Gritta Weil: Editorial secretary who devoted her life to 'The Observer' and its staff

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."

Robert Chesshyre

Gritta Weil, editorial secretary: born Karlsruhe, Germany 25 October 1924; died London 20 August 2009.

News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballStriker in talks over £17m move from Manchester United
Sport
Louis van Gaal, Radamel Falcao, Arturo Vidal, Mats Hummels and Javier Hernandez
footballFalcao, Hernandez, Welbeck and every deal live as it happens
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
News
The five geckos were launched into space to find out about the effects of weightlessness on the creatures’ sex lives
i100
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
News
i100
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
boksUnlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
News
i100
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

SQL Implementation Consultant (VB,C#, SQL, Java, Eclipse, integ

£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: SQL Impl...

SQL Technical Implementation Consultant (Java, BA, Oracle, VBA)

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: SQL Technical ...

Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

£85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

£55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

Day In a Page

Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor