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.
- 2 Disney heiress Abigail disowns her share of family profits in West Bank company
- 3 Israel's propaganda machine is finally starting to misfire
- 4 Zayn Malik on Israel-Gaza: One Direction singer bombarded with Twitter death threats after posting #FreePalestine
- 5 'Hello mum, this is going to be hard for you to read ...'
Sally Farmiloe dead: Howards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, dies aged 60
Women in Turkey have a laugh in public at the deputy Prime Minister's expense
Sabina Altynbekova, the girl branded 'too good looking' for volleyball, says social media obsession with her is a 'bit much'
Disney heiress Abigail disowns her share of family profits in West Bank company
Australian model Robyn Lawley stages naked protest against huge coal mine seven times the size of Sydney Harbour
The secret report that helps Israel hide facts
Land for gas: Merkel and Putin discussed secret deal could end Ukraine crisis
Woman and two children killed by mob in riots over 'blasphemous' Facebook post in Pakistan
A day in the life of Vladimir Putin: The dictator in his labyrinth
Putin is 'thuggish, dishonest and reckless', says British ambassador to US
Richard Dawkins tweets: 'Date rape is bad, stranger rape is worse'
- < Previous
- Next >
Unpaid Voluntary Work : Cancer Research UK: We need motivational volunteers to...
£23000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Accounts Assistant (Accounts Payable...
£200 - £300 per day: Ashdown Group: IT Trainer - Marlow, Buckinghamshire - £25...
£18000 - £30000 per annum + Generous commission scheme: AER Teachers: Thames T...