Obituary: Margot Walmsley

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The Independent Online
In the mid-Seventies I was working for the old Spectator. One morning my telephone rang and "Mr Cosgrave?" said a brisk female voice. "Mr Melvin Lasky wants to speak to you. He wants you to write an article for him. On international politics. I'm putting you through."

In those days, Encounter magazine was a Mecca for young writers like myself who had a right-wing leaning. Its senior editor, Mel Lasky, was our centurion. I concentrated on the matter of the balance of power in Eastern Europe, and the joy of talking to one of the masters of the subject. Then the brisk female voice cut in. "You've talked enough, Mel. Patrick, darling, can we have eleven hundred words by the day after tomorrow? Good. Send it to me, Margot Walmsley: Mel would just lose the copy. And, darling, you will come to a party I'm giving next week. I'll send you a card. Give me your address. Thank you, darling."

That conversation is dredged out of a memory which is comfortably more than 20 years old. I hope I have conveyed the spirit of Margot Walmsley's approach to human relations. I would have died rather than fail to deliver her copy on time. I delivered it by hand, unwilling to trust either the Royal Mail, or a messenger. I was greeted by a small, silver-haired woman, who kissed me and said, "Patrick, darling. How good of you. And you won't forget the party, darling." That was a statement, not a question. Over the years one learned that she was irresistible.

She was born Dorothea Margaret Beck in 1914, in Maida Vale, west London - "the respectable end, darling". The family moved to Carlisle, but the growing Margot (as she was called by her sister) found little joy in that tranquil Border town - "No fun, darling, you see." On maturity she moved back to London and cadged a job at the Daily Graphic. There she fell in love with the redoubtable journalist Geoffrey Walmsley. They married, and went to live in Kensington.

There this sunny young woman was struck by the first of two terrible blows in life. Geoffrey, stricken by incurable cancer, and racked with pain, killed himself. Then, when he was 19, their son, Alaric, overborne by the pressures of student life at Cambridge, likewise took the path of suicide. Some of those who knew Margot at the time say that she was silent for some months. In the nearly 30 years in which I knew her she never mentioned either of her bereavements and, somehow, one was inhibited from ever mentioning them to her.

In 1953 she found her metier. She was offered a job as a secretary at the nascent Encounter, which was destined to become the principal intellectual commando of Western political and cultural values in the world of the Cold War. She rapidly rose to be managing editor, as the only individual who could control the professional affairs of a series of unquestionably brilliant but technically scatty editors. There was the ever-present Melvin J. Lasky, the founding editor. There were Stephen Spender, Frank Kermode, Anthony Thwaite and Anthony Hartley. All, like their contributors, twirled around the ebullient but hyper-efficient personality of Margot Walmsley.

She sustained the impoverished publication through many crises, large and small. Her most difficult time was in the middle Sixties when Conor Cruise O'Brien - the Irish diplomat, politician, and man of letters - discovered that Encounter was partly funded by the Congress for Cultural Freedom which was itself, O'Brien asserted, a front for the CIA. Lasky wrote an excoriating attack on O'Brien, who sued for libel, and won. Kermode - who had known nothing of the magazine's funding arrangements, resigned. Not least through the exercise of Margot Walmsley's charm, O'Brien settled for nominal damages, and the right to publish in Encounter whenever he felt like it.

Now. I have quoted Margot's using the word "darling" seemingly - to anybody who did not know her - to excess. But her use of "darling" was in no way like the current camp usage or the theatrical coinage of "luvvie" or "luv". It was, instead, a direct expression of affection for the whole human race. And it could also be a weapon. When she - the most efficient of copy-editors - rang one with a query or correction, one knew immediately that she was probably right. And "Darling, just a word about your copy" overcame any incipient irritation, and any would-be brusque objection to criticism.

And, then, there were the parties. Tributes to her parties have, perhaps, been overdone, but they were at the centre of her life, and gathered invariably an improbable melange of people. At the last one which I attended I met, for the first time, John Weightman, whose writing on French literature I had admired as a teenager. I talked about thrillers with Gavin Lyall, and about cooking to his wife, Katharine Whitehorn. I mulled over contemporary political philosophy with a learned American professor and contemporary history with Andrew Roberts. All these conversations were unfinished, for Margot Walmsley was determined that every one of her guests should meet every other.

Afflicted as she was by osteoporosis, she none the less bustled around, and one went away, not irritated by her truncation of conversations, but enthralled by the fact that she had given one the opportunity to have so many.

Dorothea Margaret Beck, literary hostess and journalist: born London 21 January 1914; married Geoffrey Walmsley (deceased; one son deceased); died London 24 July 1997.