OBITUARY:Alison Blair

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The Independent Online
Lilliput - pocket-sized, racy, irreverently illustrated - was one of the most popular magazines of the Forties. Its foundation in 1937 is usually attributed uniquely to Stefan Lorant, the brilliant Hungarian journalist who was the first editor of that other iconic magazine of the war period, Picture Post. But the one who named it and first funded it and was its godmother and midwife was a British woman, Alison Blair.

Blair was the daughter of a journalist, Hamish Blair, editor of the Calcutta Statesman at the turn of the century, and had herself started a career with the Christian Science Monitor after reading English and Psychology at Girton College, Cambridge. But in 1928, at the age of 22, she had married and returned to her native India. Her husband, Ian Hooper, by whom she had two sons, worked in shipping; in India for Mackinnon, Mackenzie & Co, and from 1934, when the family returned to England, for the General Steam Navigation Company, of which he later became chairman.

Lilliput, wrote Alison Blair, was "born of a chance encounter with Stefan Lorant at Bandol in the South of France". Blair met him in a cafe frequented by refugee writers - Ernst Toller, Arnold Zweig, Lion Feuchtwanger. On a table was a copy of an American pocket magazine, Coronet. "Leafing through it idly," Blair records, "Lorant remarked how easy it should have been, with such resources, to produce something more worthwhile . . . 'The only interesting thing is the size. If one only had a little capital . . .' " Feuchtwanger suggested, "You should start something in England." But Lorant had no capital. He had arrived in England in 1934 and was no longer editing the magazine he had then started, Weekly Illustrated. Blair asked how much capital it would need. Lorant thought pounds 10,000. Blair offered pounds 2,000, sold her pearls, and they started working on dummies.

Blair did the donkey work, Lorant supplied the expertise. The first issue appeared in July 1937, two years to the month after the first Penguin paperback, and at the same price, 6d. Walter Trier's Scottie-dog cover, the drawings by Victoria, Nicolas Bentley and others, and Lorant's daring nudes and surprising photographic "juxtapositions" (an idea borrowed from the German magazine Der Querschnitt) soon set a format that attracted all sorts of writers. As for readers, the first issue of 75,000 copies sold out and it had to be reprinted. Within six months Lilliput's circulation had overtaken that of Punch.

Success brought its difficulties - printers wanted to be paid in advance, distributors to pay in arrears - and even despite the input of funds from the new recruit from the Statesman in India, Sydney Jacobson, Lilliput's position was precarious. In 1938, some 12 months after its launch, the magazine was bought for pounds 21,000 by Edward Hulton for his new Hulton Press; and in October the same year Hulton launched Picture Post, with Lorant as editor. Lorant continued editing the two in tandem until 1940, when he was succeeded at Picture Post by Tom Hopkinson, who also took over at Lilliput (aided by the able Kaye Webb, later doyenne of Puffin Books) in 1941, when Lorant left England for the United States, where he still lives, the grand old man of picture journalism, in Massachusetts.

Alison Blair, with their daughter Virginia and Blair's two sons Jeremy and Robin, had preceded him the previous year. She remained in the US till 1948, where she continued in miscellaneous journalism and also, under the pseudonym Emma Laird, wrote a vivid fictional account of her affair with Lorant, published as Of Former Love (1951). She returned to England but in the early Sixties made her home in Portugal, in the Algarve.

Her co-creation Lilliput was enormously successful during the war, selling a peak of 300,000 copies monthly. After it changed format in 1954 it lost momentum, and in 1960 was swallowed by Men Only. In 1985 Kaye Webb edited an anthology, Lilliput Goes to War, which conveys the freshness and mischief, the exuberance and frankness of those early numbers. Bernard Shaw, Stevie Smith, John Betjeman, Ernest Hemingway, Osbert Sitwell, Julian Maclaren- Ross jostle together on its pages, while illustrators include everyone from Vicky to David Langdon, Eric Fraser to Ronald Searle (his first St Trinian's cartoon). The juxtapositions, Lorant's trademark photographic jokes, can be idle (RAF reconnaissance planes and a nude sunbathing on a roof), affectionate (Churchill and a bull-dog) or hard-edged ("Jews" and "Baiters", "Japanese soldiers" and "Frightened monkeys").

Webb remembers Alison Blair for her sharpness and her wit, and in the office for her particular dexterity with those juxtapositions. The lesson of Webb's anthology is that the captions do not stale; neither does Lilliput's vigour diminish.

Alison Margaret Blair, journalist: born Calcutta, India 1 February 1906; co-founder, Lilliput 1937; married 1928 Ian Hooper (died 1958; two sons; one daughter by Stefan Lorant; marriage dissolved); died Praia da Luz, Portugal 23 May 1995.