Alan Maclean

Old-school editor at Macmillan who started Muriel Spark on her novel-writing career
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Alan Duart Maclean, publisher: born London 2 November 1924; staff, Macmillan 1954-84, Publishing Director for General Books 1964-84; married 1965 Robin Empson (one son, and one son deceased); died Semley, Wiltshire 26 September 2006.

Muriel Spark called him "the best-liked editor in London". Alan Maclean may have been less well-known than his older brother Donald, the Soviet spy, but for 30 years he led a creditable working life as chief editor for Macmillan, the publishers.

He it was who first persuaded Spark to become a novelist. He wrote to her in 1954, having read a short story by the biographer of John Masefield and would-be poet, and commissioned her to write a novel. Macmillan published her first novel, The Comforters, in 1957, to a laudatory reception by Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene.

Alan Maclean was born in 1924, the youngest of the five children of Sir Donald Maclean, a politician and ally of H.H. Asquith who had been Chairman of the Parliamentary Liberal Party until he lost his seat in the 1922 election. Maclean père was 60 and died when Alan was seven; his sister, Nancy, the next youngest child, was born in 1918 and Donald, the youngest of his three brothers, in 1913.

The brothers all went to Gresham's School, Holt, but Alan was sent to Stowe, which he hated. He went up to Cambridge only to go straight into the Army, serving in the 11th Hussars in Belgium and Holland, and, after the Second World War ended, in Berlin. In 1947 he was recruited to the Foreign Office news department, moving in 1950 to New York as private secretary to Sir Gladwyn Jebb, the British Representative at the United Nations.

On 25 May 1951 Donald Maclean, then head of the American department at the Foreign Office in London, disappeared. It later emerged that for years he had been a genuinely important secret agent (unlike three of the other four who made up the famous five) for the Soviet Union. He had fled to Moscow with Guy Burgess, a second secretary at the Washington embassy.

Alan Maclean was immediately sent home from New York and shooed out of the Foreign Office. Through an introduction from his friend Mark Bonham Carter, he was rescued by Billy Collins, chairman of Collins the publishers, and sent to Collins's Glasgow factory as assistant to the deputy chairman, Ian Collins, Billy's brother. I was at the time a trainee there.

The Glasgow end of the firm was heavily Scottish, so two poor little Englanders were necessarily thrown together. Maclean was excellent company and my wife and I (newly married) used to eat heavy and boozy high teas with him at his landlady's residence not far from the Gorbals. The friendship lasted even though the following year Maclean escaped to London while I remained stuck up there; but then we worked in Collins London, he as deputy publicity manager and I as editor.

Collins at the time was reinventing itself and Billy was a master promoter of his selected bestsellers, aided by Ronald Politzer, Maclean's boss in publicity. Billy Collins regarded anyone who left as a traitor, but I escaped by sidestepping into religious publishing, and Alan Maclean, through Maurice Macmillan, left in 1954 to work for Macmillan, with a specific brief to bring in new young authors.

He became famous as an excellent editor - not only of Muriel Spark, but of Lillian Hellman, Rebecca West, C.P. Snow, Pamela Hansford Johnson and Joyce Grenfell. He was the heart and soul of Macmillan London, a much older and more prestigious firm than Collins, and became the favourite of "Mr Dan", Daniel Macmillan, the elder brother of "Mr Harold". When Harold Macmillan resigned as Prime Minister in 1963 and took up the chairmanship of the family publishers, he persuaded the long-standing editorial director, "Rache" Lovat Dickson, to stand down in Maclean's favour. Maclean served in this role for 20 years until his retirement in 1984, aged 60.

Alan Maclean married Robin Empson, who had been his secretary, and their happy marriage produced two boys, one of whom, Daniel, after Daniel Macmillan, died of cancer.

His brother Donald, who died in 1983, offered him a monograph he was writing in Moscow on British foreign policy after Suez, but Alan knew this was not for Macmillan and asked me if I was interested. I was, for all sorts of reasons, and flew to Moscow to collect the typescript. Back at home, we published it at Hodder & Stoughton (as British Foreign Policy Since Suez, 1956-1968, 1970) with modest success. It was mauled by the British press but treated more kindly in the United States.

Alan Maclean published a memoir in 1997, No, I Tell a Lie, it was the Tuesday - the title deriving, he said, from an editorial meeting in the 1970s "about suitable titles for outstandingly boring biographies". It is reticent about the family tragedy and the defection of his brother, but includes an appendix by the doctor who treated the author in 1957 with aversion therapy for his drink problem, after which he was unable to sip even communion wine.

It also includes a set-piece account of Rebecca West's 85th birthday celebration in 1977. Maclean was to partner West, Harold Macmillan his sister-in-law the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, for a lunch à quatre at Buck's Club. The Duchess had flu, however, and Macmillan asked Diana Cooper instead. A serious game of one-upmanship ensued - Macmillan was so mesmerised by Lady Diana that he hardly addressed Dame Rebecca at all. How would the formidable Rebecca West react? Gracefully, in the end. As she and Maclean waved their host goodbye, she said, "Game, set and match, I think."

Alan Maclean was a devout Anglican. After his retirement the Macleans went to live in Dorset, where they rode horses, but he regularly came to London for the monthly lunches of the Old Collins Club. He drank tonic water and entertained us all with his wonderful gossip and memories.

At home he did good by stealth, ferrying friends and neighbours to hospital or hospice. (At Wormwood Scrubs. too, he had been a prison visitor for several "clients".) He was a truly friendly, delightful and deeply good man.

Robin Denniston

Alan Maclean was my godfather and a formative influence on my life, writes Robin Baird-Smith. It was thanks to him that I became a publisher.

He was the last of a breed of publisher, now extinct, best described as the equivalent of the actor manager. At the heart of his personality and energy was a passionate editor of the old school. He acted on instinct and hunch, excelled at spotting new talent and kept accountants at bay. Unusually for the manager of a large publishing house, he made the people who worked for him happy. And this was his avowed intention.

Predating the day when budgets, forecasts and five-year plans hung over publishers like the Sword of Damocles, Maclean knew talent when he saw it and backed it with relentless energy.

When the agent Richard Scott Simon was asked to find a publisher for Joyce Grenfell's memoirs, there was only one publisher he contacted - much to the fury of Billy Collins, Tom Maschler and others. That person was Alan Maclean. It was an author-publisher relationship made in heaven and it worked.

His authors loved him dearly and he shared their lives. He bought a racehorse with Muriel Spark and out of hours went off with her to the races to back its chances. Nowadays, publishers are too busy studying margin reports to devote so much private time to their authors.

It is hard to imagine people of Maclean's kind flourishing in the modern publishing world where books are poetically described as "units" and selling books known as "through-put". It is our loss.