Obituary: Margaret Stephens

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The Independent Online
Margaret Helen Stephens, literary agent, born 12 March 1902, died London 16 February 1993.

THE LONG association and eventual partnership between Margaret Stephens and AD Peters, which lasted from 1929 until 1967, gave to the trade of literary agent a benchmark of integrity which it had not hitherto enjoyed. 'Stevie', as she was known to all her authors, was the rock on which the AD Peters agency was founded in the Adelphi, central London, between the wars, and she enjoyed the friendship and confidence of a remarkable community of writers.

She joined Peters in 1929 when he acquired the Andrew Dakers Agency, where she had been working. The list of clients included Hilaire Belloc, then in his prime and at his most prolific, the young Priestley, Edmund Blunden, Gerald Bullett, JC Squire, and Martin Armstrong, and in the same year both Evelyn Waugh and VS Pritchett joined. The culture was very much meat pies and beer in the pubs off the Strand and a lot of cricket in the summer. Peters enjoyed travelling to visit his authors, and Stevie very soon ran the office. During the 1930s a glittering array of talent joined what was already a solidly profitable business: CS Forester, Rebecca West, Julian Huxley, Margery Sharp, Norman Collins, Nancy Mitford, and Phyllis Bentley among them.

When the war came Peters, well beyond military age, crossed the road to Whitehall to work for various ministries. Stevie came into her own, running the house at 10 Buckingham Street as a cross between office, soup kitchen, and look-out post through the Blitz. Authors such as Alec Waugh and EM Delafield were billeted there, and were to be found with Stevie on the roofs of the Adelphi equipped with tin hats and stirrup- pumps, acting as air wardens. By then, Stevie had developed close friendships with most of the clients. On the surface she was a formidable spinsterly figure of total rectitude and propriety, but after I joined the firm in 1959 I found that she was the most tolerant and broadminded person imaginable. She was quite unshockable. She didn't pretend to a literary judgement, though she had a good nose for middle-brow fiction and biography. Her talents were entirely human. Louche figures such as Robert Ruark, blustering into the office boasting of the slaughter of African animals, or Alec Waugh, fresh from his conquests on the beaches of the Mediterranean, would find her an impassive but sympathetic listener. Authors in financial difficulty always found her helpful, and there were many acts of kindness. She believed deeply that good authors deserved good reward, and therein lay her strength as an agent.

She won the respect and friendship of such formidable and quirky talents as Arthur Koestler, Evelyn Waugh, and Rebecca West. She was particularly close to Koestler, surviving his periodic bursts of anger and legendary bites from his dog, to take frequent and innocent holidays with him and his wives. To me, joining the firm wet behind the ears and with no experience of publishing, she was kindness personified. Nothing was too much trouble in conveying her knowledge of the book trade and the stuff of our business.

In the 25 years of her retirement, she maintained her relationships with her authors, and writers seeking information about literary matters beat a fruitful path to her house in Ealing. I have never known anyone who radiated such total honesty. Above all, she always gave more than she took.

(Photograph omitted)