Obituary: Harold Harris
Thursday 12 August 1993
Harold Harris was an innately courteous, generous, highly respected publisher - a canny judge of high- class books and an imaginative and skilful editor.
Harris was born in London in 1915 into a traditional Anglo-Jewish family. After attending Warwick House Preparatory School, whose German headmaster he was fond of mimicking, he entered St Paul's School, west London, with a scholarship. Bright at school, he could easily have won a scholarship to Oxford or Cambridge, but knowing he wanted to be a journalist felt he ought to work his way up from the bottom by starting as a reporter on a local paper. Before beginning in his profession, however, he went to Germany to learn German, which proved very useful in his military career.
He had worked before the war on such papers as the Kilburn Times, and on the Willesden Chronicle, where he was their crime reporter. This gave Harris the taste for crime writing, which may have been what attracted him to Frederick Forsyth's first novel, The Day of the Jackal. His progress in journalism was interrupted by the war in which he served from 1939 to 1946, finally as a captain in military intelligence in the field security police. One particularly memorable episode in intelligence was his tracking down and arresting of Joachim von Ribbentrop in Hamburg in June 1945.
Returning to civilian life with his wife, Josephine, with whom he enjoyed an enviably close marriage for 52 years, he became editor of a series of small trade papers. One of these, the Fish Traders Gazette, he edited from a small, smelly top-floor office near Billingsgate Market. As a smoker (he later gave up), he was suited to the trade paper Tobacco. He learnt about food while editing the Confectioner and Baker and about men's clothes while editing the Tailor and Cutter. Some of the papers were under the overall direction of Walter Hutchinson, who was also managing director of the publishers Hutchinsons, with whom he had a slightly prickly relationship - but Harris was always tactful and loyal.
Harris left to join the Evening Standard in the early Fifties, becoming their literary editor. By this time he had built up good connections with writers and publishers. He produced each week for the Standard a literary supplement which attracted an eager readership.
He rejoined Hutchinsons after his years on the Standard where he had made friends for life with many journalists. In 1962 he was made editorial director of Hutchinsons, which post he held until 1975, when he became deputy managing director while carrying on as an editor. Among the authors who became close to him were Frederick Forsyth, with whom, somewhat ahead of his time, he negotiated a contract for his first three novels - The Day of the Jackal (1971), The Odessa File (1972) and The Dogs of War (1974). It was not till later that Forsyth acquired a literary agent, Curtis Brown.
Harris developed a particularly close relationship with Arthur Koestler and his wife, closer than with any other author he edited. It was quite difficult when Koestler died with his wife by suicide, leaving Harris as his literary executor to establish a Koestler University Chair in extra-sensory perception. This, with his usual persistence, Harris managed to achieve; and continued to take an active interest in that work. Under a pseudonym, John Buckingham, he wrote crime plays for radio some 25 years ago. Translation rights were sold to Germany and elsewhere.
When Hutchinson republished Mein Kampf (originally published in English by Hurst and Blackett, a Hutchinson imprint) in 1969, Harris had pangs of conscience about the rights and wrongs of doing so. He had no such pangs about publishing the memoirs of Stalin's daughter Svetlana, Twenty Letters to a Friend. The birth of Louise Brown, the first test- tube baby, on 25 July 1978 had Harris negotiating with Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards to publish A Matter of Life, which gave to the public an accurate account of how Louise Brown was conceived and born; and the medical, scientific and ethical problems Steptoe and Edwards met with before achieving success. Harris said: 'Time after time they fell on their faces, only to pick themselves up, dust themselves down and stride on.'
While Harold's devotion to his ill wife took up much of his time after he retired from Hutchinson in 1980 he continued his activities, particularly in the English Centre of International PEN, being partly if not wholly responsible for achieving the release from prison of Recep Marasli, a Turkish-Kurdish editor who had been imprisoned as a young man.
He once took a linguaphone set to the International PEN conference in Madeira from where it was taken to Rifat Guvenilir in prison in Turkey. He was one of the longer serving members of English PEN, which he joined in 1957 (and their Writers in Prison Committee, of which he was a founder member in 1980).
Harold Harris considered PEN to be his extended family for he and Jo had no children but several devoted nephews and nieces.
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