Before he fled Vienna in 1938 as the Anschluss united Austria with Hitler’s Germany, George Weidenfeld duelled with a Nazi. The fight was drawn, although the Jewish student’s left-handed grip allowed him to outmanoeuvre his opponent.
After the Second World War ended, the refugee returned from London to Vienna while working for the BBC. He tracked down his fellow-duellist, gravely injured on the Russian front. The former foes shared a salami sandwich.
That sandwich, a bridge between seemingly irreconcilable people and worlds, might stand as a symbol of Weidenfeld’s approach to a life that saw him become perhaps the foremost figure in British publishing, until his death on 20 January aged 96.
It baffled some observers that a proud Jew and stalwart Zionist – who commissioned memoirs from Israeli premiers and even worked for the state’s first president, Chaim Weizmann – also published books by repentant Nazis: Hitler’s finance minister Hjalmar Schacht, and the architect Albert Speer.
Readers deserved, so the publisher insisted, to understand the motives and hear the voices of the history-makers – and in their own words, if possible.
In its peerless list of top-flight memoirs, diaries and biographies, his company opened doors to ministries, chancelleries and palaces. Lord Weidenfeld, the supreme big-game hunter of publishing, bagged books by the giants of his time, from Charles de Gaulle to Pope John Paul II.
In his perspective, power was always personal. Thanks to the diplomatic wizardry of the co-founder and the skill of expert editors such as the late Ion Trewin, the books of Weidenfeld & Nicolson made it accessible to all.
Notable deaths in 2016
Notable deaths in 2016
1/31 Sally Brampton
Brampton was the launch editor of the UK edition of Elle magazine
2/31 Billy Paul
The soul singer Billy Paul, who is best known for his single “Me and Mrs Jones”, has died on 24 April, aged 81
Noel Vasquez/Getty Images
Prince, the legendary musician, has been found dead at his Paisley Park recording studio on 21 April. He was 57
WWE icon Joan Laurer dies aged 45 after being found at California home on 20 April
5/31 Victoria Wood
The five-time Bafta-winning actress and comedian Victoria Wood has died on 20 April at her London home after a short illness with cancer. She was 62
The entertainer and former husband of Liza Minnelli, David Gest has been found dead on 12 April in the Four Seasons hotel in Canary Warf, London. He was 62-years-old
7/31 Denise Robertson
Denise Robertson, an agony aunt on This Morning for over 30 years, has died on 1 April, aged 83
8/31 Zaha Hadid
Dame Zaha Hadid, the prominent architect best known for designs such as the London Olympic Aquatic Centre and the Guangzhou Opera House, has died of a heart attack on 31 March, aged 65
9/31 Ronnie Corbett
British entertainer Ronnie Corbett has passed away on 31 March at the age of 85
2014 Getty Images
10/31 Imre Kertesz
Hungarian writer and Holocaust survivor Imre Kertesz, who won the 2002 Nobel Literature Prize, has died on 31 March, at the age of 86
11/31 Rob Ford
Rob Ford, the former controversial mayor of Toronto, has died following a battle with a rare form of cancer. The 46-year-old passed away at the Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto on 22 March
12/31 Joey Feek
Joey (left) passed away in March after a two-year cancer illness. She was part of country music duo, Joey + Rory, with her husband Rory (right)
Jason Merritt/Getty Images
13/31 Umberto Eco
Italian writer and philosopher Umberto Eco died 19 February 2016 aged 84
14/31 Harper Lee
Harper Lee, the American novelist known for writing 'To Kill a Mockingbird', died February 19, 2016 aged 89
2005 Getty Images
Vanity, pictured performing in 1983, died aged 57
16/31 Dave Mirra
The BMX legend's body found inside truck with gunshot wound after apparent suicide aged 41
17/31 Harry Harpham
The former miner became Sheffield Labour MP in May after many years as a local councillor. He died after succumbing to cancer, at the age of 61.
18/31 Dale Griffin
The Mott the Hoople drummer died on January 17, aged 67
19/31 Rene Angelil
Celine Dion's husband and manager Rene Angelil has lost his battle with cancer on 14 January, aged 73
2011 Getty Images
20/31 Alan Rickman
Legendary actor Alan Rickman has died on 14 January at the age of 69 after battle with pancreatic cancer. He is largely regarded as one of the most beloved British actors of our generation with roles in Love Actually, Die Hard, Michael Collins, and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and an illustrious stage career
2015 Getty Images
21/31 Maurice White
The Earth, Wind & Fire founder died aged 74. The nine-piece band sold more than 90 million albums worldwide and won six Grammy awards
22/31 Lawrence Phillips
Former NFL star found dead in prison cell on 13 January in suspected suicide, aged 40
23/31 Brian Bedford
Tony award-winning actor and voice of Robin Hood has died on 13 January, aged 80
24/31 David Bowie
The legendary singer passed away on 11 January, aged 69, alongside his family, after living with cancer for 18 months
25/31 David Margulies
The veteran actor, most famous for his role in Ghostbusters, has died in New York on 11 January, aged 78
26/31 Michael Galeota
Former Disney child star has been found dead in LA apartment on 10 January, aged 31
27/31 Christy O'Connor Jnr
Irish Golfer who became a Ryder Cup hero after a spectacular final hole in 1989, has died on 6 January, aged 67
2005 Getty Images
28/31 Olwyn Hughes
Literary agent who fiercely guarded the work of her brother, Ted Hughes, and his wife, Sylvia Plath has died on 3 January, aged 87
29/31 Matthew Hobden
The Sussex fast bowler has been found dead by police at Dalvey House in the town of Forres, near Inverness, on 2 January. He may have plunged to his death after falling asleep on the roof of a country house in Scotland. he was 22
30/31 Glenn Frey
Legendary member of The Eagles, Glenn Frey died while recovering from gastrointestinal surgery on January 18, aged 67
31/31 Garry Shandling
The writer, actor and comedian who created The Larry Sanders Show, has died at a hospital in Los Angeles, at 66.
2010 Getty Images
The much-married Weidenfeld used to complain that, in Britain, gossip-mongers showed an immature obsession with his romantic life. On the Continent, in contrast, he ranked as a serious philanthropist, patron and all-round intellectual go-between.
He had a point, especially as his humanitarian support continued right up to his creation in 2015 of the Safe Havens Fund to rescue Christians in Iraq and Syria from the deadly grip of Isis. Typically, he framed this generosity as the late repayment of a debt to the evangelical Christian family who had welcomed the 19-year-old refugee.
Individuals, and the relationships they might forge, mattered more than any abstraction. Only through them – statesman, scholars, thinkers, novelists – could ideas come to life.
Among his friends was Isaiah Berlin, who stands in relation to philosophy as Weidenfeld did to publishing. Human stories, in all their wayward complexity, give meaning to the principles and processes that govern our lives. And the axiom that Berlin borrowed from Immanuel Kant could serve as motto for the cross-grained, flawed but fascinating world of ambition and action revealed by Weidenfeld’s books and authors: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, nothing straight was ever made”.
In the age of accountants and ideologists, he worked with the human grain.
- More about:
- Lord Weidenfeld