OBITUARY:Rainer Heumann

Rainer Heumann was the most powerful literary agent in Europe and possibly in the world. His sudden death at the age of 72 will create an upset in the world of publishing at a time when the book trade is trying to cope with major changes brought about by takeovers, mergers and the ending of the Net Book Agreement.

An urbane, elegant and distinguished-looking man, Heumann had a reputation for probity, competence and good taste in a world where such practices and principles were often considered a liability and the authors and (mainly English-language) publishers he represented trusted him, often letting him handle their personal and financial problems as well as their literary ones. He was an enthusiast who loved to entertain; his hospitality was legendary and on a scale that only the largest European publishers could equal.

Born in Chemnitz (renamed Karl-Marxstadt after the Second World War) in eastern Germany, where his father was killed by an Allied bomb in 1945, he escaped to the West and worked at various jobs in Munich until he joined his uncle's advertising agency in Frankfurt. At this time he met his second wife, who refused to marry him unless he left a profession for which she had contempt and as a result he moved to Zurich, where he joined Dr Lothar Mohrenwitz, a former associate of the legendary publisher Kurt Wolff, the discoverer of Kafka and of most of the German Expressionists, in his Mohrbooks agency in that city.

Mohrenwitz had worked with Curtis Brown in London and the agency, established in 1951, specialised in finding European publishers for British and American authors. It was brilliantly successful, representing a long string of best-selling authors that included Agatha Christie, David Cornwell (John Le Carre) and Saul Bellow, and many American publishers including Random House, Simon and Schuster, Viking and Little, Brown, as well as many of the leading British literary agents. But they also acted as agent to many German authors, such as the former Chancellor Willy Brandt.

Heumann, like many Germans of his generation, modelled himself on an English gentleman in dress, demeanour and speech. His English was excellent and almost accentless. His house at Kusnacht outside Zurich, which also housed his office, was so full of books that he had to design special sliding bookshelves to contain them. Like his banker father he was also an art lover and was fortunate to be able to recover part of the important collection of paintings that his father had put together before the war.

The number of authors whose European royalties went through Heumann's office was countless, from the older generation such as H.G. Wells through to Graham Greene, George Orwell, Mary McCarthy and Truman Capote; for others like Vicky Baum and Erich Maria Remarque Mohrbooks controlled world rights.

His assistant Sabine Ibach, who had earlier assisted Tanja Howarth in London, one of the many literary agents in the two-way network of rights enabling authors to benefit from book sales and their spin-offs in film, television, radio and other subsidiary income world-wide, now has the formidable task of co-ordinating this literary empire at a time when, with imprints almost daily disappearing and changing, authors are no longer sure who their publishers are and have to rely ever more on agents for guidance and business management.

John Calder

Rainer Heumann, literary agent: born Chemnitz, Germany 26 September 1923; twice married (one son); died Zurich 5 March 1996.

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