John Davenport

Publisher at 'Reader's Digest'

John Hayward Davenport, publisher: born London 3 February 1912; managing director, Reader's Digest Association, London 1959-73, chairman 1970-74; married 1937 Katherine Carvell (two sons; marriage dissolved), 1946 Gezina Albertyn (died 1995; two sons, two daughters); died Plymouth 6 November 2006.

John Davenport was not one of those publishers who sip mineral water while taking their authors out for quick lunches. Still less was he a publisher who committed large sums to publishing books with only the vaguest glimmering of how to sell them. He was a great entertainer, who brought to English publishing the sharp edge of consumer research, and over 40 years ago launched a series of Reader's Digest atlases and illustrated reference books that set the standards for Mitchell Beazley, Dorling Kindersley and other phenomenally successful publishers of immaculately designed book packages.

The son of a minor City financier, Davenport was born in Hampstead, north London, in 1912. As a pupil at Lancing he was a sportsman rather than bookish: nicknamed "Slosh", because of his boxing prowess, he was also a school hero at athletics and cricket.

It had been intended that he would go to Oxford, but his father's disastrous attempt to corner the market in pepper so depleted the family finances that he had to enter an office instead. He joined an advertising agency, the London Press Exchange, and became a foppish man about town, travelling to work in white gloves with a silver-topped cane, and spending his evenings as a Mayfair gallant. His love of good clothes was ineradicable: until his nineties he was always immaculately dressed, with a silk handkerchief tucked in his cuff.

Davenport's brother-in-law John Hobson had undertaken the pioneering Hulton magazines' readership survey, which set new standards for marketing, and in 1939 Davenport moved to the BBC to conduct similar research into audience reactions to wartime broadcasting. He was on duty at Broadcasting House on the night of 23 June 1940 when Marshal Philippe Pétain broadcast the terms of the French capitulation: everyone in the studio, he recalled, was crying.

In the following year he was commissioned into the Intelligence Corps and sent to Cairo, where he analysed the radio-listening habits and opinions of British soldiers in the Middle East. His final posting was to India. He seldom spoke of his intelligence work, partly from natural reticence, but chiefly because he felt the horrors of war - as well as its personal discomforts - too keenly to indulge in boastful or mawkish anecdotes.

John Davenport was a man of immense physical vitality and sensual tastes whose marriage to a beautiful and gentle Canadian did not survive the Second World War. While lecturing in South Africa, he met Ina Albertyn, whom he married in Durban in 1946. They were brought together by their shared love of ballet, and she won him over by introducing him to the works of Ogden Nash: high-spirited hilarity was one of the keynotes of their marriage.

They settled in Johannesburg, and, together with his friend Dick Meyer, Davenport ran Radio Lourenço Marques. His wife came from a liberal Afrikaner family, and had worked for various progressive causes. The policies of the Nationalist government proving uncongenial, they left South Africa in 1951.

Back in England, Davenport became advertising director of the London office of Reader's Digest, and in 1959 was appointed by DeWitt Wallace, the American founder of Reader's Digest, as London managing director and then, in 1970, as chairman of the English company. Subsequently he was given superintendence of the Reader's Digest Association's European operations. Reader's Digest had been producing condensed books for many years, but Davenport's great innovation was to launch a series of beautifully designed, keenly marketed books which transformed the quality of mass-market illustrated reference books and manuals in Britain.

The series was inaugurated by The Reader's Digest Great World Atlas, which was published in 1961. The company's direct mailing system, which Davenport developed, was then still in its infancy, and it was anticipated that the atlas would sell 200,000 copies at 58s 6d. In the event a million copies were sold, and there were three reprintings in quick succession. This success was followed by The Reader's Digest Complete Atlas of the British Isles (1965) which, like several others of the series, including the AA Book of the Road (1966) and the AA Book of British Birds (1969), was produced in a lucrative association with the Automobile Association.

Davenport ensured that the production and marketing of these books was meticulously researched. Yet his approach to business, and to life, was essentially intuitive. He studied the form carefully but liked to trust his hunches. He would call a meeting in his office to take a difficult decision, break off the discussion to turn on the television, and watch the 3.30 at Sandown, on which he had a bet. After watching his horse come in second, he would switch off the set with his mind made up. He was a great believer in taking crisp decisions, and sticking to them, just as he was a great believer in picking staff he could work with, and backing them to the hilt.

John Davenport's business apogee was during the Harold Wilson years when taxation was running at 95 per cent. He became adept at living luxuriously on a tiny disposable income. This was the heyday of the business account lunch, and no man enjoyed business lunches more. His favourite restaurant was the Mirabelle, which became so inordinately expensive that after his retirement it was deleted by Reader's Digest accountants from the list of acceptable company venues.

He and his wife were inveterate travellers, and in the early age of the jet airliner, when air travel was still a glamorous privilege and therefore a pleasure, they travelled all over the world on Digest business. He was robustly international in outlook, in an era when London publishers and his own English circle were often nostalgically insular, and proud of cultivating a circle of friends in most European capitals.

All his life he was bored by gossip, impatient with malicious conversation and contemptuous of betrayed confidences. The highest compliment he could pay anyone was to call them "discreet". He valued discretion in conversation, in behaviour and in appearance. He was indeed a conservative-minded man, with a deep respect for convention, and incapable of dissembling. He was easily moved to laughter, to tears and to anger - although he never bore a grudge for longer than five minutes.

Despite his metropolitan tastes, he retired in 1974 to Thurlestone, a Devon coastal village where his family had spent their summers since the First World War. Any form of compliment discomfited him, and he would have claimed his greatest achievement was to mix a fiendish Negroni.

Richard Davenport-Hines

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