Obituary: Tessa Sayle
Wednesday 09 June 1993
TESSA SAYLE was one of London's most distinguished and distinctive literary agents. Her client list - including Ronald Searle, Mary Wesley, William Styron, Shelagh Delaney, Irwin Shaw, Margaret Forster, Phillip Knightley, Alan Sillitoe and Thomas Keneally - demonstrates her variety and her great professional strengths.
She was born in Vienna and christened Maria Theresa von Stockert. Her strict and aristocratic upbringing soon developed her steely independence. She was in Paris before she was 20 - to learn French in addition to English. She met and married the Australian-born journalist Murray Sayle. They lived in London for several years but she returned briefly to Vienna once the marriage was dissolved.
When she came back to London, she took a job at a small literary agency, Hope Leresche and Steele. Here she remained for the rest of her life, taking it over in 1976 and establishing the Tessa Sayle Agency.
She had found the perfect expression of her vitality and intelligence. Tessa Sayle was a brilliant agent - exhilarated by the discovery of new writers, excited only by quality, a perfectionist with a passion for detail. Everything she had experienced made her a natural agent both for novelists and non-fiction writers. She had a strong sense of justice and history which characterised her response to current events. She quietly developed a reputation for looking after journalists and political books representing The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs, Peter Hain, David Beresford and Gerry Conlon's account of wrongful imprisonment. She had enormous admiration for novelists and would work hard to find the right editor who would appreciate their writing and fight for their interests. Her faith continually paid off - she represented Mary Wesley from the first novel, Jumping the Queue (1983), and leaves a legacy of excellent young writers.
Sayle properly understood the long haul of writing and would immediately be on the phone to commiserate over a poor review (or worse, no reviews). Nothing pleased her more than writers' success. She inspired complete loyalty among her clients and friends.
Publishing can be a volatile mixture of talent, ego and money, but Sayle was always in control. She possessed the elegant knack of often being right without being tiresome. Tact and courteous resolve were natural assets. And always her delicious laugh was ready for situations which threatened to get out of control. Her belief, borne out by her actions, that authors and their work were the only things that counted made her a formidable negotiator and one whom publishers dared not cross.
The greatest pleasure in getting to know Tessa Sayle was the discovery of the exuberant and slightly subversive spirit which lurked behind the most perfectly pressed of linen suits. She was fascinated by people and her eyes would twinkle with delight at fresh gossip. She hosted wonderful parties - elegant dinners and huge drunken gatherings, discussing the details next morning with relish. She shamelessly enjoyed the Frankfurt Book Fair, the trips to New York - clothes packed carefully in tissue paper - and she would delight in the adrenalin of business, catching up with the latest news and racking up more sales for her clients.
Colleagues in publishing held Sayle in warm respect - she became secretary and then president of the Association of Author's Agents. Typically her response to the discovery of brain cancer five years ago was to work even harder. She fought for recovery and the secure future of the agency and its authors. In the final stages, she was still fascinated by life, although very irritated at the inefficiency of illness, and her eyes continued to sparkle at news of her clients and friends now mourning the loss of an irreplaceable spirit.
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