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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
REX/Eye Candy
science
News
A photo of Charles Belk being detained by police on Friday 22 August
news
News
i100
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
Arts and Entertainment
Amis: 'The racial situation in the US is as bad as it’s been since the Civil War'
booksAuthor says he might come back across Atlantic after all
Extras
indybest
Life and Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 200th birthday of Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
News
i100
News
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Jim Carrey and Kate Winslett medically erase each other from their memories
scienceTechnique successfully used to ‘reverse’ bad memories in rodents could be used on trauma victims
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# Developer (C#, ASP.NET Developer, SQL, MVC, WPF, Real-Time F

£40000 - £48000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Devel...

C# Swift Payment Developer (C#, ASP.NET, .NET, MVC, Authorize.N

£45000 - £60000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Swift...

Front-End Developer (JavaScript, HTML5, CSS3, C#, GUI)

£55000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End Deve...

Graduate C# Developer (.NET, WPF, SQL, Agile, C++) - London

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Graduate C# De...

Day In a Page

Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?