Obituary: John Wolfers
Friday 03 April 1998
His passion was to help bring about the publication of books he thought important. If an author passed his exacting standards, there was nothing he would not do to help - he was insanely generous with his time, his home, his advice, his friendship - but if his sympathies (and it must be said his prejudices) were not engaged, he was as likely to tell a budding writer "to take your stinking fish elsewhere".
He was a passionate socialist and free-thinker - having spent a lifetime, as he put it in a letter just before his death, "devoted to Descartes and Marx" - erudite if a shade didactic, viscerally anti- establishment, music-loving, profoundly European, in love with all things French and especially the language, a raconteur extraordinary, marvellous when sober and terrible when drunk, but above all unstoppably talkative with a mocking, irreverent turn of phrase which invariably ended in a snort of laughter.
He was born and spent his first five years in north China, at Tientsin (Tianjin), the son of Marcel Wolfers, a merchant, and his wife, Ruth, the daughter of an American Missionary, Charles Tenney, who founded a university at Tientsin and ended up as American Minister in Peking. After a spell in the United States the family returned to Britain where, no doubt on his mother's prompting, John was sent away to Leighton Park, a Quaker school in Reading. From there, at the age of 17, he went up to Worcester College, Oxford, but left after a year to join up in 1940.
Returning to civilian life, in 1948 John Wolfers joined Rupert Hart-Davis, who had just started his publishing house, and then some years later worked with George Rainbird and John Murray, before joining International Literary Management, and then in the mid-1960s founding his own literary agency with a high-calibre list of authors.
Wolfers's wit, good looks and emotional volatility made him attractive to women, of whom there were several in his life. Among the first was the exotic Mari Tracy, who had modelled for Jacob Epstein, and with whom Wolfers lived for 10 years and had a daughter, Fabia. He was then married briefly to a French woman, Juliette, and then to the ravishing Charlotte Baker, who having worked in the foreign rights departments of Penguin Books and Collins, shared his publishing interests and joined his agency, now renamed C. and J. Wolfers Ltd.
From the late 1960s to Charlotte's early death in 1980, these were the great days of the Wolfers's social and professional lives, centred around the tall house in Regent Square, Bloomsbury which was always an open home- from-home for authors, lovers, foreign publishers, and friends.
There was a dark side to Wolfers's character, perhaps due to a sense that his own great talents had not found a more creative outlet than managing the literary work of others. In the early 1980s, he lost interest in the world of publishing, sold the Regent Square house, disposed of his agency, and devoted himself to bringing up Charlotte's infant son, Joseph.
It was a relationship which brought out the best in him. With Joseph, he moved across the Channel, first to a little miner's house in Dielette, in the Cotentin, and then, seeking a warmer climate, to the pretty hill- village of Seillans, inland from the French Riviera. There, Joseph became a French schoolboy (and is now engaged in cancer research in Paris), while John Wolfers turned into a sort of wise village elder, beloved of all his neighbours and still finding rich comedy in the criminal follies of the world's rulers.
His last years were marred by polymyositis, a rare but cruel disease of the immune system, which attacked his muscles but left his mind as incendiary as ever.
As Voltaire once said, “Ice cream is exquisite. What a pity it isn’t illegal”
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