me to write short reviews. If a review was not that short I got a guinea (£1.05); if it was really short I got 10s. 6d. (52.5p), and was allowed to keep the book to flog.
One day Orwell showed me a new manuscript of his that his regular publisher, Victor Gollancz, had turned down. It was Animal Farm. He gave it to me just before Whitsun, when I was going off with a girlfriend to a farm in Wales to get away from the bombs. I read the manuscript four times, ignored the girl, came back to London stomping with excitement, rushed into John Roberts and said, ‘Mr Roberts, this is a masterpiece.’ He said, ‘All right, laddie, leave it here.’ Weeks went by, and finally I went to Roberts, who said Orwell didn’t know what he was talking about and had no idea of what went on in Russia. After I’d persuaded him to meet Orwell, Roberts and his wife and Orwell and I went out to the Players’ Theatre. It was an unbelievably embarrassing session in which they were rude to Orwell, put him down and turned down his book. Orwell never told me that he had then offered it to Faber & Faber, where T. S. Eliot turned it down. I had suggested Jonathan Cape because they had just published Darkness at Noon. Having signed a contract with them and received an advance of, I think, £100, Orwell was surprised some six months later by their decision not to publish the book after all. I continued to see Orwell off and on, who all his life was a timid, withdrawn and modest man with no intellectual arrogance whatsoever. I told him I hoped to start on my own one day, when I had the money, the courage and the experience. He said, ‘Start now with my book. I don’t want an advance.’ But I wasn’t mentally or financially ready. I wasn’t experienced. And since Orwell had more integrity than anyone I’d ever known, I couldn’t play the Hungarian rogue and pull a fast one on him. In the end Animal Farm was published by that marvellous publisher Fred Warburg.
Soon I became pregnant with the thought of publishing on my own, and I went to John Roberts who said, ‘Laddie, you’re young, you can work hard. You start a little publishing company with a few hundred pounds, and work there at night and stay with us and earn good money.’ I was earning £4,000 a year, a small fortune, at the time. So I got a few friends to join me and I named it Allan Wingate.
I cannot pretend now and say this was a tribute to the great General Wingate. It was just a good English name. Diana Athill was working for the BBC at the time, and as Wingate was beginning to grow, I offered her a job, so that was the start of a long partnership.
Financial problems arose when we published The Naked and the Dead. A company can be in great financial difficulty if it has a big success on its hands, and cannot afford a substantial reprint. This was what happened with The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer. Seven publishers before me turned it down on the grounds it was dirty. You know what he used for the word ‘fuck’? Fug – F-U-G. I was eighth on the list of the agent, Graham Watson at Curtis Brown. My first printing was 10,000 copies, and it was very difficult at that time to find a printer who had enough paper. A week before the book was published, the Sunday Times, then owned by Lord Kemsley, put a little box on the front page saying it shouldn’t be published. Lady Kemsley was outraged and said, ‘This is a book I wouldn’t like my housekeeper to read, let alone children.’ A great brouhaha started up. I had an inspector from Scotland Yard in my office three days running – a nice chap who took snuff, I remember. I was planning to go to America the next month, and so I asked him, ‘Do you want my passport so I can’t flee the country?’ ‘No, no, no,’ he said. The attorney-general, Sir Hartfey Shawcross, then pronounced it a very boring and harmless book that wouldn’t corrupt the youth of England. So publication went ahead, and instead of 10,000 copies we needed 80,000. And I didn’t have the money.
I was frantically looking round for partners, and the first to come forward was a man called Anthony Gibbs, dead long ago. He and others came in and Wingate began to do well, but by the summer of 1950 there was a major falling out between Gibbs and his friends and me. I had to go. Diana Athill, with whom I had become great friends, left too, and went into hiding so to speak. I was determined to start publishing all over again, and that is how André Deutsch Ltd. came into being. Diana is still working there. She’s my age, seventy-two, no longer a director but still doing brilliant editorial work.
We published her book, Instead of a Letter, and I thought her charming.
It’s a little masterpiece. She’s a wonderful person.
What was your last big book at Wingate?
It was a book called Operation Cicero.
They made a film.
They did. Five Fingers, with James Mason. The book was written by an Austrian, Ludwig Moyzisch, who during the war was the so-called commercial attaché at the German Embassy in Ankara in Turkey where the ambassador was Franz von Papen. Moyzisch was there because, as happened throughout the whole history of the Nazis, the hierarchy was divided, and Kaltenbrunner and the SD did not trust von Papen who was an old-fashioned Junker who knew how to ride a horse but did not behave like a good Nazi. The British ambassador, Sir Hughe Knatch- bull-Hugessen, was an ass of a man and a keen amateur pianist, and he had an Albanian valet. The embassy piano in Ankara was out of tune, so Ankara radio station said, ‘Sir Hughe, come and play your Chopin here,’ and he went and played. Meanwhile Bosner, the valet, who hated the British because his father was accidentally shot in Albania by an English hunter, had made an impression of the key of the safe and bought a second-hand Leica camera. So while Sir Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen was playing Chopin at the radio station, Bosner opened the safe, took out all the papers and started photographing them. Ankara in those days was a very important crossroads. The Allies wanted to keep Turkey out of the war whilst the Nazis were keen on the strategic advantage of a Turkish ally. The consequent political intrigue meant that the British ambassador was in possession of many secret documents. Bosner next rang the German Embassy and somehow got through to von Papen and, in whatever broken German he used, offered his services. It wasn’t von Papen’s style to deal with a spy, and he handed him over to Moyzisch, saying, ‘You deal with this man.’ That was my last big Wingate book.
What was your first big Andre Deutsch book?
The von Papen Memoirs. I’m coming to that. I was still suspicious of the Operation Cicero story and decided to go and see Moyzisch. He was living in the French zone. I had a friend who was then the New Statesman chess expert, a German Jew called Heinz Frankel. I asked Heinz to come with me and we travelled to Austria and sat with Moyzisch for about a week cross-questioning him. At the end I remember Moyzisch saying, ‘Look, I’ve been at the Nuremburg trials, and what you fellows, particularly Mr Frankel, have done to me was a much tougher cross-question- ing than anything I witnessed at Nuremberg. If you still don’t believe me, go and talk to my late boss.’
Moving from one Allied zone to another could be done only with great difficulty, but Frankel and I got to a little place outside Hanover where von Papen, his wife and son were staying with his daughter and son-in-law. When we sat down and explained what it was all about, von Papen was absolutely marvellous. He was charming and confirmed everything. There was nothing we had to cross out as being untrue. It impressed me to such an extent that, as we were having our last session, I said, ‘Herr von Papen, you ought to write your memoirs.’ I was still Wingate then, remember, because this was before Operation Cicero was published. We started negotiating, and then came the break with Gibbs and company. There was a meeting with Anthony Gibbs and Charles Fry, who had come to Wingate from Batsford, and it was agreed that, for the next fourteen days, nobody would approach von Papen.
But before the week was out I had a telephone call and heard the anxious tearful voice of Franz von Papen saying, ‘Andre, my dear boy, but you left Wingate and you are my friend.’ He had been sent a letter by Sir Philip Gibbs, who was then still a great man in the land – a distinguished very right-wing Daily Telegraph leader writer – saying that his son wanted to publish his book and they had arranged to publish it jointly with Eyre & Spottiswoode. I rushed to Stanley Rubinstein, who said, ‘Fly to Diisseldorf tomorrow and present your case to von Papen.’ So I arrived, sat down with him and his son, Franz von Papen Jr, a lawyer, and explained everything, produced the contract, and von Papen signed it. The book was published late in 1952, and I sold serial rights to the People – a different paper then from what it is now – for £30,000. What would that be today?
Three hundred thousand?
Maybe. Deutsch was certainly under-capitalised because we were short on the investment target of £14,400, having reached only £6,700. Diana Athill and Nicolas Bentley, who had joined me by that stage, both supported me and said, ‘We must go ahead, even if we go bust.’ And now I had this treasure.
You always resisted being swallowed up by a conglomerate. Was that because you wanted to go on running your own show, or didn’t you think the conglomerate appropriate to publishing?
There were no conglomerates in those days.
What I mean is that you were successful. You could easily have sold out to a conglomerate at some point.
Let me tell you what happened eventually. There was a lovely man in London called Raimund von Hofmannstahl, whose father was Hugo von Hofmannstahl, the greatest Austrian poet who wrote a lot of the librettos for Richard Strauss’s operas. Raimund worked for Time-Life here as their ‘Metternich’, and Henry Luce had dreamt up a scheme suggesting that Time-Life, which was making so much money they didn’t know what to do with it, should invest minority shares in distinguished European publishing houses and build up a family of publishers. Their first investment was Laffont in Paris, and the second was Rowohit in Germany.
Raimund came to my office, introduced himself, and put forward the idea of investing in a minority holding, maximum 40 per cent, on condition that I, André Deutsch , retain the majority. I said I wasn’t interested. I didn’t like the notion. However, I discussed it with Arnold Goodman fully, and he pointed out that the company didn’t need the money, and that a deal would only be successful if their dollars went to the shareholders. Anyway, to and fro it went, and Time-Life accepted his suggestion. Arnold asked me to breakfast and said, ‘This is their final offer, and if you don’t accept I’ll have you certified.’ I accepted, and they came in with 40 per cent, while I retained 56 per cent.
But later you bought their share back, didn’t you?
I bought it back. Not long after the deal they called a meeting of the family in New York. At this meeting I met for the first time the then chairman of Time-Life, Andrew Heiskell, a splendid man. It was suggested that we meet at least twice a year at some nice place and talk about books, the first location to be Salzburg. I said, no, this was not the way; John Updike was not going to write a new novel quickly because he heard that all of us were sitting around a table in Austria. But next spring we met somewhere in southern Spain. We were not Time-Life guests, but paid our own expenses.
You had to pay for them yourself?
We had a few free dinners.
But you had to pay for the hotel?
Absolutely, everything. And we met in this ghastly clip joint in Spain. After that meeting I received all kinds of questionnaires from Time-Life asking me to give an account of my editorial policy for the next five years in relation not only to the list but in relation to our main competetors – the Collinses, the Weidenfelds, the Capes. I rang Arnold, who said, ‘Andre, you don’t have to answer. They have a minority share. There is nothing they can do. You don’t have board meetings and you know where you stand. Next time you get a letter, don’t open it, put it in the waste-paper basket.’ I did that for weeks but one day curiosity got the better of me and I fished one out and read it. Its contents made me livid so I called Arnold and said, ‘Look, you were a very good matchmaker, you got wonderful terms. Turn yourself into a divorce lawyer.’
That’s when you parted company with Time-Life?
Yes. And because the money was not invested in the publishing company, there was no problem about paying it back.
Did you make any money out of the whole thing?
None of us did.
Would you call it a bad experience in a way?
It wasn’t a bad experience. For two years I earned interest on whatever investments I made.
Your policy has been to publish only books you like, and you haven’t touched anything that didn’t appeal to you, even if financial success was guaranteed. Can such a policy survive in the increasingly commercial world of publishing?
The way you put it is very flattering, and by and large it’s true. We once made a go for a commercial novel. Diana and I said it’s rubbish, but my God, it will sell. And we fell on our faces; we just didn’t know how to do it.
One of the big changes in publishing is that an author and his work are increasingly managed by computers rather than by readers and editors. In some ways it seems the fun has gone out of the game. Are you in any way attuned to this clinical progress?
I’m totally unattuned. If I were twenty years younger and a big conglomerate offered me a job because they heard I was successful and smart and Deutsch has been sold, I would be dead as a dodo. I wouldn’t know what to do. The extraordinary thing is how lucky we were, and I must emphasise how important luck is. In that period from 1951 to 1984 we carried out an old-fashioned sort of quality publishing and made some money.
Are you confident about the future of publishing? In the face of stiff competition from TV and films, will the reading public go on growing?
I think in the long run it will. In spite of the conglomerates and the new trends, if you take the reviews – look at your own Literary Review – quality books are published in vast numbers. How long that will continue, how long Mr Murdoch and his people at Collins will be tolerant of publishing good books, as they still do, I do not know. It was the Americans who hijacked publishing finance into the Hollywood bracket, but it’s also happened in Germany. Backlist publishing has virtually disappeared.
Publishing nowadays is in my view virtually controlled by literary agents, who dictate prices and product. Is this state of affairs helpful or harmful?
Very harmful. The literary agents are ruling the day. Under strong American influence, they have kidnapped the publishing industry into a sort of crazy financial world. If I were running Andre Deutsch Ltd. today I would have problems, just like Tom Rosenthal. Even Tom is now conceding defeat and is selling the company.
Tell me what happened with Tom Rosenthal after he went into partnership with you, because I was surprised when I heard about it. You’ve always been your own boss: he has ambitions. Weren’t you bound to clash?
I wished you’d phoned me and told me not to go ahead. I had the notion when I was sixty-six, sixty-seven, when things were very different from what they are today, that André Deutsch Ltd., which Diana Athill, Nick Bentley and I built up, which had a reputation and made money, should continue as an independent quality publishing company. My first thought was that I would like to do what W. W. Norton did about fifty years ago when they created a system in which only employees had shares. When I was in New York I talked to a man called George Brockaway, who was the head of Norton, and asked him how this scheme worked. Then I talked to Lord Goodman and a few others, and they said, ‘Admirable, but, dear boy, if you do that you will starve by the time you become seventy-five because you will have given it away.’ Prior to Tom joining me my salary was @15,000. What can you save on £15,000 for your old age?
I had left the company pension scheme after the auditors had said, ‘You are throwing money away because the business is by and large yours at 84 per cent. One day you’ll sell and be comfortably rich for the rest of your life.’ I was still anxious to secure the future independence of the firm and so discussed things with Paul Hamlyn, a very old friend. I first met Paul in, I think, 1945 at a booksellers’ conference in Norfolk. At that time Paul was a small remainder merchant. We became good friends. The dialogue with Paul became quite serious, and our lawyers and accountants got together and a proposition emerged that was fair and reasonable. Then madness overtook me. I thought, my God, Paul spends more time on an aeroplane than I spend in bed. What if something happens to him? At that point I heard that Tom Rosenthal was retiring and went after him. The Paul Hamlyn negotiations came to an end, which Paul accepted elegantly.
But Andre, did you honestly believe that, at the end of the day, you could sit at the table with somebody who had equal power and think it was going to last?
I was besotted with the idea that I would be able to work with a man of Tom Rosenthal’s reputation and experience. I thought that I’d be wise enough to accept that at the age of seventy-two I would hand over all the shares.
That was the agreement?
That was the agreement and we stuck to it, and that was my downfall, that was the mistake I made.
There was a honeymoon for a year or two?
Less than that.
Was it a personality clash?
Largely a personality clash. Also, Tom is a very expensive fellow. Entertainment, travelling. It’s incredible. By the time I realised it was too late, there was nothing I could do about it. Last August, when I was approaching my seventy-second birthday, Tom said, ‘I want to have a serious talk with you. Let’s have dinner.’ He took me out to the Jardin des Gourmets. Tom then said, ‘Andre, according to our original agreement, on your seventy-second birthday you will cease to be joint chairman and joint managing director. You will have no shares in the business any more, you won’t have any executive power, and we don’t need you, but we do need your room. Could you by 15 November clear your room and go? You will become president.’ I was shell-shocked. On the next day I asked Lord Goodman whether Tom had the right to do that to me. He said he did. There were discussions to try and give me a limited amount of freedom to join another publisher, but I had to agree to give Tom £100,000. I thought it an obscene suggestion, and turned it down.
But where did Tom get all the money to buy you out?
There are all kinds of rumours. Tom – having been very successful at Thames & Hudson, and at Seeker & Warburg – had a large sum of money at his disposal. I presume he borrowed the rest.
Was what he paid you adequate in terms of what the company’s worth today?
Tom and I negotiated a deal similar to the one originally discussed between Paul Hamlyn and myself. In 1984 the financial world at large had not yet decided that publishing was a glamour industry, and what he paid then was a fair price.
Has what he paid you secured your future?
Yes. I can live in comfort.
When you signed the agreement with Tom Rosenthal, were you under the illusion that, come the day when you had to leave, he would be magnanimous and say, ‘Stay and have the office?’
I believed that. Tom would say, ‘Look how generous I was with David Farrar.’
So you had the impression that once you retired you would still participate.
Absolutely. He told me, whether he thought it or not, that my presence was going to be important to them, and I fell for it.
But why do you think he acted as he did? Were you so difficult that you made his life a misery?
You’ll have to have an interview with Tom and listen to what he has to say. The original deal included a provision that the purchase price from Tom to Deutsch be reduced by £150,000, and for that £150,000 Andre Deutsch Ltd. would buy a pension scheme for me, which meant that I would pay £75,000 and he would pay £75,000. I was told by all the experts that it would work with the tax authorities and we did it. The only difference was that I wanted to pass some of the £150,000 to Diana Athill, without whom we would never have succeeded the way we did. So we agreed that £35,000 be shifted to Diana. She was, of course, due to receive a pension under the company scheme.
I always looked on that as my thank-you to Diana Athill for her friendship and partnership all those years. It was a present from me, not from André Deutsch Ltd. Something that then made me very angry was when Tom, at a meeting in the office, said, ‘This company has a heart. When Andre, Diana and Nick started the business in 1951, they were all young. Nick Bentley’s dead, and because this company has a heart, we have to create something for the future of the people who work here, but we are paying an enormous amount of money in the process for this pension scheme.’ He then mentioned as a part of all this Diana Athill’s pension scheme. But that scheme was my homage, gift, debt, love – call it what you will – to Diana Athill, and nothing to do with the company. And this, in our second year of partnership, made me realise it was never ever going to work. Another thing Tom said to me fairly early on was, ‘It’s fun to work with you, but there are three problems about you, Andre. One, you were not born in this country. Two, you were not educated in this country. Three you were not in Her Majesty’s Service.’ Tom, you know, had served in Malta as a second-lieutenant, a gallant soldier.
What bearing does that have on anything?
I do not know. I was absolutely staggered. Tom’s father, a distinguished, now very aged, scholar from Germany, was clever enough to leave Nazi Germany fairly early on. I think he came to this country in 1934, and Tom was born here.
Would you share the view that there is no love lost between individual publishing houses, and that gentlemanly behaviour, if it ever existed, is a thing of the past?
I think it existed to some extent in the past, but it doesn’t any more. Absolutely not. And I wrongly thought that all the spiel I had had from Tom was true. There’s another interesting thing which will prove to you again what a fool I am. At one point at the start of it all Lord Goodman said, ‘Well, fellows, obviously this is going to be a marriage. What are you going to pay each other?’ Before I could open my mouth, Tom said, ‘I used to earn over £60,000, and I suggest I take £40,000, because I have a wife and two children.’ I swallowed that without even thinking it through – Anne Rosenthal was a successful agent and the two sons were grown up. ‘And you, Andre,’ he continued, ‘increase your salary from £15,000 to £20,000, because you have a very wealthy girlfriend.’ I didn’t see the insult in that sentence, that I was some sort of a kept fellow, and like a fool I accepted it. So a lot of what has happened that took the joy out of my life is my own bloody fault.
I’m lucky enough to be independent enough not to care especially, but I do find publishing the most disloyal of professions at the moment.
Perhaps you exaggerate. There are still decent people in the publishing world.
But it is no longer gentlemanly.
It’s not a gentleman’s profession. It is not. Mainly because big international finance has moved in.
I read somewhere that the highest advance you ever paid for a book was £40,000.
The biggest advance I ever paid was $25,000 in the 1960s, when it was a monstrous sum of money, and that was for Norman Mailer’s An American Dream.
Did you recover your money?
We made money on the book, but the advance was never earned. But as you know, you can over-advance a book and make a profit, and you can get a book with no advance and lose your shirt.
Although large advances are not unusual in the United States, they are rarely given for works of non-fiction.
Yes, they are. I’m sure Arthur Schlesinger had a large advance.
But for Arthur Schlesinger you’re talking about A Thousand Days, the big popular book about Kennedy. Would you get a £600,000 advance on Bernard Shaw in America?
I doubt it.
But increasingly in Britain huge advances are being given for non-fiction, despite the fact that the money cannot possibly be recovered by the publisher. Should we be subsidising the rich and powerful in this way, or wouldn’t the money be better employed backing struggling young new authors? Carmen Callil seems to have come up with a £600,000 advance for Michael Holroyd for the Bernard Shaw biography. Where is the industry going?
She wouldn’t and couldn’t have done it without being owned by the Newhouses. It’s certainly not commendable, but it’s a harsh capitalist world and there are a lot of crazy people who make these mistakes. You don’t have to pay £600,000 for a brilliant first novel. If you pay £60,000, you’re crazy enough, but this is the malaise of contemporary Anglo-American publishing.
Any fool can pay a huge sum provided his backers make the money available, but where is the flair, the expertise?
Doesn’t exist. I’m with you absolutely. It’s not true publishing at all. That’s one reason why I wouldn’t fit in to these organisations, because I’m too mean to recommend an advance of £600,000. It’s totally unnecessary.
How does it help the arts?
And where you have the same authors in the main commanding the big advances and getting all the publicity and reviews, where does that leave the Graham Greenes of the future?
I think the Graham Greenes of the future will surface, somehow, because ultimately the talent – and there we’re talking of a very exceptional author – will survive.
You once said that publishers have been their own worst enemies by overproducing. Can you elaborate on that?
When I started Deutsch, I think this country produced around 12,000 books a year. Today we are publishing 58,000 titles a year. Everybody is chasing the goose that will lay the golden egg, and it is very difficult. One of the things that caused a falling out between Tom and myself was forcing the programme. When I was in charge I don’t think we ever published more than about 90 titles a year.
What view do you take on the current issue of Salmon Rushdie and The Satanic Verses? It seems a very central problem for publishers, and, of course, for distributors. Do the protests really have substance?
I can’t answer that, because I can’t put myself in the position of some militant Muslim. I think the protest itself is deplorable – the Ayatollah saying this man should be killed. I must tell you, though, that I have not been able to get into The Satanic Verses. I have a copy, but I haven’t read it yet.
But even had you known of the offensive element, would you still have published it if you had wanted it?
I presume not, though I might have had the misguided philosophy to say, ‘Here is a very fine writer’s new book. I’ll take it on.’ But basically I am on the side of Penguin and Rushdie, and against those who sentenced him to death, burned the book and so forth. There are books that one does publish even though you know it’s going to upset people.
But shouldn’t we have the self-discipline to censor ourselves?
You remember Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer? We had his book offered to us and made the mistake of turning it down. But very important people advised me, ‘You can’t touch it,’ and so somebody else published it in the end. Nicolas Bentley and Diana Athill were against it.
Have you ever been sued over something you published?
We had two libel cases, though one was a minor one about oil in the Sahara. That was a simple case. The big one was over the play by Rolf Hochhuth, Soldiers, about the death of Sikorski, the head of the Free Poles – possibly not my hero, but a brave man. It was known that Sikorski was a big problem to the British and American governments concerning Soviet Russia and the Poles, because Sikorski said it was the Russians who killed all those Polish officers in Khatyn forest, which turns out to be true. Sikorski was in the Middle East visiting his troops. On the way back to London he spent a night in Gibraltar. In the morning, when his plane, piloted by a Czech, was taking off, it crashed. The plot Hochhuth worked out was that Churchill and Roosevelt knowingly agreed to remove Sikorski. Young Winston Churchill discovered that the Czech pilot was alive in California. He shipped him over and helped him to start proceedings.
Ken Tynan had wanted Laurence Olivier to put the play on at the National Theatre, but Olivier was rightly advised that he shouldn’t do it, because of Churchill’s involvement. Tynan did manage to produce the play in the West End, but the libel action killed it. In the end we had to pay damages, and had to destroy all copies of the book.
What do you think of the libel laws as they stand at this moment in this country?
They have improved, but they’re still not perfect. It’s been said that British libel laws are really against the truth; that the more truthful a book is, the more danger there is of libel. I’m not sure I wear that, but they are very tricky. What great libel cases have we had in the last year or two?
Lord Aldington and Count Tolstoy?
Of course, terrible. And also the divorced wife of that mass-murderer. That was Private Eye.
Like myself, you’re often criticised and parodied in Private Eye. Do you mind much?
André Deutsch and Private Eye became soul partners through Nicolas Bentley, because Nick illustrated Bron’s diary in the early days. One day Nick said that Private Eye and us should sit down and see whether we could distribute their books, and they asked to use our imprint because they thought it would make the entree into bookshops easier. The arrangement is now coming to an end. Then Private Eye started its series called ‘Great Publishers of the World’ or something of the kind. By that time I was friendly with Richard Ingrams and John Wells, his co-author on the ‘Dear Bill’ series. They did a piece that dealt with Deutsch.
It hurt me deeply. By that time Nick was dead, but I remember having a Saturday morning meeting in Diana Athill’s flat with two other colleagues to discuss it. I also met Lord Goodman, and we were on the verge of suing when I withdrew. I am told that Richard Ingrams was surprised if not irritated that we did not respond and take up a fighting stance. Since then my relationship with the Eye and my personal relationship with Richard have improved immensely. They have been going for Tom Rosenthal, and Tom thinks I’m planting those stories, which is nonsense. I don’t believe Private Eye is anti-Semitic. A lot of people say it is. I don’t think they’re philo-Semitic. But so what?
Does a satirical magazine like Private Eye serve an important purpose as watchdog of political and social life, or is it just too scurrilous and irresponsible?
It’s been both. It’s certainly been irresponsible, but you can’t have it both ways. If Private Eye didn’t go in the direction of exaggerating and getting out of step, it would be a different thing altogether. In fact I would say that Private Eye today is occasionally very mealy-mouthed.
Because of the large damages they’ve had to pay out?
Partly that. Partly change of editorship and age.
So has the sting gone out of it?
I don’t think the sting’s gone out of it, but it’s milder and less offensive. They went for you time and again, and you employ Richard’s lovely daughter.
I don’t mind about that. You have had a rather ferocious reputation as an employer. I recall lan Nome writing that he would not have lasted with you and that few do. Have you asked too much from people who have worked for you?
In a way that is not untrue. But the records show that a lot of people have been with us for years and years. Of course there were rows, misunderstandings and quarrels, but by and large nobody of quality or importance has left. When I was a lot younger I was much more difficult.
But tell me more about how you got along with Diana Athill. Did you and she ever clash seriously?
We would argue about a book if she wanted to publish it and I didn’t or vice versa. Diana is a very close friend. No, I never quarrelled with her, I never quarrelled with Nicolas Bentley. Lots of people enjoyed being my colleague, though some others couldn’t stand me.
You mustn’t mind me asking you these questions, but you have been called very mean. There is the legend about you switching off unnecessary lights and reusing old envelopes. Others say the salaries you paid were unrealistic and there was a joke that Diana Athill’s salary was rumoured to be so low that she banked it once a year.
That was Private Eye.
What is the true position?
I would hate to admit that I am mean.
I was careful. I was parsimonious. And we paid ourselves very little. At the start of Wingate, Diana was paid £500 at the time. The question of reusing old envelopes – a routine long gone – was part of the pattern. Switching off lights was part of the pattern. Over all I think I am generous, but I admit there have been episodes when I exercised knowingly or unknowingly a degree of meanness, as I came to realize afterwards. Even now that I am financially comfortable, I hate wasting money.
Is it something ingrained?
I presume so, though my childhood wasn’t based on any such pattern.
But you don’t grudge yourself anything.
No, I don’t.
Leaving Norman Mailer, your first bestseller, on one side, who are you most pleased to have published?
Now that I am practically out of publishing, I would say that the greatest pleasure in my life was the discovery of authors like Norman Mailer and John Updike.
What are your views on Mrs Thatcher?
Confused. Undoubtedly she has done some good work and shaken up this country, but she’s gone too far. I don’t like her manner and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, by the next election, she’s out. After the war, I was a staunch member of the Labour party in Chelsea. When the SDP started I joined the party, largely because 6f Roy Jenkins. I sent him a telegram saying in effect, ‘If you’re serious about it, I will do anything, and I will join.’ I have also known David Owen and his wife Debbie, who is a literary agent. I voted for Roy as leader, but Roy was soon out and then David became leader.
Why was Roy Jenkins pushed aside? It’s never been clear to me.
I think he didn’t give a strong enough single leadership. He’s too much of an academic and an intellectual. I was sorry that Roy went, but then, at the beginning, David was very good, vigorous and young, and I remained a member and supported him to the end.
I know you are not one-hundred-per-cent Jewish and were not brought up to be orthodox, but do you feel part of the Jewish community?
In every important respect I consider myself a full Jew but I do not belong to a Jewish community, I am not religious. I don’t go to the synagogue, for instance.
What do you feel about the over-sensitivity of the Jewish community? If for some reason I were to attack somebody who happened to be Jewish, you can bet your bottom dollar a lot of people would send up a cry of anti-Semitism. Why is it?
Well, look what happened to the Jews.
Yes, but lots of nationalities have suffered at the hands of others. The Armenians were butchered by the Turks, thrown into the Bosphorus in lime and so on.
I’m not saying I approve of the over-sensitiveness, but I do understand it.
So is it going to go on forever?
If the Jews and the Arabs sort themselves out, I think eventually that it will disappear in two or three generations, or be much reduced. Isn’t the over-sensitivity there partly because anti-Semitism is still present practically everywhere?
To what extent? I rarely see a sign of it.
I’m certain and I know that anti-Semitism does exist, though I don’t think personally I’ve come across it face to face.
But what prompts it?
Maybe a lot of people envy the success of the Jews. In Hungary today, which is trying to be more liberal and democratic than Britain, there is a great deal of anti-Semitism, and it will only be eradicated with time.
But isn’t that the case everywhere: anti-Arab, anti-black, anti-German, anti-Jew? You’re never going to eradicate those attitudes completely.
I doubt it. But I think if we have a liberal world ahead of us, it will be much reduced. Do you have Jews working for you?
In Quartet I had a salesman who, when he was working for me, went to New York and married a Jewish girl, and I was best man.
But if somebody applies to you for a job, you’re not going to ask what his religion is?
Of course not.
Do you have Jewish friends?
A lot, certainly.
The one thing about Mrs Thatcher and the present government is that anti-Semitism is totally absent from their minds, as far as I can judge.
Recently there seems to have been an upsurge of anti-Semitism in Russia. It used to be said that it had religious origins, but the Russians have been promoting atheism for seventy years.
Anti-Semitism in Russia, going back to tsarist days, was so cruel, with the pogroms and so on, that it will take a long time to disappear. I’m quite sure that the present Russian leadership is not anti-Semitic. I can’t imagine that Gorbachev is. I think there is still a very large Jewish population in Russia, and as you know, the Israelis are in a way worried about the number of Russians coming in, the Arabs are objecting, and there’s been a lot of publicity. But give it another 200 years. Provided we don’t have any more major wars, this will eventually disappear, as the situation between the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland will disappear in time.
Are you optimistic about the prospects of peace in the Middle East?
It’s bound to happen. Were you not surprised and pleased when the Egyptians and the Jews decided they had to live alongside each other?
I was disappointed that the Israelis and the Egyptians signed a separate peace treaty without involving the Palestinians.
I totally agree but isn’t it largely between all the Arabs and the Jews?
No, it is between the Palestinians and the Jews. But look what’s happened in Eastern Europe. We were saying not so long ago that we wouldn’t see it in our lifetime.
But neither with the Arabs and the Jews, nor with the Northern Irish Catholics and the Protestants, has there been the same subjugation of people as came about in Eastern Europe. Therefore the explosion in Eastern Europe cannot be repeated in the same manner in the Middle East and Northern Ireland. The pattern will be different, but I still firmly believe that we live in a better world today than the one we lived in only three years ago.
But it can equally be claimed that the Palestinians of the West Bank are heavily subjugated by the Israelis at this point in time.
I’m sure they are. The party in power in Israel and the prime minister are awful. I sympathise with the Israeli Labour party. I think they genuinely want a settlement, a proper, fair and lasting settlement. Have you been back at all?
When my father was still alive, just before I became a publisher. I took my wife and my little boy. It was a very emotional journey.
Your family were from Haifa?
Yes, and my grandmother from Nazareth. But let’s get back to the questions I have for you. It’s said that the second most important satisfaction in your life, after founding your own publishing house, has been membership of the Garrick Club. Why was it so long denied you?
It’s important, but not that important. The truth is that I’m not a good clubman. I don’t go in and lunch alone, or mingle in the bar and chatter, but I do love the club. I don’t know why it was denied me so long, but as has happened with a good many other people, when I was first put up for membership my backers were advised to withdraw my name, so it wasn’t that I was blackballed. Then, years later, an author of ours, Lord Bethell, said to me innocently, ‘I never see you at the Garrick. Why don’t you come in more often?’ I said, ‘For a very good reason. I can only go if I’m invited.’ He said, ‘This is outrageous,’ put me up, and I was in.
Why was it important? Because you felt it gave you the status you wanted?
No, no. It’s just a marvellous club, full of interesting people, and I wanted to be part of it. Good heavens, I had no complex. I didn’t wake up in the morning and say, my God, here I am, a reasonably successful publisher and I’m not a member of the Garrick. That never occurred to me.
Rumour has it that you don’t enjoy the best relations with Lord Weidenfeld.
It’s not true. My relationship with George has had its sunny periods and its dark periods. I’ve known him longer than anybody in the publishing world. I first met him when he was working at the BBC, and we became close friends. He was marvellous company, we were young, and we saw a great deal of each other. George was initially backed by the people who owned Nicolson & Watson. They gave him printing facilities and the money and paper. He had a magazine called Contact, and that was how he started. He then began in publishing, starting Weidenfeld & Nicolson proper about two or three years before I started Andre Deutsch Ltd., so in that sense his company is my senior.
George at that point was flirting with the idea of working for Israel and living there, and after a while he approached me with the suggestion that we merge. This must have been in 1952. We arranged to have a talk and I took Diana and Nick along, who were much in favour and thought George a brilliant man with excellent connections. But at the last minute I said to them and George, ‘Right, let’s merge, though we must have 51 per cent.’ This wasn’t because of any mistrust of George, but was based on my bitter experience of what had happened to me at Allan Wingate. Nevertheless George was deeply offended and the whole thing faded away, but George kept coming back to the idea of merging.
Years later George said, ‘Look, I’ve tried to persuade you to merge, but you won’t, and I accept it now. How about if I buy you?’ I was amazed and put two questions to George: what with and what for? George said, ‘What with is no problem because of the City and banks and my financial connections. As for what for, you have that building in Great Russell Street. We sell that, and we have space in Clapham, so we merge and the office moves down there.’ But nothing came of it.
But you admire him?
I have enormous admiration, also some criticism.
You once said that women had been the greatest influence on your life.
I am more relaxed in women’s company than in men’s, though that is changing a bit as I get older, and I don’t mean in any sexual sense. Diana Athill was a great influence in my life and involved in my career. I’m absolutely certain that, without the support of Diana and lots of other people in the office, Andre Deutsch could not have become what it turned out to be.
You’re particularly fond of India. What attracted you?
Oh, the beauty of the country and the people. I discovered India rather late in life. However, my first exotic foreign involvement was the West Indies. Quite by chance, on a trip, I met lots of people and published many West Indian authors, including Eric Williams, a distinguished historian who happened to be prime minister of Trinidad. I also published Michael Manley, and there was a period from the late 1950s until the mid 1970s when we had a distinguished West Indian list. My next involvement was in Africa, where I started two publishing companies, one of which still exists. It’s a political story, of course.
I was going down to South Africa, either on my first or second visit, and Billy Collins said, ‘Don’t just fly over Africa. Get out. Have a look at it.’ So on the way down I stopped off in Nairobi, said hello to the press, the booksellers and so forth, and on the way back did the same in Lagos. Suddenly I got the idea that it would be nice to start a publishing company; not the old-fashioned colonial sort but something genuinely indigenous. With the help of the British High Commissioner, I met some very interesting people and started a firm called African Universities Press (AUP). It had 50 per cent Nigerian money and 50 per cent Andre Deutsch money, and was by and large educational publishing, of which I had no experience though I took on some excellent people to work there.
Did you lose money?
If you add everything in, yes, but at about the same time, I’d got to know Tom Mboya, and he became interested in what we were trying to do in Nigeria. At a Commonwealth conference in London he took me to meet Kenyatta, and they said, ‘Once we have independence, why don’t you do the same thing in Nairobi?’ Eighteen months later I flew out to start the second genuine African publishing company, the East African Publishing House (EAPH). I was very unpopular in London. Few people supported me or approved of what I was doing. One of the few who did was Mark Longman, another was Alan Hill.
Now you are semi-retired, what next?
I don’t know.
But how do you spend your days?
If we were having this interview three years ago, I would be very different. More aggressive in my answers, more forthcoming. I’m not as sharp as I used to be.
Because of the circumstances?
Entirely. There has been a decline. Whether it’s reversible, time will tell. I just made a major mistake when I decided to sell the firm.
If you could live your life again, what, if anything, would you do differently, apart from not selling the business.
By and large I presume the same pattern would develop, because I don’t regret anything I’ve done, intellectually, morally or politically. I made lots of mistakes. I’m no genius.
Sometimes I say to my wife, there is only one thing I regret in life. I feel I should have started earlier when I see young men today achieving a great deal by an early age. The very wise answer she always gives me is, ‘You were not ready.’
I think it’s the other way round with me, because I achieved a lot when I was young. It was when I got older that I made the catastrophic mistake of selling the company.
But doesn’t that tell you that money is not the source of happiness?
Of course it tells me. Not making a lot of money never bothered me. I now have more money than I need, but it’s an ill-gotten gain. I got it because I sold the business. But I never attached much importance to money, otherwise I would have led a different sort of life.