Obituary: Eunice Frost

RODRIGO MOYNIHAN's large group portrait of the editors of Penguin Books in 1955 looks straightforward and realistic: about a dozen men and two women standing about with a relaxed, conversational air. But a file in the Penguin archive at Bristol University shows clearly how stylised and symbolic the picture is, and how carefully its arrangement was planned by Allen Lane, the founder and moving spirit of Penguin Books. A draft for the painting has diagonal lines drawn across it and dead centre, where the lines intersect the only figure dressed in light colours among the dark suits, stands Eunice Frost in the place she deserves.

She deserves it because for the first half of its life she was the moving spirit in the Penguin world, the firm's first woman director, the first woman to be appointed OBE for services to literature in publishing, the initiator of most of the Penguin series, the one who dealt with everyone - not just authors but publishers, outside editors, agents, illustrators, artists, printers, even accountants and the banks. She was also Allen Lane's "herald" (or perhaps scapegoat), sent out to deal with his difficulties, to hire and fire and in general to face the music for him. In 1941 she went to set up an American branch in New York. In publishing circles she was the irreplaceable "Frostie" .

"A literary midwife" was how she described herself. After only a week as Allen Lane's secretary, she found her role changed. "Do you like reading?" he asked, pushing a pile of books across his desk. "And that's how I learned you had to carry the baby home with you every night," she wrote. "There was no one else to hold the baby at the time. Somehow I was expected to take on all kinds of reading, negotiating with authors, agents and publishers, in addition to general office administration. I remember that in my very first week, instead of being told what to do, I was expected to do the extraordinary." All this when she was just 21.

She died last week, and was born on Guy Fawkes' day 1914, a suitable date for such a firework presence and for someone who lived in Lewes. Though her background was literary and artistic, she had no special ambition to go into publishing until Allen Lane, who had founded the first British paperback firm two years earlier, in 1936, advertised for a secretary. She arrived at the interview "dressed as if for Ascot with a huge cartwheel hat", someone who was there wrote over 50 years later, a flamboyant attractive figure employed on the spot and immediately becoming one of the team.

The team was tiny, Allen Lane and his two brothers, and when war broke out it was Lane and his assistant who kept the flag flying and did the extraordinary things necessary to expand their completely new enterprise, publishing paperback reprints of good, serious books at the (even then) minute price of sixpence (the price of a packet of cigarettes - two and a half present pence). It transformed not just British publishing but to a spectacular extent, British culture and education.

"Much of our luck," Frostie wrote, "came from the fact that we fitted into a time of very high idealism - and a wish to share a kind of explosive creativity which was so evident in all the writers and editors who themselves had so much to express, and who needed us as a forum." Paper shortage, food shortage, uncouth and uncomfortable living conditions: none of these curbed her amazing appetite for work of a Penguin kind.

By the time she retired in the 1960s (early, because of ill-health), a board member, Penguin had become much more like ordinary publishing. Others had copied its ideas and methods, it was no longer the small group of enthusiastic amateurs. But in its early days it was Eunice Frost whose hand was on the sometimes erratic tiller, whose ideas turned into reality in the special series which covered an enormous range.

Each had its own outside editor (Kenneth Clark, Nikolaus Pevsner, Noel Carrington, Eleanor Graham, E.V. Rieu, and many more), with Frostie inside keeping them all in good order and contributing a great deal herself, though her name never appears inside any of them. "I would much rather my name were not printed as Editor of your new series [a refreshed Penguin Modern Painters]," wrote Kenneth Clark to Frost in 1954, "because I have done nothing to deserve it. You have done all the work during the last 10 years, and it is high time your name appeared and you got the credit for it."

Her main concern was the general list of Penguins, fiction, biography (the first Penguin of all, now a priceless collector's item if anyone has kept it clean, was Andre Maurois' life of Shelley, Ariel), travel, crime, memoirs, and a few uncategorisable others; the Penguin Modern Painters, and the children's book series, Puffins (picture books and story books). And there were others, in all of which she was to some extent involved: Pevsner's Buildings of England, the Pelican History of Art, Penguin Classics, poetry, music, Penguin New Writing, John Lehmann's literary magazine, Science News, gardening and cookery books, cartoons now and then. The series proliferated, and with them of course Frostie's work.

Today publishing is very different - more solemn, less fun, more money- minded, clock-watching, if you like, professional. Eunice Frost never lost what a colleague described as her "scatty, dotty air", which could be translated as gusto and energy. She spent hours on the telephone dictating letters and people down the passage would hear her talking loudly (she was slightly deaf in middle age) to her secretary or a machine then called, I think, a dictaphone. Her laugh was youthful and infectious. In a good mood, she was great company, in a bad one, not.

In the second half of her life, retired early because of ill-health to a beautiful Regency house in Lewes, she became Eunice again. "Frostie" would have seemed unsuitable outside publishing circles and she was by then Mrs Harry Kemp, married to a poet of Robert Graves's circle, a maths teacher and cricketer's wife who shared his enthusiasm for the game. The marriage failed and she had the eerily sad experience of hearing of Harry's death entirely by chance not long ago, when someone mentioned his funeral.

In a town with many more writers than most she made plenty of new friends, as, inevitably, colleagues and friend from the old days died off, and, inevitably too, she had her ups and downs with the neighbours, the new friends in a new world. Outsize in personality, memorable, funny, immensely kind and sometimes maddening, she was loveable and, indeed, much loved, although also, for short periods, resented, avoided and labelled "impossible".

In many ways she was a tragic figure in the true, weighty meaning of the word: she rose high, lost much, knew pain and deserves to be remembered with respect and affection. She left her money to charities and her body for medical research, a typically idealistic thing to do but perhaps also a comment on her last years, a statement of lonely integrity.

Eunice Ellen Frost, publisher: born 6 November 1914; OBE 1961; married Harry Kemp (died 1994; marriage dissolved); died Lewes, East Sussex 12 August 1998.

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