Gabriele Annan: Cosmopolitan author who wrote literary criticism for ‘The Spectator’ and the ‘New York Review of Books’

When her husband was ennobled, she jokingly referred to the House of Lords as ‘Noël’s playgroup’

Gabriele Annan was a rare representative of a genuine, cosmopolitan European culture. Resident in Britain, she was as comfortable in Berlin or New York as London, as fluent in German as English, passionate about literature but knowledgeable enough to be a professional film critic for The Spectator and The Sunday Telegraph. Though her mother tongue was German, she wrote sparkling, incisive and amusingly colloquial English, often funny, usually witty, sharp, and sometimes devastating. With her husband, Noël, Lord Annan, she was a prominent figure in London literary life; though whereas his domain was academic, Gaby (the diminutive by which she was universally known, much as she disliked it) wrote for magazine and newspapers, especially the New York Review of Books, to which she contributed more than 100 essays between 1981 and 2006.

She was born in Berlin in 1921; her father was Louis Ullstein, one of five Jewish brothers who built up what was in the 1920s the largest newspaper, magazine and book publishing firm in Europe. (Coincidentally, the week before Gaby’s death just short of her 92nd birthday, her children, Lucy and Juliet, travelled to Berlin for a celebration of their grandfather’s 150th birthday, and saw “the enormous Expressionist printing works” their grandfather and great-uncles had built.) After Hitler took over in 1933 the Ullstein company was forcibly sold, and Louis died the same year. Gabriele, the only child of her father’s second marriage, was brought up until the age of 11 in a striking mansion in the Grünewald, which is now the British Ambassador’s residence in Berlin.

She was sent to a progressive boarding school in England, where she made lifelong friends with Mary Blewett and Countess Nathalie Benckendorff Brooke (daughter of the great Russian harpist, Maria Korchinska). In 1939 her mother joined her in London, which did not suit Gaby, who, says her daughter Juliet, ran away and trained to be an actress with Michel St Denis, the drama theorist who as “Jacques Duchesne” directed the BBC’s wartime French programme). Though she appeared “mostly in the role of the maid in rep all over England,” she was not a success as an actor, and decided instead to go to Cambridge. It took only a term to get her higher school certificate, and she sat the Oxbridge exams and went up to Newnham to read Modern Languages.

There she discovered her strong passion for poetry – perhaps, reflects Juliet, because of “melancholy wartime Cambridge with no men,” a situation she did not enjoy. One of her favourite poems, Thomas Nashe’s crisp “A Litany in Time of Plague”, was read at her memorial meeting. It reveals her taste as much as her dislike of the complex prose of the post-war Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann, which, she said, was “like chewing on a bouillon cube before it’s been diluted.”

The war over, Gaby contemplated doing a PhD and ski-ed as a member of the Cambridge Ladies team. (Later she was equally keen on tennis and Scrabble.) But she decided against academia, and went to London, where she shared a flat with Mary Blewett and worked in advertising – she boasted that she had invented the slogan “All the Boy Scouts at their Jamborees/eat lashings of Batchelors wonderful peas.” In 1950 she met and married Noël Annan, who had returned to King’s Cambridge in 1946, having been elected to a fellowship in absentia in 1944 – when, having held sensitive positions in military intelligence, he was transferred to Paris to become the French liaison officer with British military intelligence, and then became a senior officer in the political division of the British Control Commission in Germany.

When he became Provost of King’s in 1956, Gaby was the mother of small children, but found time to entertain – and to frighten the horses, especially the King’s resident EM Forster, who was reported to find her “sinister.” High Table was not her best setting, but, said her daughter Lucy, “they held an open house every day and night.” The couple were back in London from 1966-81, when Noël was Provost of UCL and then Vice-Chancellor of the University of London. Now Gaby came into her own, translating Theodore Fontane, reviewing for The Listener and beginning her career writing for the NYRB – at first about German-language subjects and biographies, but soon branching out into contemporary fiction, becoming an early champion of Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan and Alan Hollinghurst, and reflecting on the work of Margaret Drabble, Julian Barnes, WG Sebald and Philip Roth.

She loved clothes, an expression of her innate stylishness – Juliet once began a school essay: “My mother is a woman of fashion.” Though she adored some opera, she was less musical than Noël, but enjoyed taking the children to exhibitions at the ICA in the late 1960s and ’70s. She was a founder of a German-speaking lunch club and a regular at George Weidenfeld’s parties (at one of which Richard Crossman sat next to her and wrote: “That’s the company I prefer to keep.”) She and Noël adored high-minded gossip; though when he was made a life peer, with mock scorn she referred to the House of Lords as “Noël’s playgroup.” Gaby and Noël were full of energy and fun to be around and it was sad that she slid into dementia a few years after his death.

Gabriele Ullstein, literary critic: born Berlin 25 November 1921; married 1950 Noël Annan (died 2000; two daughters); died London 12 November 2013.

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