Lord Hamlyn

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The Independent Online

Paul Bertrand Hamburger (Paul Bertrand Hamlyn), publisher and philanthropist: born Berlin 12 February 1926; chairman, IPC Books 1965-70; joint managing director, News International 1970-71; chairman, Octopus Publishing Group 1971-97; chairman, Mandarin Offset 1971-97; co-chairman, Conran Octopus 1983-87; chairman, Heinemann Publishers (Oxford) 1985-97; chairman, Hamlyn Publishing Group 1986-2001; chairman, Book Club Asssociates 1993-97; CBE 1993; Chancellor, Thames Valley University 1993-99; created 1998 Baron Hamlyn; married 1952 Bobbie Watson (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1969), 1970 Mrs Helen Guest; died London 31 August 2001.

Paul Hamlyn was one of the small group of German Jewish refugees who did so much to rejuvenate British publishing after the Second World War. But he differed from contemporary immigrants like George Weidenfeld and André Deutsch in being a more successful businessman, more interested in profitability than social or intellectual kudos. He retained the fundamental social consciousness of his class and race and as a result there was a marked contrast between the brave, generous, apparently insouciant private Hamlyn and the businessman once described as "chillingly ruthless".

By the time of his death his fortune was estimated at over £300m, at least £70m of which was in the charitable Hamlyn Foundation he had set up in the early 1970s. In early 2001 he made a capital gain estimated at up to £100m from the sale of the Mirror Building in Holborn.

Like so many other refugees he distanced himself from the world of Jewry. His father had been an atheist and, he said, "I have never been involved." But his social conscience ensured that he was politically active in the later years of his life. As a lifelong Labour supporter, his friendship with David Owen led him to become a founder member of the Social Democratic Party. "He was particularly good advising us on media presentation," Lord Owen once said, "but he is not a politician. Paul is by nature on the side of the underdog. He has clear ends and committed views."

Within a few years he had returned to his original allegiance to the Labour Party, paying £100,000 in 1990 specifically to help the party develop a policy towards the arts and cultural issues. Later his gift of £500,000 to the party paid for over half the cost of its 1997 election manifesto.

In early 2001 he was at the centre of a scandal over Labour's reliance on donations from rich individuals when it was revealed that he was one of three businessmen who had each donated £2m to the party. Unfortunately he was so ill – with cancer and pneumonia on top of the Parkinson's disease from which he had suffered since 1990 – that he was unable to confirm the gift for some days. Then he and his friend Lord Gavron issued a dignified statement in which Hamlyn said simply, "I am proud to be a donor", and that he had had no intention of keeping the gift secret even though he was under no legal obligation to reveal it.

His attitude to giving was simplicity itself: "If you have been as lucky as I have, and the sums of money are as enormous as they are, it seems to me unthinkable if some of it didn't go to people who need it." Although most of the grants went to classic schemes to help the poor – not just in Britain – he also helped to promote his interests in social and educational questions, through private donations as well as through the foundation. He gave £1m to the Bodleian Library in Oxford and promised to ensure that the former Reading Room in the British Museum would be properly furnished with books.

Many of his charitable initiatives were both populist and imaginative. For a decade he made an annual payment of £200,000 to Covent Garden, where he bought thousands of tickets every year that were then distributed extremely cheaply or even free to opera-lovers who could not otherwise have afforded the price of a seat; for a number of years he even took over the whole opera house for a week in pursuit of his policy of opera for the masses, as well as financing a visit by children from a home for the blind and partially sighted. In 1998 he followed this up by buying 25,000 tickets for the National Theatre to provide disadvantaged youngsters with their first glimpse of live theatre. In the same year he started a scheme by which five artists were to be paid £30,000 for three years.

More went to help another obsession: education. A gift of £1m financed a major study of British education published in December 1993. In his later years he became Chancellor of Thames Valley University, the former West London Polytechnic.

Most of his donations did not carry his name, but this is emphatically not the case with the £17m he contributed towards the regeneration of London's South Bank arts complex which will include a newly refurbished Festival Hall renamed the "Hamlyn Auditorium".

Until the return to power of the Labour Party the only recognition he received was his belated appointment as CBE in 1993. More appropriately he was awarded the Albert Medal by the Royal Society of Arts, the highest award in their gift. He got on well with the Duke of Edinburgh, who presented the medal: "We disagreed on most things," said Hamlyn afterwards, "but in the nicest possible way." Even more prestigious was his honorary fellowship of the Royal Society of Surgeons in Dublin for the work financed by the Hamlyn Foundation in India – an honour previously bestowed on only two lay people, Mother Teresa and the King of Malaysia. Previous official neglect was amply compensated when the new Labour government awarded him a peerage in 1998.

Hamlyn greatly enjoyed the good things of life. His homes, in Chelsea, Paris and the South of France (a house formerly owned by Nubar Gulbenkian), were rebuilt and redecorated by his second wife, Helen, a designer, and he joined with his old friend Sir Terence Conran to buy the Michelin building in South Kensington. He found room in it not only for his publishing empire but also for Bibendum, one of London's best restaurants. "I only have a limited number of lunches left in my life," he said, "and I am not going to waste them on sandwiches."

Hamlyn was born Paul Hamburger, in 1926, the second son of a leading Jewish paediatrician, Professor Richard Hamburger, who left Berlin in 1933. They settled in St John's Wood, north London, and Paul, the youngest of four children, went to the Hall School at Swiss Cottage, the training ground for most Jewish intellectuals of his and later generations.

But the family background was not a happy one. He once described his childhood as "non-fun. I come from a family of what I call MEMs – Middle European Melancholics". It did not help his childhood difficulties that his father preferred his two middle siblings, Michael Hamburger, the poet, and Eva, now a psychoanalyst. "I was the more difficult child," he admitted. "I really didn't have a relationship with my father at all."

His revolt against the family came in the shape of the determined commercialism that characterised his career, an attitude which could have been expressly designed to spite his intellectually minded ancestors. It was perfectly in character when, in 1970, he became joint managing director of News International. an empire built up by another ruthlessly commercial immigrant, Rupert Murdoch, and, although he resigned his executive role a year later, he remained on the board until 1987.

Hamlyn's father died suddenly when Paul was 14, leaving the family poorly off and the young Hamburger left school – St Christopher's at Letchworth – the next year. He promptly changed his name to Hamlyn, a name he found in the telephone directory – Britain still being anti-Semitic enough to create difficulties for a boy with such an obviously German-Jewish name. "It was really tough for a kid being called Hamburger . . . I was tired of being called sausage."

An advertisement led to his first job as an office boy at Country Life, followed by a spell at Zwemmer's art bookshop, which increased the urge to open a shop of his own. When he was called up for National Service he worked as a "Bevin Boy" in the South Wales coalfield, moonlighting as a reporter for the local paper. His time in the mines helped to nurture his social and political attitudes – "I hate any form of injustice and feel very deeply about it," he once said.

After a short period selling books off a barrow he opened his first bookshop at the age of 21. He could not afford to be fussy and originally turned to publishing when stocks of the books he bought cheaply ran low. Like his hero Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin, whose books were originally sold through Woolworths, he made his first fortune selling through non-traditional outlets like Marks and Spencer. As well as his first imprint, Books for Pleasure, a name which could have served as a statement of his business philosophy, he also founded Music for Pleasure, to produce recordings of popular classics.

From the start his outlook was international. He was one of the pioneers of publishing books – especially illustrated ones – in a number of different languages simultaneously to minimise the costs. Later he was one of the first publishers to have his books printed in Hong Kong and until 1997 was chairman of one of the biggest printers in the former colony, Mandarin Offset.

In 1964 he sold his business to Cecil King's International Publishing Corporation for over £2m, becoming a main board director and chairman of the group's publishing interests. He took seriously King's promise to transform his imprint into the biggest publishing group in the world – although the only major step was to buy the legal publishers Butterworths. But after King was deposed in 1969 Hamlyn found that he could not work with King's successor, Don Ryder. Hamlyn showed his ability as a corporate streetfighter when Ryder threatened to launch a range of pantihose in Australia under the name of Hamlyn. When news of this came to Hamlyn's ears he told Ryder that if he went ahead he would launch a range of Don Ryder vaginal deodorants in Britain.

Not surprisingly Hamlyn soon left to start his second business under the name of Octopus Books. He continued the same tradition, of publishing lavishly illustrated popular books, mostly in international co-editions, and in 1983 mounted a joint venture publishing life-style books, Conran Octopus, with Terence Conran. But not all the books he published were inoffensive illustrated works. Hamlyn's streak of stubborn independence emerged clearly when, despite enormous official pressure, he published Peter Wright's book Spycatcher. When, unofficially, offered a title if he abandoned the project he replied, "Nothing less than a dukedom would do."

The Octopus story followed a similar pattern as his original business. In 1986 he had bought back the Hamlyn imprint from Reed International and the next year allowed all his publishing interests to be bought out by Reed, like IPC a major international group. By then the Octopus-Hamlyn empire had greatly expanded, thanks to the purchase of a number of famous names, like Heinemann, Secker & Warburg and Mitchell Beazley, and in 1987 he sold the whole group to Reed for £528m in shares, making him the biggest single shareholder in Reed. (Since the sale Reed's shares have not done well, but even in 1998 his shares were valued at £223m, and still formed the bulk of his fortune). But much of the reward went to his employees – even his chauffeur ended up owning more shares than Reed's then chief executive.

For some years Hamlyn, and his associate Ian Irvine, retained management control and he kept the reputation of being, if not a workaholic, someone for whom work was never far away. "I don't think I have ever spent a day outside England without calling the office," he once admitted.

It was typical of this brave and reclusive figure that he kept secret for several years the fact that he was suffering from Parkinson's. Although affected by the depression associated with the disease, he continued to travel for business and pleasure throughout the world in his private jet and even contrived to joke about his affliction. "People no longer think I'm drunk when I get up from lunch," he said. But ill-health and a disenchantment with publishing – and with Reed – led him to distance himself from the business; he resigned in 1997.

Nicholas Faith