David Astor, 'awesome' editor at centre of Suez controversy, dies aged 89

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The Independent Online

David Astor, one of the most distinguished editors of The Observer, has died. He was 89.

He spent 27 years in the editor's chair by the time he stepped down in 1975, having stewarded the Sunday paper through much of the Cold War and the Suez Crisis. The paper's accusation that Anthony Eden had lied to the Commons lost it readers but was, in the end, vindicated.

Astor was both an awesome and deeply endearing editor of The Observer – a serious man who understood the comic.

A young writer who had written a profile of the comedian Max Wall was summoned to Astor's office late one Friday night. He found him pacing the room angrily. "How could you? He asked: "How could you get Max wrong?"

John Heilpern, later a New York theatre critic, protested his great admiration for Wall and dared to suggest that the editor should prove his contention. At once, Astor went into a Max Wall routine including the funny walk of his character creation Professor Wallovsky. "Max's genius," he said to the now converted Heilpern, "was his perversity."

Heilpern's story was published in a book of reminiscences contributed by friends and colleagues on Astor's 80th birthday. Many of them suggest a man who was contrary, if not perverse, himself.

He was capable of great understanding and kindness. Once, long-time Far East correspondent of The Observer, Dennis Bloodworth, was in London and got into a scrape by impersonating Astor's elder brother to get into a night club. The club protested and Astor summoned Bloodworth who expected the sack. Instead, he had a long conversation in which Astor gently inquired about his life and difficulties. "After that," Bloodworth wrote, "who would want to work for another editor?"

Not everyone who worked for him felt the same. One consequence of his sensitivity was a reluctance to tell people they had not made the grade. It was not pleasant to be left "hanging in the wind".

Those he accepted were lucky, though many of us did not realise it until later. He was careful with people. To a staff member who had been late for one of the many conferences at The Observer he wrote: "I know I'm often lamentably late for conferences myself. But if I try to improve, will you too?"

Some would say he was also perverse in his resistance to changes in post-war British journalism. He hated having to start up a colour supplement to match the pioneering Sunday Times. He was out of sympathy with the new style feature sections that circulation managers demanded.

He had intellect, charm and an understanding of the post-war world. As a young man in the 1930s he had seen the Nazi threat and later, to the distress of some on the Left, he pointed to the danger of Soviet Communism as an equal threat.

High mindedness and good writing (Astor wrote beautifully himself, but reluctantly) were not always enough to keep the paper solvent. Sometimes there were rumours that he dug into his own pockets and that of his family.

 

Mark Frankland joined The Observer in 1961 and was a foreign correspondent under David Astor for 14 years.

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