Obituary: John Wolfers

JOHN WOLFERS was that rare bird, a literary agent who cared more about ideas than advances. Of great intellectual seriousness and pronounced left-wing views, he was for 30 years, from the late 1950s to the early 1980s, a respected, if at times abrasive, member of the international publishing fraternity.

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.

News
scienceExcitement from alien hunters at 'evidence' of extraterrestrial life
Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
News
newsRyan Crighton goes in search of the capo dei capi
Extras
indybest

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Actors front row from left, Jared Leto, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Ellen DeGeneres, Bradley Cooper, Peter Nyongío Jr., and, second row, from left, Channing Tatum, Julia Roberts, Kevin Spacey, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyongío and Angelina Jolie as they pose for a
film
Sport
sport
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Life and Style
news

As Voltaire once said, “Ice cream is exquisite. What a pity it isn’t illegal”

Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C#.NET VB6 Developer (Software Developer, Software Engineer)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C#.NET VB6 Developer (Software Developer, Softwa...

Service Desk Analyst- Desktop Support, Helpdesk, ITIL

£20000 - £27000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Service Desk Analyst - (Active Directory, Support, London)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst - (Active Di...

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Day In a Page

All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition