Obituary: Sir Rupert Hart-Davis
Thursday 09 December 1999
Rupert Hart-Davis's mother, Sybil, was my father's sister. The identity of his father is somewhat less certain; it was almost certainly not Richard Hart-Davis, a competent stockbroker and amateur pianist but an impossible husband, who contributed greatly to the unhappiness of Sybil's short but unhappy life. As Rupert wrote in a touching biography of his mother, The Arms of Time (1979), he remained grateful to Richard for accepting him as a son, and for paying for his upbringing and his education; but he never forgave him for his treatment of Sybil, on whom all his childhood and adolescent love was lavished.
She was, by all accounts, an enchanting character - not for nothing the direct descendant of Dorothy Jordan, perhaps the most dazzling comedienne our theatre has ever seen. Brilliant and wayward, implusive and unreliable, she was an intellectual who read French and Italian as easily as English, taught herself ancient Greek in her twenties, and at 38 - shortly before she became a lay member of a religious order - began to tackle Hebrew.
All her life she had a passion for literature, which she was to pass on in full measure to her only son, to whom she gave birth in August 1907. No wonder he loved her; and she loved him in return, with a fierceness that grew greater with increasing mental instability and must have come near to crushing him. When she died, six weeks after her 40th birthday, he was 19. "I realised," he wrote, "that my life, as I had known it so far, was over."
In other respects, however, it was still to begin; and in the almost instantaneous failure of Rupert's marriage to Peggy Ashcroft two years later it is difficult not to see his mother's shadow falling, Cynara-like, between them. That marriage was the consequence of a brief career on the stage, which he abandoned in 1929 to become an office boy at Heinemann's - thus taking the first steps in the career which was to make him famous. Three years later he was manager of the Book Society, and by 1933 a director of Jonathan Cape. In 1946, after war service in the Coldstream Guards, he founded the imprint of Rupert Hart-Davis, which he ran until circumstances forced him to sell.
Before the firm's final sale was completed there were moments of grave anxiety for himself and his friends, inside and outside the trade; but the superb reputation that he had built up over the years carried him through - and at last enabled him to realise his long-held ambition of retiring, with Ruth Simon, to his beloved Yorkshire.
His second marriage, to Comfort Borden-Turner, had brought him three beloved children but little real happiness; it was with Ruth, who had worked with him in Soho Square, that he had at last found the relationship he had sought so long. Having waited 18 years and after a second friendly divorce, they were married in 1964 and settled together in the old rectory of Marske- in-Swaledale.
Thereafter he would come south only once a month to take the chair at the committee meetings of the London Library and to attend the dinners of the Literary Society - after which he would invariably take the last train to Darlington rather than spend the night in London.
Then, in 1967 - the year of his knighthood - Ruth died of a heart attack. The blow was greater even than the loss of his mother 40 years before, and there were many who wondered whether he would himself survive; it was with huge relief that his friends heard a year later of his marriage to June Williams, herself recently widowed. With her he lived happily till his death, devoting himself to the literary tasks he loved.
His Hugh Walpole: a biography had appeared as early as 1952; five years later came his edition of George Moore's Letters to Lady Cunard, in 1962 The Letters of Oscar Wilde and in 1964 Max Beerbohm's Letters to Reggie Turner. To many people, however, more enjoyable even than these were the letters which he himself exchanged, from 1955 to 1962, with his old Eton master George Lyttelton, The Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters, published in six volumes between 1978 and 1984.
Rupert's immense height, his military bearing, his bluff manner and his eternal pipe often surprised those meeting him for the first time; but his conversation immediately revealed him for what he was - a man of deep sensitivity and encyclopaedic literary knowledge, a brilliant raconteur and, to all those who shared his interests, a matchless companion.
John Julius Norwich
It is as a publisher and, even more, as editor that Rupert Hart-Davis will be remembered, writes Nicolas Barker. He had an enormous output, all of it distinguished by tact and sensibility for his texts, accompanied by an equal care and thoroughness in explaining them; his footnotes were legendary, compact with well-researched facts, often witty as well as concise.
He was a publisher for so long that it is hard to remember that his first enthusiasm, fired at Eton, was the stage. When he left Oxford (he spent six months at Balliol), he spent a year as a student at the Old Vic, and then all but two years under Nigel Playfair at the Lyric Hammersmith. Although he joined William Heinemann as "office boy", in fact he was working in various departments as training for a higher position. Hugh Walpole then invited him to become manager of the Book Society, the most distinguished book-club of its day. He had already had some dealings with Jonathan Cape, publisher of his uncle Duff Cooper's Talleyrand. Cape had been characteristically cautious; now he offered Hart-Davis a directorship. He joined the firm in April 1933.
One of the first things he did was to conscript his Eton friend Peter Fleming, just off to Brazil to search for Colonel Fawcett. Brazilian Adventure (1933) led to a lifelong friendship. He made other new friends - William Plomer, who became a regular Cape adviser; Cecil Day-Lewis, whom he enabled to give up teaching and concentrate on writing; and H.E. Bates, whose short stories he was the first to admire. He also edited a selection of Robert Frost's poetry, and was one of the first directors of the Reprint Society, founded by Alan Bott as an offshoot of the Book Society.
Although Hart-Davis served in the Coldstream Guards in the Second World War, becoming adjutant of its training battalion, he remained a director of Cape and was largely responsible for one of its greatest successes, Lord Wavell's anthology Other Men's Flowers (1944). At the end of the war he felt that he deserved a greater part in the firm, but Cape, wrongly suspecting that he had an offer elsewhere, refused. This determined Hart- Davis to set up his own business. He enlisted David Garnett, son of Cape's editorial adviser Edward Garnett, and Geoffrey Keynes; between them they found the necessary capital, and Rupert Hart-Davis Ltd opened, at 56 Connaught Street, near Marble Arch.
David Garnett had been Francis Meynell's partner in the Nonesuch Press, and Keynes had been one of its main editors. The Nonesuch Press tradition and experience and contacts acquired from Jonathan Cape were the hallmarks of the new imprint. It also early established a name for well-designed books. The first production manager was Edward Young, one of the original Penguin team and designer of the first "Penguin". Reynolds Stone, another Eton friend and disciple of Stanley Morison, engraved the first "fox", the device that ornamented Hart-Davis title-pages. The first two books were a selection of Fourteen Stories by Henry James, edited by Garnett, and Democracy and the Arts, an unpublished essay by Rupert Brooke. The colours were nailed to the mast: the imprint of Rupert Hart-Davis stood for quality first; if it was to be popular too, standards were not to be relaxed.
There were indeed some popular successes. The first was Stephen Potter's Gamesmanship (1947), which added a new word to the English language. Elephant Bill (1950) did even better; Lt-Col J.H. Williams was discovered (in The New Yorker, improbably) by Garnett, who ghosted his story. Its striking jacket was by John Minton. The biggest early Hart-Davis bestseller of all was Heinrich Harrer's Seven Years in Tibet (1953). Introduced by Peter Fleming, it had colour photograph illustrations which heightened the exotic story of the German prisoner of war's escape from Russia to become the confidant of the young Dalai Lama.
Henry James remained a pervasive presence, with series of his criticism and fiction, culminating in Leon Edel's edition of The Complete Tales (1962-64), and his five-volume biography (1953-72). But perhaps the most notable literary achievement was the Reynard Library, one-volume collections of all or most of the work of major authors. Elegantly produced in the manner of the pre-war Nonesuch series, with a Reynolds Stone jacket, they sold steadily.
Old friends also contributed. Several volumes of G.M. Young's essays were published, and a new edition of his life of Gibbon. Among Eric Linklater's novels, Sealskin Trousers (1947) had wood-engravings by Joan Hassall, who also did an elegant RH-D fox. Duff Cooper's Operation Heartbreak (1950), a fictional pre-telling of the still secret story of Cicero, was a runaway bestseller, as was his autobiography, Old Men Forget (1957).
The firm outgrew its little office in Connaught Street (always closed for the duration of the second and fifth Test matches, cricket being paramount to all the staff). In 1950 it moved to 36 Soho Square, publishers' quarters for over a century, first occupied by John Russell Smith, publisher of the Dorset poet William Barnes, and this became "a literary Rialto", authors and scholars dropping in en route from or to the British Museum or lunch in the Soho restaurants. But growth and fame did not make for commercial success.
In 1953 more capital was required; it came from Herbert Agar who, with Milton Waldman, an editor of genius, joined the board. Unhappily, this was the cause of a rift with David Garnett, who could not accept the devaluation of the original shares required by the new investment. He left, but his son Richard remained as production manager in the place of Teddy Young, who had left to write One of Our Submarines (1952), later to become the 1,000th Penguin.
For a time all was well. The firm's horizons widened. Agar brought the English rights in Adlai Stevenson's writings and Alistair Cooke. Milton Waldman's main contribution was Gerald Durrell, lifted from Faber's who had not had much success with his first book. Three Singles to Adventure (1954) was a success, The Bafut Beagles (1954) a greater one, and My Family and Other Animals (1956) still greater, rivalling Seven Years in Tibet in sales. But by 1956 the firm was in straits again, from which it was rescued by Lionel Fraser, not the first great man to be seduced by Hart- Davis's charm, integrity, and force of character. As chairman of Thomas Tilling, which owned Heinemann and other publishers, he saw in Hart-Davis a potential chairman of the group and arranged for his firm to be taken over by it. The new shareholders lost their investment, but departed gracefully.
For Hart-Davis, this respite was real. The relief from worry about money, worry the worse for being self-induced, enabled him to relax a little. With less restraint, his character, in which wit and irony mingled with tenderness and parade-ground discipline, never-ending hope of great things balanced by low expectations, began to blossom. He never wrote a dull letter, but his correspondence too began to blossom, notably that with George Lyttleton.
He was now able to indulge tastes he had kept in check: poetry, for example, one of the casus belli with Cape. He had already published Dorothy Wellesley's Early Light. Now a whole series followed, some of them, R.S. Thomas's Song at the Year's Turning (1955) and Charles Causley's Union Street (1957) and their sequels and Brian Hill's translations from the French, with lasting success. The publication of Andrew Young's Collected Poems (1961) revived his one success in this line at Cape, again enlivened by Hassall's beautiful wood-engravings. With novels he was less successful, apart from the translations; there was Chapman Mortimer, but only Ray Bradbury, who dedicated Fahrenheit 451 (1953) to Hart-Davis in memorable circumstances, had more than ephemeral success.
The main flavour of the list was lit-historical. The Soho Bibliographies had begun with Allan Wade's Yeats. Wade's edition of Yeats's letters followed, and became itself the model for The Letters of Oscar Wilde, which Hart- Davis took over from Vyvyan Holland, whose Son of Oscar Wilde had been one of the successes of 1954. Wilde's letters came to dominate Hart-Davis's life more and more, and his interest in the everyday detail of publishing waned a little.
True, Peter Fleming had a renewed success with Invasion 1940 (1957), followed by The Siege at Pekin (1959), and Bayonets to Lhasa (1961). The last was published as the Chinese invaded Tibet, and Fleming was interviewed by Clive Michelmore on Tonight, then watched by 25 million. "I expect you'll sell a lot of copies," said Sidney Bernstein next day to Hart-Davis, and told him how much it would have cost as a commercial. "I expect at least three people will ask for it in their public library," was the characteristic reply.
There lay the seed of further disaster. Nothing could persuade Hart-Davis to the pursuit of vulgar publicity. His Heinemann colleagues drove him, protesting, to visit America in 1960. He was a great success, publishers vying to press their wares on him, but he was thankful to get back. One of the publishers he met was Bill Jovanovich of Harcourt Brace. Next year, relations with Heinemann reached "breaking point", and Jovanovich stepped in. He bought Rupert Hart-Davis Ltd from the Tilling group in record time.
But then came another crash: the invasion of Cuba brought collapse to the American stockmarket. Harcourt-Brace had to cut back and Jovanovich, off as quickly as he had been on, threatened to close Hart- Davis. Rescue came, via Arnold Goodman, from Sidney Bernstein; the firm was taken over again, this time by the Granada group.
Mercifully, this last catastrophe was accompanied by an unexpected stroke of good fortune. In 1952 Hart-Davis had written the authorised biography of Hugh Walpole, whose estate now passed to him on the death of Walpole's brother. For the first time in his life, he found himself with independent, if modest, means. With Ruth Simon, whom he now married, he abandoned London for Yorkshire, never to return - or only passing through on the way to an annual holiday in Italy.
It was Max Beerbohm who first lured Hart-Davis to Italy. He had published Around Theatres in 1953, and became the friend and adviser of Max's widow Elisabeth and, after her death of his sister, Eva Reichmann. Now he added the Letters to Reggie Turner, more theatrical critcism, and a catalogue raisonne of The Caricatures (1972). Long friendship and the more frequent task of literary executor led him to edit the autobiography of Arthur Ransome, and unpublished work of William Plomer and Siegfried Sassoon. There were more letters of Oscar Wilde and Max Beerbohm, and, finally, four volumes of autobiography.
Often there were five books on the go simultaneously, and - the old rectory at Marske was not small - Hart-Davis had a separate room in which to work on each of them. Small wonder that he was happy. When, on New Year's Day 1967 he was knighted, an old friend telephoned first thing to congratulate him, and apologised for the hour. "You're not the first," said Hart-Davis. "Peggy always rings me up after the close of play in Australia and she heard it on the late news."
Later that year tragedy struck. Rupert and Ruth Hart-Davis went to a wedding in Edinburgh; the train was late, and as they were running to a taxi Ruth suddenly dropped dead with a heart attack. Rupert was inconsolable, and his friends wondered how he would survive. They need not have worried. He was a punctual correspondent, and his letters were typed by June Williams, once his secretary and now widowed and living not far away. In 1968 they married, and the elegiac last phase of Hart-Davis's life began.
He was amazed by the success of his correspondence with George Lyttelton. In those six volumes, in many ways, you have the best portrait of Hart- Davis in his prime. "The University of Soho Square", as one of his admirers called it, revolved round him, although few then realised, what Lyttelton was told, that the busy, successful, social world was a treadmill he longed to abandon. Looking back, it is hard not to see the short but distinguished career of Rupert Hart-Davis as a golden age in the history of publishing.
He had a complex character, at once jovial and melancholic. In company, he was its life and soul, his own wit mingled with anecdote and quotation, the effect heightened by his military appearance and bluff delivery. His long friendship with Peter Fleming was a wonderful exercise in self-parody on both sides. But the melancholy was real.
When one of his nearest and dearest became a tax-exile, his response was characteristic: "And if I die," he said, "they won't even be able to come to my funeral."
Rupert Charles Hart-Davis, publisher, writer and editor: born 28 August 1907; manager, Book Society 1932; director, Jonathan Cape Ltd 1933-40; director, Rupert Hart-Davis Ltd 1946-68; Chairman, London Library 1957- 69; Kt 1967; married 1929 Peggy Ashcroft (DBE 1956, died 1991; marriage dissolved), 1933 Comfort Borden-Turner (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1964 Ruth Simon (nee Ware, died 1967), 1968 June Williams (nee Clifford); died Northallerton, North Yorkshire 8 December 1999.
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