John Curtis

Editor and designer given his own imprint

John Curtis was an unsung hero among authors whom he handled with professionalism and aplomb for 20 years at the publishing house of Weidenfeld & Nicolson. He had begun there as art director and rapidly moved to become editorial director. But when by the second half of the 1980s George Weidenfeld's firm was going through a difficult patch Curtis and the firm parted company. He recalled that he thought of early retirement or freelancing, before joining another privately owned publishing house, Hodder and Stoughton, then at the height of its success as a general publisher of commercial fiction and non-fiction. Together they created John Curtis Books. Curtis provided the authors, Hodder the finance and publishing. For the first time Curtis's name was up in lights.

John Curtis, publisher's editor and designer: born London 25 December 1928; married 1957 Jill Kite (one son, two daughters); died London 3 February 2005.

John Curtis was an unsung hero among authors whom he handled with professionalism and aplomb for 20 years at the publishing house of Weidenfeld & Nicolson. He had begun there as art director and rapidly moved to become editorial director. But when by the second half of the 1980s George Weidenfeld's firm was going through a difficult patch Curtis and the firm parted company. He recalled that he thought of early retirement or freelancing, before joining another privately owned publishing house, Hodder and Stoughton, then at the height of its success as a general publisher of commercial fiction and non-fiction. Together they created John Curtis Books. Curtis provided the authors, Hodder the finance and publishing. For the first time Curtis's name was up in lights.

While Hodder remained independent it was a happy arrangement. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, as an essentially "hardback-only" publisher, had long provided Hodder with books for its paperback imprints. Many of these had emanated from Curtis's commissioning. Now under the new arrangement Curtis was able to publish "vertically" - as publishing jargon has it - with hardbacks and paperbacks able to stay within the same company.

Some distinguished Weidenfeld authors followed Curtis to his new home, including Elizabeth Longford for her three final books, the artist David Gentleman (books on India and Paris: Gentleman being, in Curtis's view, "as articulate in words as he is with his brush") and Richard Hough for his 1989 "jubilee history", with Denis Richards, of the Battle of Britain, based on interviews with surviving members of "the Few". But Curtis also had a reputation for nurturing new talent. He followed up an article in The Spectator where a writer in his twenties, Alexander Norman, had written about a visit to the Dalai Lama. With Curtis at the helm, Norman now collaborated with the Dalai Lama on his autobiography Freedom in Exile (1990). More than a dozen foreign editions resulted and the British edition proved a huge best-seller.

All Curtis's books were distinguished by their attention to design, which reflected his original career as a publishing designer.

Born in 1928, Curtis was the middle of three sons of a property developer (one of whom also became involved in books, as a literary journalist). He was educated at Midhurst Grammar School and Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he read English. But he was always interested in art, from calligraphy (witnessed by his own elegant handwriting), to modern British painting. He joined Penguin when its founder, Allen Lane, was at the helm and helped change its face literally when the firm moved from almost wholly typographical to elegantly illustrated covers. It was this that drew George Weidenfeld to hire him.

When Curtis joined Weidenfeld & Nicolson as art director in 1962 the firm (unlike Penguin) was small enough for George Weidenfeld to be personally responsible for everything. The list was heavily weighted in favour of history and biography, although in fiction the firm had published Vladimir Nabokov and Saul Bellow and would soon boast Edna O'Brien, Mordecai Richler and two Booker prizewinners in John Berger (G) and J.G. Farrell (The Siege of Krishnapur). Curtis would inherit Farrell from his original editor, Tony Godwin, but non-fiction was his speciality. Although Margaret Drabble was not his discovery, as art director he commissioned a young and then unknown artist, Quentin Blake, to design a jacket, a happy relationship that would continue for a number of Drabble's early novels.

Curtis's authors were drawn to him as an editor - and tended to stay - because he was not only devoted to their interests, but also produced fine books with every detail as it should be. His interest in design, shared in a particular and practical sense by Richard Hussey, the firm's long- standing production director, ensured that not only the jackets, but the interiors of the books were superbly designed, and production standards were of the highest.

In addition to his own list of authors, who included Sheridan Morley (with the Noël Coward diaries and the first authorised life of David Niven, which was Curtis's idea) and Frances Spalding (for her life of Vanessa Bell), he also looked after a number of George Weidenfeld's projects, not least the memoirs of Laurence Olivier and Mollie Butler (widow of "Rab"), but also those of a sequence of Israelis, Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin and Abba Eban. They were not necessarily writers. It was sometimes Curtis's task to find "ghosts" but also to cajole prickly politicians and celebrities to accept his guidance: books, he would patiently explain, "books are different".

His final commission at Weidenfeld was also one of the most remarkable, Christy Nolan's memoir Under the Eye of the Clock (1987). Nolan has cerebral palsy and writes with a word processor manipulated by a "unicorn" stick attached to his head. His memoir took him six years. By the time it was published Curtis had left Weidenfeld & Nicolson, so its success gave Curtis particular pleasure, being a number one best-seller and winning the Whitbread Prize.

At Hodder and Stoughton in his quiet, but persuasive way Curtis transformed the way books looked across the list. For the first time the interiors of books were designed on a regular basis by a typographical specialist, not by the production department. He also edited Terry Waite for two of his books inspired by his period of captivity in Beirut. When the firm ran into stormy financial waters in the early 1990s his unflappability proved an enormous asset.

In his retirement Curtis edited Weidenfeld & Nicolson: Fifty Years of Publishing (1999), which celebrated Weidenfeld and Nicolson's half-century. He was also, at the time of his death, Chairman of the Double Crown Club, a dining club that mixes the worlds of books and printing. Appropriately George Weidenfeld was one of his final speakers.

Ion Trewin



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