Obituary: Elaine Greene

laine Ruth Herbert, literary agent: born New York City 27 November 1920; married 1944 Robert Shaplen (died 1988; marriage dissolved), 1951 Hugh Greene (KCMG 1964, died 1987; two sons; marriage dissolved 1969); died London 10 January 1995.

I first met Elaine Greene when she became my literary agent, 33 years ago. At that time I was somewhat embattled; indeed I belonged for a time in the not altogether enviable category of persons who were publicly defended only by Lord Longford. My first impression of Elaine, never afterwards altered, was that she was a marvellous person to have in one's corner when one was in trouble.

There was a lot more to it than that. My friend Owen Dudley Edwards was among her clients and her friends (her other clients included Michael Frayn, P.D. James, Sybille Bedford, Helen Oxenbury and John Burningham). I heard about her death before Owen did, and told him of it. He said: "She was a very great teacher." It is a remarkable tribute, from a historian and teacher of history, to a literary agent. But Elaine Greene was the kind of person who transcends categories.

Like all great teachers, she had a touch of acerbity about her, needful for the memorable correction of error. Like most authors, I suppose, I have had some remarkably bad ideas from time to time, and Elaine used to shoot these down with great economy and in such a way as to discourage any further bad ideas of similar type. A telephone conversation with her was always a kind of crash course, in lots of things.

As I think of her, I think with special affection of that acerbity of hers, for it was acerbity of a very special kind. I would call it Johnsonian acerbity, in that it had no touch of malice about it, but a sort of funny mischief, over deep underlying kindness. As Johnson used to do, she cast herself in a role, for the immediate entertainment and ultimate instruction of her friends.

As an agent, Elaine Greene could be brusque enough with her authors, when things were going well for them. But when things got difficult, she was endlessly patient and full of unobtrusive sympathy, and of resource, when the time was ripe. I experienced this, over a project of mine which dragged on for about 20 years, during most of which it seemed to be hopelessly stuck. I had signed a contract to write a biography of Edmund Burke, and accepted what was, for the period, quite a large advance. Finding I was getting nowhere with the project, over several years, I was constrained to give up, and refund the advance. Then I hit on a new approach to the subject, and told Elaine. Another agent would, I think, have been sceptical, if n ot downright discouraging. But Elaine immediately saw that I was getting it right, at last, and sold the book all over again, to the same publisher to whom I had had to refund the original advance. Quite a trick.

Elaine Greene was a big-city person: originally New York, then mostly London, and very much at home in Paris. In New York she had worked for the publishers Random House and Knopf and in London she started as an agent with MCA in 1953; 10 years later, with MCA's break-up, she set up the Elaine Greene agency (now Greene & Heaton). Like her friend and brother-in-law, Graham Greene - her second husband, after the New Yorker and Newsweek writer Robert Shaplen, was the BBC Director-General Sir Hugh Greene - she was fascinated by politics, and extremely sceptical about politicians of all varieties. She knew the British establishment well and got quite a lot of fun out of contemplating it: preferably from a certain distance. Instinctively, s he was more attracted to the Left than to the Right, but tended to view actual left-wing politicians with a jaundiced eye. As one who liked to do her thinking for herself, and did so to some purpose, she heartily despised the politically correct, in all its varieties, butalso got some fun out of contemplating the intricacies of that phenomenon.

As well as being a person with a great gift for friendship, Elaine Greene was a person of strong family affections, and the devotion of her two sons, Christopher and Timothy, was a source of immense consolation to her during her last illness (stoically borne, and not without a touch of that special acerbity). When I last talked to her, on the telephone, she knew that she had only a very short time to live. But her voice as she told me of a trip she had just made to Paris, with Christopher and Timothy, was full of joy.