Gritta Weil: Editorial secretary who devoted her life to 'The Observer' and its staff
Wednesday 28 October 2009
Gritta Weil, who worked at The Observer from 1945 until 1984, has died aged 84. She was one of those rare people whose lives are far more influential than their apparent roles would suggest. In Weil's case, her job description was "editorial secretary" – today, it would without doubt be something grandiose like "editorial office manager". Weil came fully into her own on retirement, when for many years she ran the organisation that sustained the comradeship forged on The Observer over several generations of journalists.
At her appointment, as a refugee from the Nazis, she symbolised the eclectic character of the post-war Observer; by the time of her death 65 years later she was the sheet anchor to all those who worked for the paper under the its post-war editor David Astor and in the years following his retirement.
Born in Germany, Weil's early life was scarred by the turmoil overwhelming Europe. Although her family were not practising Jews, the Nazis categorised them as such, and her father, a pharmacist, was briefly held in Dachau. Weil and her sister escaped the Holocaust by the narrowest of margins, arriving in Britain via the Kindertransports in 1939 (her parents also got out just days before the outbreak of war). Here her father was again interned, this time as an "enemy alien", and Weil was first fostered with an orthodox Jewish family who ran a sweet shop in Bournemouth, and later cared for by Methodists in Purbrook, Hampshire.
So great was the wartime fear of spies, that at 16 she had to move 30 miles inland from the coast, getting a first job as a parlour maid to a Quaker family. When her father was released, the family settled in Oxford, where Weil took a secretarial course. She worshipped at the Oxford Methodist church, joining undergraduates to make sandwiches in the vestry for American servicemen. Among her fellow sandwich-makers was Margaret Roberts (later Thatcher).
Her first job was at the Oxford Institute of Statistics, where she had the luck to meet the economist E F "Small is Beautiful" Schumacher, who became a family friend and her mentor. Schumacher himself had been plucked from internment by David Astor, who found him wartime work on an Oxfordshire farm. It was he who suggested that Weil should work at The Observer. She travelled to London for her interview with Frank Pakenham (later Lord Longford): she had those sorts of contacts.
She started on the paper a few days after her 21st birthday, and was to devote the rest of her life to The Observer and its staff. In early days it was all hands to the pump, and Weil recalled being sent to the Commons with a typewriter to assist Hugh Gaitskell, who had been commissioned to write a leader (he invited her to stay to dinner and gossip); going on assignment with writers to dictate their copy; and rubbing shoulders with the Astor clan, including the formidable Nancy, David's mother and the first woman to take a seat in the Commons.
Eventually, she was taken under the wing of Colin Legum, the paper's Commonwealth correspondent, and worked until her retirement as the senior secretary – "Mother Superior" – to the foreign writers' desk. To younger staff, she at first appeared a formidable figure, guarding her senior charges with fierce loyalty. Unmarried, she took her writers under her wing, caring for the war correspondent and travel writer Gavin Young through a long and unpleasant final illness.
Donald Trelford, Observer editor after Astor stood down, recalled her "making the foreign staff's travel arrangements, doing their expenses, typing their books, in some cases cooking for them, even renewing the leases on their houses and flats."
However, it was in retirement that she was to make her greatest contribution. Observer journalists always looked on themselves as a family – many remained on Astor's Observer throughout their careers, creating a stability long vanished from the newspaper industry. When, after Astor's retirement, the staff began to go their several ways, Weil stepped in as organiser of Fobs (Friends of The Observer), a grouping of over 200 people, linking journalists, printers, drivers, ad executives, managers and secretaries.
Astor himself remained a key participant, attending the convivial gatherings (held off Fleet Street for old time's sake) until his death in 2001 and stressing on every occasion the debt that all owed to Weil. (When Gavin Young was dying, Astor phoned Weil weekly without fail to ask how Young was.) At her death last month there was an outpouring of affection by those united by the spirit of the post-war Observer (liberal, brave, sane) and the close bonds of friendship formed on the paper.
In 2004 her colleagues threw an 80th birthday lunch for Weil at the Stationers' Hall, and she prepared some notes about her career and emotions. Of her timely flight from Nazi Germany, she wrote: "I never stop thanking Hitler and the Nazis for having been instrumental in making my life so rich, full and remarkable. I'll always remember my stroke of luck the moment I set foot on British soil: I couldn't ever have dreamed or wished for a better existence."
Gritta Weil, editorial secretary: born Karlsruhe, Germany 25 October 1924; died London 20 August 2009.
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