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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
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 People

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the world's leading suppliers and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Multiple Apprentices Required

£6240 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Apprentices are required to join a privat...

Sauce Recruitment: HR Manager

£40000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: This is an exciting opportunity for a HR...

Ashdown Group: Interim HR Manager - 3 Month FTC - Henley-on-Thames

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established organisation oper...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee