Mary-Kay Wilmers: London's mythical urban elite made flesh

If Britain really were run by a left-wing cabal – as conspiracy theorists would have us believe – then its leader would probably be the publisher behind Hilary Mantel's critique of Kate Middleton

Last month, John Lanchester – versatile novelist, contributing editor to the London Review of Books and brilliantly clear writer on our economic woes – had the paperback of his inner-city saga Capital to promote. As authors do, he placed tie-in articles in different outlets. A piece in the Evening Standard on London's prospects was headlined "The future's brightish": a fair banner, given his cautious, hedged prognostications. But what about his home turf in the LRB? Although his essay there set out the "extraordinarily complicated picture" of the British economy, as jobs perplexingly grow while the figures flatline (or worse), the fortnightly magazine's cover harboured no such doubts. "The Shit We're In," it proclaimed, in silent homage to Will Hutton's 1995 polemic The State We're In. Come again? Which is the crude and superficial tabloid here, which the august journal of ideas?

Edited with panache, partisanship and a flair for controversy by Mary-Kay Wilmers since 1992, the LRB knows its way pretty well around the dark arts of journalism – for all the sweep of its 3,000- or 5,000-word pieces or the stature of its contributors. If Lanchester's twisted cover-line testifies to the LRB at its knee-jerk, salon-leftist smuggest, then the heading Wilmers famously chose for an Oliver Sacks neurological case study shows what her cocktail of swagger and substance can achieve: "The man who mistook his wife for a hat."

This week, however, a much rougher beast gave the LRB a lesson in shameless spin. Lead article in the 21 February issue of the magazine – which began in October 1979 during a strike that halted production of the Times Literary Supplement – is "Royal Bodies from Kate Middleton to Anne Boleyn" by the double Man Booker-winner Hilary Mantel. Taken from a British Museum lecture, the novelist's essay offers a shaded and indeed moving account of the spotlit misery of queens and consorts ("a royal lady is a royal vagina") as feeling, thinking women shrink to breeding machines under surveillance. As Mantel writes of a Buckingham Palace encounter with the Queen: "It's nothing personal; it's monarchy I'm staring at." For the frothing front-page splash in the Daily Mail, though, every nuance vanished. Mantel, who lamented the Duchess of Cambridge's media persona as a "painfully thin" "shop-window mannequin", had mounted a "bitter attack" on the duchess: a "venomous critique", which in turn drew ignorant flak from both Ed Miliband and David Cameron.

Grossly unfair? Of course. But this brief storm in a B-cup might also switch a spotlight towards Wilmers herself and the "paper" (her preferred word) that she runs. Since the late 19th century, mass print culture allowed a few journals of literature and politics to exert an influence out of all proportion to their circulation (although, with 50,000-odd sales and a first-rate website, the LRB now claims to be the largest European review of its kind). To achieve that clout often required a ju-jitsu strategy from canny and nimble editors. From the great satirist Karl Kraus with Die Fackel in Vienna to Philip Rahv's Partisan Review in New York; from Jean-Paul Sartre steering radical Europe via Les Temps Modernes in Paris to Polish exile Jerzy Giedroyc laying the foundations for post-Communist nationhood in Kultura, visionary editors have swung arguments, even guided states. By deft feints and ruses, they could use opponents' blundering force to lift a journal's profile and maximise its impact. According to the small-magazine axiom of "many enemies, much honour", this week's Mantel piece looks like a classic coup.

Born in 1938 in Chicago to a cosmopolitan, itinerant Jewish family, Wilmers went to school in Brussels (site of the main family business). She studied languages at Oxford, where she befriended – and initially overawed – the LRB's mischief-making diarist, Alan Bennett. Her 2009 memoir, The Eitingons, gathers a flock of fascinating black sheep and wild cards on her Russian mother's side: Max, the close psychoanalytic colleague of Freud; Motty, the New York furrier; most remarkably, Leonid, the NKVD agent who arranged the assassination of Trotsky for Stalin. After Oxford, she worked as a secretary at Faber & Faber, began to edit for the publisher, then in 1968 became deputy to Karl Miller at the BBC weekly The Listener.A spell at the TLS preceded her reunion with Miller at the infant LRB. After a falling-out, Wilmers supplanted Miller and took effective control of the business thanks to generous investments – estimated in 2010 at £27m. – from her family fortune.

Her LRB has thriven on the sort of quarrel that echoes far beyond its core audience. Landmark spats include classicist Mary Beard's daring to voice the widespread belief that the Americans "had it coming" in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and novelist Anne Enright's expression in 2007 of the – again, broadly held if totally baseless – doubts about Kate and Gerry McCann's conduct after their daughter's disappearance. In the Miller era, LRB controversies typically involved more narrowly academic disputes as scholarly big beasts locked horns – or danced on one another's graves, as when in 1983 historian Norman Stone trampled down the reputation of Soviet apologist E H Carr. Yet the Wilmers touch rests more on inspiring a stable of regular writers – Mantel or Lanchester, say, or Jenny Diski, Andrew O'Hagan and Colm Toibin – to write something sharp and fresh about the hot issues of the day.

Note the paradox in the incoming fire these LRB sensations draw. The writers tend to voice popular heresies that many people share but which seldom surface in mainstream media commentary. Yet enraged pundits will sneer at the out-of-touch posturing of a north London clan or cabal. True, Wilmers was married to the film director Stephen Frears. They had two sons – one of whom, Sam, suffers from the rare neurological disability dysautonomia – and divorced in the early 1970s. Her own home territory of Primrose Hill NW1 also hosts the likes of Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett himself. Back in the Sixties, Mark Boxer had satirised its trendy denizens in his cartoon strip, "The Stringalongs". In Britain, one can always scratch the itch of resentment by dismissing any uncomfortable notion as the work of a snooty bohemian elite. Yet for all its patrician, even cliquish, style, the LRB has a gift for refining the word on the street.

Not that it lacks serious blind spots of its own. When it comes to global politics, Wilmers has steered the journal into a dispiriting backwater of left-liberal academic orthodoxy. On the Middle East, it speaks with a single – and, by its foes, well-documented – party-line voice of blanket hostility towards Israel (for Wilmers, "a mendacious state"). She says that the Palestinian scholar-activist Edward Said "converted" her to this animosity. Yet her LRB lacks Said's scathing, even-handed scorn for all the region's terrible regimes. Neither do you find there much echo of the faith in the liberating, unifying power of art that led Said and his friend Daniel Barenboim to bring together Israeli and Arab musicians in the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.

In November 2011, the LRB published a mammoth essay by North Africa specialist Hugh Roberts: the sort of political blockbuster that under Wilmers often eats up space for books. It not only trounced Western intervention in Libya – fair enough – but in effect sought to rehabilitate the country's defeated tyrant. In a dignified response, Libyan novelist Hisham Matar – who lost his own dissident father to Gaddafi's death camps – noted that "with an air of ethnocentric contempt", Roberts "disregards the will of the Libyan people". The Western leftist expert, armed with a one-size-fits-all theory, outranks the suffering citizen of any nation run by thugs who spout radical platitudes to gratify the ageing class‑of-68 in the Senior Common Room: the LRB at its worst.

In a later LRB exchange with Roberts, Oliver Miles – former UK ambassador in Tripoli – echoed Matar's strictures, noting that "quoting Max Weber is … no substitute for listening to Libyans and observing what has actually happened". Ah, Max Weber. The German pioneer of sociology developed the concept of "charismatic authority": a form of leadership based on unique personal qualities, rather than systemic strengths. In her own manner, Wilmers, now 74 and de facto proprietor as well as editor, has exercised just that sort of leadership. And charismatic rulers have a devilishly hard time when it comes to ensuring the succession. They tend to pick weaker, deferential heirs: acolytes and epigones. So energy fades, the line dilutes, until a strong external predator arrives. Will such a fate await the LRB? Maybe the Gloriana of Little Russell Street should go back and study Hilary Mantel's beloved Tudor history.

A Life In Brief

Born: Mary-Kay Wilmers, 19 July 1938, Chicago, Illinois.

Family: Born to an English father who ran a multinational utilities company and a Russian-Jewish mother. Married film director Stephen Frears in 1968, two sons. Divorced in early 1970s.

Education: Boarding school in Brussels and England; degree in modern languages from Oxford.

Career: Began as a secretary at Faber and Faber, working her way up to editor. Joined The Listener in 1968, then Times Literary Supplement in 1974. Co-founded London Review of Books in 1979; editor in 1992. Published a book about her family history, The Eitingons: A Twentieth-Century Story, in 2009.

She says: "I like difficult women. Not just because I'm a bit difficult myself. I like their complication."

They say: "She is an enhancer of the possibilities writers carry around in themselves. She allows them to find their better selves." Andrew O'Hagan

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