A master of shmooze
LIKE MANY Yiddish words, shmooze has an elastic quality that renders precise translation difficult. Its meaning ranges from “charm” or “flattery”, through “persuasion” or “cajoling”, to “chattering” or “networking”. And George Weidenfeld operated along the entire spectrum.
This certainly served him well in his publishing career, enabling him to enlist an encyclopaedic range of authors from Israeli political leaders Golda Meir (his favourite), Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, to the mildly notorious Keith Richards and the grossly notorious Benito Mussolini.
Weidenfeld was a member of a golden generation of European Jewish immigrants who transformed British publishing, among them Andre Deutsch, Paul Hamlyn and art-book pioneers Bela Horowitz and Walter Neurath.
In 1948, George met the distinguished diplomat and politician Harold Nicolson, who offered to set him up in book publishing. Thus was Weidenfeld’s great ambition fulfilled. It almost faltered, however, on account of George’s deep involvement in the early steps of the infant state of Israel. Torn between the two, he later recalled that “I nearly had a nervous breakdown.” But Harold Nicolson told him to go and carry out his important work in Israel but just for a year “because, if I didn’t return, the company would go mechullah”.
George duly did his duty, came back on time and the famous Weidenfeld & Nicolson imprint was on its way.
W&N’s early staff included Antonia Pakenham (later Antonia Fraser) whose biography of Mary, Queen of Scots, the company would later publish. Another employee, Harold Nicolson’s son Nigel, would also became a house author. Names who wrote for George over the years include Isaiah Berlin, Edna O’Brien, Saul Bellow and Mary MCarthy. A more recent bestselling success is Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, published under the imprint, Orion, under whose umbrella W&N has been since the early 1990s.
Undoubtedly the most controversial novel that George published was Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, the tale of adult teacher Humbert Humbert’s sexual obsession with a young “nymphet” in whose home he lodges, which, despite initial outrage, gained respectability from the endorsement of Graham Greene and other members of the literary establishment. It was viewed by several as a serious psychological study
But, for all the fictional successes, non-fiction was the backbone of the enterprise and George captured for his list Charles de Gaulle, Henry Kissinger, Victor Klemperer, Noel Coward, Cecil Beaton, among others, and more recently, Michael Palin.
Back in the 1980s, after I had done a couple of books for him, George commissioned me to write Dudley Moore’s biography. This did not turn out successfully. In fact, it did not turn out at all. When I phoned Dudley at his home in California, he told me how glad he was that I was going to write the book and we proceeded to make arrangements to meet. I had provisionally booked a flight to Los