George Weidenfeld

Your first impressions upon entering Lord Weidenfeld’s stately Chelsea apartment are puzzling – but not contradictory. A butler greets you at the door and as he takes your coat you can’t help noticing the erotic art hanging on the wall. It is by Klimt. Of naked women. In lascivious poses. With pubic hair. The butler leads you from the hall to the airy, book-lined study, which looks more like the smoking room of a gentlemen’s club. There is an ornate marble fireplace with brass and leather fender, fresh flowers on the table and, from the window, a view over the Thames to the pagoda in Battersea Park. Your eye is drawn from this to the forbidding portraits from the 16th and 17th centuries. Of popes.

The man I am about to meet is defined by these unlikely contrasts – bohemia and grandeur, pornography and power. He is dignified, formal and courteous. Indeed, he has the courtly manners and discreet civility of an old-world Viennese gentleman – he even fought a duel once. He is also the man who published Lolita, which is still considered, even 40 years on, to be one of the most sexually corrupting novels in the English language. With his four marriages – and what he once described as his ‘casual infidelities’ – he is a famed seducer of women. He is also a legendary giver of parties, at which the likes of Henry Kissinger might be seen clinking champagne flutes with Bianca Jagger or Martin Amis.

Lord Weidenfeld is the next thing you notice in the room. Sitting in a reddy-brown leather armchair in the corner he is almost camouflaged. He wears a well-tailored brown suit with a brown patterned Herms tie, brown shoes and brown socks pulled well up over slim ankles and calves. His skin is sallow, liver-spotted in places and he has brown, rheumy, bulging eyes. It is 9.30 in the morning. He looks well breakfasted. Probably had brown bread. Silently he rises from his chair, bows his head slightly and proffers his hand. He is not tall but he has considerable presence. The cataract operation he had 24 hours earlier is dismissed with a shrug. ‘I had to wear an eye patch for an hour,’ he says in a precise yet softly lisping Austrian accent. ‘But I am fine now. Thank you. Would you care to sit down?’ He indicates an upright chair a good ten feet from his. I notice on the table next to him a copy of the day’s Die Welt, the German broadsheet, open at his regular column. The byline is Von Lord Weidenfeld.

It reminds you of the other contrasts in his life. He is a Jewish immigrant who escaped persecution by the Nazis only to be honoured in later life by the Germans for services to their reunification. He is a Zionist who specialises in Nazi memoirs and who is, in his own words, a walking card index of the Third Reich. His friends include Helmut Kohl, Placido Domingo and Pope John Paul II. He managed to be chief-of-staff to the first prime minister of Israel for a year, as well as a member of Harold Wilson’s kitchen cabinet, and even now, in his 80th year, he has the ear of Ehud Barak, the new prime minister of Israel, as well as a number of New Labour Cabinet ministers. Eyebrows were raised when, just after the 1997 election, Peter Mandelson left a Weidenfeld dinner party early to go to Downing Street. Sir Nico Henderson remarked: ‘Not even Kissinger or De Gaulle leaves one of Weidenfeld’s grand dinners before the end.’ Lord Weidenfeld will be 80 tomorrow. There will, of course, be a party. ‘My friends in Germany and Israel also want to do something,’ he says, leaning forward and causing the armchair leather to creak. ‘So it will be like a birthday season, I think. It coincides with the 50th birthday of the firm [Weidenfeld & Nicolson]. We celebrated our first list in 1949 at Brown’s Hotel, and I keep thinking of all the people who were there who are no longer with us. Members of the Bloomsbury Set and the Gargoyle Club. The politicians of the time. The anniversary will have many memories.’

When celebrations and eye operations allow, Lord Weidenfeld keeps a schedule that would exhaust a man half his age. Already this year he has made 40 foreign trips; giving lectures; organising conferences between senior politicians in his Club of Three – Britain, Germany and France – an initiative designed to build bridges between these countries; setting up meetings for another of his forums, the German-Jewish Dialogue; working on his project to link six of Europe’s most distinguished universities with Oxford, in order that they work together in the field of European affairs.

The importance he attaches to solving great problems by encouraging great men to sit down and discuss great ideas is admirable – it’s very Enlightenment, very 18th-century, very Voltaire – but it can also look, in a certain light, a bit like social climbing. Where does he find the energy? ‘Well, the extraordinary thing is this: if you have the right state of mind, travelling can be calming. Not at all tiring. Barring delays in airports, and traffic jams in the holiday season, a foreign trip that is well prepared allows plenty of time for leisure, theatre and talking to friends. And you have hours on a plane where you can read and think undisturbed.’ Given that he seems to spend half his time in the air, it is safe to assume he has no fear of flying. ‘No fear at all. I’ve always been fatalistic about accidents. During the War, I did most of my reading during air raids. I couldn’t be bothered to run for the shelter. It was not a question of bravery or virtue, it was sluggishness.’ He says he has no real fear of death. ‘Not really, but then I don’t like to face the question in a detailed way. And I suppose people my age should. But I plan and predict and every so often I think, good God, delivery of manuscript in 2007! That’s a long way off. Am I going to see it?’

Weidenfeld was born in Vienna in 1919, an only child, part of a Jewish rabbinical aristocracy that dated back centuries on his mother’s side. His boyhood was spent in the company of adults, reciting Ovid every evening and listening to Wagner. Max Weidenfeld, his father, was an insurance agent who yearned to be a classics don. Max was also a Don Quixote figure, according to his son, always painting glowing pictures of his son’s future. ‘Temperamentally I aligned myself with him, sharing my father’s sense of fantasy. I grew up in a sort of hall of mirrors.’ It was generally thought that his father had a long extra-marital liaison with a good-looking blonde. His mother suffered the triangular situation and never showed her feelings. George, or Arthur as he was then known, seems to have been unaffected by this, at least in his youth.

He began studying law at the University of Vienna and, concurrently, at the city’s diplomacy college. It was at university that he learnt his skills as a womaniser – from a medical student who had a clinical detachment, an attitude more heartless than callous, which both impressed and disturbed the young Arthur. It was also here that he fought a duel to establish his credentials as a gentleman. As was the protocol of his Zionist fraternity, he approached a Nazi student and told him his shoe-laces were undone. Realising it was a hoax, the Nazi accused him of impertinence and demanded that their seconds meet. They bowed at each other stiffly. The Nazi’s seconds refused to give Weidenfeld satisfaction because he was a non-Aryan, so he had to proceed to the next degree of insult. He sought out the Nazi while he was dining in public and called him a coward. The duel took place, Weidenfeld sustained a few minor cuts and the honour of his fraternity was served.

This took place a week before the Anschluss. Five months later, in August 1938, Weidenfeld fled, arriving in London, via Zurich and Paris, with a small suitcase and a postal order for 16 shillings and sixpence. ‘The taxi driver took me to the wrong address for the boarding house – because he had mistaken an “o” for an “a” – and I ended up at a palatial house in Belgrave Square. The butler came out, looked me up and down and said there must be some mistake. He looked at the address and said, [It’s Belgrove, my dear fellow, King’s Cross.” The house belonged to Sir Henry Channon [“Chips” Channon, the Conservative politician].’

Arthur Weidenfeld soon found himself a job at the BBC, first in the monitoring service, then as a diplomatic correspondent reporting – under the name George Weiden because it was considered easier on English ears – about occupied Europe. In the evenings he would sit in the Waldorf opposite the BBC, and study the English rich, learning their manners, such as always arriving three minutes late for an appointment. Soon, the young Weidenfeld was being invited to join them. Once, when asked to tea at the house of a well-known landed family, the hostess said insouciantly: ‘I hear you come from Germany. Did you know the Goerings?’ Amazed at her naivety, Weidenfeld muttered something about having lived in Vienna, while the Goerings were rather busy in Berlin.

When I ask what advice he would give his 19-year-old self if he met him now, Lord Weidenfeld looks up at the ceiling and says: ‘Well, if I could live my life a second time I probably couldn’t avoid making certain mistakes again. I would have liked to have had a more conventional, more tutored education, though. I had to do so much extra learning myself because I couldn’t finish my university studies in Vienna. I wish I had in those days a more omnivorous appetite for acquiring learning, as oppose to socialising. Intellectual curiosity brings enthusiasm. But I also avoided drudgery and my high entry point into publishing gave me opportunities to enter into friendships with great galleon figures of English intellectual life: Ayer, Toynbee, Spender, Berlin.’

In 1948, he co-founded the Weidenfeld & Nicolson publishing house and, although he sold his shares for several million pounds in 1991, he remains chairman of the company. He describes his business partner Nigel Nicolson – son of Harold – as a great believer in friendship and loyalty and a true English romantic, who was always much more interested in quality than financial success. Among their earliest books was one about the coal industry by a young graduate called Harold Wilson. They were also the first to publish Antonia Fraser and Margaret Drabble.

Although there was a residual anti-semitism in Britain at the time of his immigration here, Lord Weidenfeld recalls, it was fairly harmless. ‘There was a strong sympathy of the upper classes for Nazism but, with the exception of such excretions as Unity Mitford, it was mostly mild. There were people who went to the Olympic Games and liked the German manliness but it was partly unthinking and they did it to shock bourgeois consciousness.’

Even so, he found it fairly easy in England to fit in. His father, who was imprisoned by the Nazis for a year, found it more difficult to adapt. The escape from Austria of Max and Rosa Weidenfeld was arranged from England by their son. ‘There was a role reversal with my father but I don’t think he found it humiliating. It was more a subtle transformation so that I became the father and he the child. I became the head of the family, taking care of my parents who couldn’t find their way in an alien land.’

On his death-bed in 1967 Max Weidenfeld began a letter to his son but never finished it. It read: ‘Whatever I may have done or failed to do for you, at least I tried to give you a sunny youth… ‘ I ask Lord Weidenfeld if he feels he, like his father, has any unfinished business. ‘Oh, I have an enormous amount of unfinished business. But I hope that it will be finished by others. At the moment I am hyperactive, I constantly take on new things.’ I point out that, actually, I meant unfinished more in terms of his emotional life, you know, his, um, relationships. He pauses to reflect. There is much to reflect upon. In 1952, Weidenfeld married Jane Sieff, the niece of one of the founders of Marks & Spencer, and they soon had a daughter, Laura. Jane left him for another man in 1954 saying that George’s work had come between them and that she couldn’t stand, ‘another breakfast with Trevor-Roper’. In 1956 he married again, to the statuesque bohemian Barbara Skelton. He had fallen in love with her while she was still married to his friend, literary journalist Cyril Connolly. Skelton wrote in her diary that she was obsessed with Weidenfeld sexually, especially with his fleshy, extravagantly hirsute body. In his autobiography, Remembering My Good Friends (1994), Lord Weidenfeld recalls how, soon after they met, Skelton invited him over to breakfast. He found her wearing a fur-lined jacket over pyjamas. She ordered tea. It was brought. ‘The moment the waiter left the room our love affair began.’ Some love affair: on their honeymoon he put to her the suggestion that she should release him without financial obligation after three years. In her memoirs Skelton was unkind about Weidenfeld. She described him as a magnetic but trivial man solely devoted to worldly values. She found his obsession with his work chilling. ‘Gush gush,’ he would whisper as she lounged sulkily at the head of a star-studded dinner table. ‘You simply must be more gushing.’

Their conjugal life, Weidenfeld recalls in his memoirs, was a disaster from the outset. ‘To my horror, Barbara imported a cat to Chester Square and hired a drunken butler who left taking all my shirts with him.’ The marriage was soon dissolved and she returned to Connolly. Weidenfeld’s third marriage was to a wealthy American, Sandra Payson Meyer. She, too, couldn’t stand the parties every night. Finally, in 1992, he married Annabelle Whitestone, a tall, blonde English Valkyrie, 25 years his junior, who was previously the consort of an even older Jewish man, the late Polish pianist Artur Rubenstein. ‘I might have made wrong choices or persuaded others to make wrong choices,’ Lord Weidenfeld reflects. ‘I am incredibly fortunate now – having not been incredibly fortunate in former marriages – to have found someone with whom I am very happy and fulfilled. Without wishing to sound sentimental this is the culmination of my life. The happiest period. To a large extent through this relationship. And I have a very good relationship with my daughter and grandchildren. They give me an enormous amount of pleasure and virtually no pain. Various elements in my life have been harmonised and I have few regrets. I am content.’

One way in which Lord Weidenfeld feels his life has been harmonised concerns his Jewish identity. Though he is an agnostic, he regards the survival of the Jewish people as being the central leitmotif of his life – and the founding of the state of Israel as being the most important event in the 20th century. ‘We have now reached a tremendous turning point for two reasons. Anti-semitism has been deprived of its two roots, homelessness and Christicide. First, the Jewish state has been consolidated into a critical mass of six million people. This is an irreversible fact of life. It gives a refuge and a chance for Jews, wherever they may be,to have a passport. This means that the icon of the wandering Jew no longer exists. Second, this Pope has now said that anti-semitism is a sin. He has said that the Jew is the elder brother of the Church. He has absolved the Jew of responsibility for the death of Christ. So all that remains of anti-semitism is a mild form of secondary xenophobia.’

In his autobiography, Long Life, Nigel Nicolson writes that Weidenfeld loves England. ‘Although I came to think that his spiritual home was Israel or the United States… I still have to think which nation he is referring to when he says “we”.’ So where do Lord Weidenfeld’s loyalties lie? ‘I am preoccupied with ideas of multiple identity and multiple loyalty,’ he says. ‘I have spent most of my time, and I hope this doesn’t sound too pompous, on bridge-building operations between Christians and Jews, Jews and Germans. My loyalties are not divided. They are cohesive. I think of myself as a British European Jew.’

But, come the day, where would he like to be buried?  Surely it must be Israel? ‘As you know, I don’t think much about death.’ A smile. ‘I would be very happy to be buried there. If there is room on the Mount of Olives, certainly. But my answer can’t be emphatic because I haven’t really considered it.’ Weidenfeld is an incurable optimist. He believes we have to be positive about Europe, and especially about the Germans. He recently attacked a British journalist for writing, ‘Admit it, we all hate the Germans.’

But if he doesn’t hate the present generation of Germans, surely he must hate the Jew-hating generation that was in power in the Thirties and Forties? ‘I hated the Nazi regime,’ he says. ‘I never hated the German past or German culture. I never hated Richard Wagner. I feel very happy with the present and the last generation of Germans who, as Helmut Kohl put it, have the great mercy of late birth. But if I were a Freudian, I would say the British have an almost erotic relationship with the Germans. Underneath all the hatred, they mean a great deal to us. We need them.’

For all his old man’s sweetness and his still youthful enthusiasm, impulsiveness and profligacy, Weidenfeld must have been, in his day, a pretty sharp operator. Nigel Nicolson notes: ‘He had greater resilience than me, an acuter mind, more daring… a gift for persuasion both in business and in friendship. In extremis he was a great fighter.’ Another friend describes to me Lord Weidenfeld’s incredible ability to look bored. ‘He sometimes has a look of utter tedium on his face and this makes people shrivel before him. But he is essentially a social animal. It doesn’t matter where he is, in a Vienna airport, a Manhattan apartment or the English countryside, his only landscape is human.’

A number of Weidenfeld’s achievements in business may have been facilitated, then, by his gift for manipulation – call it charm, call it social skill, call it conviviality. One friend recalls how, at his parties, he will grab you by both wrists as he talks intensely to you, then, the second he sees someone more interesting come in, he uses the grip to push you away, sending you spinning across the room. ‘Yet somehow,’ the friend adds affectionately, ‘one never minds.’

Weidenfeld really does know how to win you over, how to impress upon you his power and potency. It’s the erotic art and the papal portraits again. And, in what must now be self-parody, he really does offer just about everyone he meets a commission to write a book. It makes you wonder if there is a whole department at Weidenfeld & Nicolson devoted to fending off would-be authors that its chairman has recommended. Is the benign manner, the friendliness, something he can’t help then, or is it a more conscious affectation? ‘I like to be liked,’ Weidenfeld says. ‘A lot of people I have sneaking respect for don’t care, but I do. And it makes me a little vulnerable. But I also like to understand what is in the mind of a political opponent or a person who has done me wrong. At the same time I am consistent in people I disapprove of. Sometimes I show it, sometimes I don’t. There are certain people I would never have anything to do with, nor ever have. I’m not a great hater but I don’t approve of the Murdoch press. I think he has debased the British press. He has cheapened it and encouraged intolerance and prejudice.’

Lord Weidenfeld’s daughter, Laura, also speaks of his vulnerability. She says that all he really wants is acceptance. I would add that, for all his self-deprecation, he also makes himself vulnerable by wanting so desperately to be taken seriously. Not mocked, or thought trivial, or vain. Which is something of a paradox, really, because I suspect that part of his appeal with men has been that they find his earnestness endearing. How sweet, for instance, that he calls his autobiography Remembering My Good Friends. It’s a quote from Richard II. But unfortunately it sounds like one from Hello!. And with women, the attraction has been that, though he is clearly a survivor, they think him slightly hopeless: a brilliant man who needs looking after, who cannot drive a car, make coffee or work a video machine. They want to mother him.