Before embarking on this book, Jeremy Lewis was told by his friend Diana Athill that his subject, the newspaper editor and philanthropist David Astor, was too ‘saintly’ for a lively biography. As a publisher, she had worked on an earlier authorised tome, and thought she knew.
Lewis, and Astor, proved more resilient. There are always column inches in a well-connected plutocratic clan such as the Astors. And Astor’s mother, Virginia-born Nancy, was the gold-plated battle-axe who made Cliveden, the family house in Buckinghamshire, the centre of 1930s appeasement.
The story is really how Astor (born in 1912) took on his Christian Scientist mother, threw off the trappings of privilege, and became the owner and editor of the Observer during its mid-20th-century heyday. He was enough of a ditherer to spark Katherine Whitehorn’s (supposed) barb, ‘The editor’s indecision is final.’ But he was resolute in his opposition to all manifestations of injustice, particularly apartheid.
Astor’s upbringing may have been advantaged, but, with Nancy’s idiosyncracies, it was hardly conventional: when his family went on holiday to Jura, they hitched a special wagon to the train, and transported their own cow, so they could always have fresh milk.
Encouraged by ‘Red Robert’ Birley, his history teacher at Eton, Astor turned his back on ‘Schloss Cliveden’s’ ostentation and developed a social conscience, along with symptoms of clinical depression.
At Oxford, which he described as ‘vile’, he befriended Adam von Trott, a well-born Prussian who exerted a great influence on his life. The story of von Trott’s attempts to obtain British support against Nazism, and later for a putsch against Hitler, has often been told. He failed because too many people wrongly thought that he was a Nazi agent. But Astor believed in him and his anti-fascist ideals, and acted bravely on his behalf.
After joining the Royal Marines, Astor saw wartime action in France, where he was wounded and won the Croix de Guerre. He began belatedly to take an interest in the Observer, which was owned by his father Waldorf (Lord Astor), and particularly how it would position itself once the conflict was over. Believing passionately in social reform and opposed to any extension of Winston Churchill’s premiership, he gathered a team of like-minded writers and smuggled them past the incumbent editor J.L. Garvin into posts on the paper. Many were sharp-witted Europeans, like Sebastian Haffner, Isaac Deutscher and E.F. Schumacher, who had fled Nazism and who provided Astor with ‘the Balliol I never had’.
Waldorf now realised that David’s ‘constructive originality’ would make him a better replacement as editor than his older son Bill, castellan of Cliveden during its later notoriety at the centre of the Profumo scandal.
Around this time Astor wrote a remarkable document, ‘Memo on the Soul of the Paper’, which defined the Observer’s values as opposition to hatred and destructiveness, and respect for truth, reason and differences. Such a philosophical emphasis in public affairs was not particularly British, but it gave the paper an ethical backbone for its later radical campaigns, including those on abortion, abolition of hanging and African liberation.
Astor’s interest in the arts was limited. But he hired Cyril Connolly as arts editor and, although that relationship soon broke down, Connolly pointed him towards George Orwell, who joined the paper’s team of star writers. As an example of his management style, Astor paid for a private hospital room for Orwell during the latter’s final illness.
Astor’s heart was never really in daily news, but in the trends behind them. As the first ‘views-paper’, the Observer took commercial hits from its principled opposition to Britain’s Suez mission and from its more vigorous rival the Sunday Times, and Astor stepped down as editor in the 1970s.
His liberal activism continued into retirement when his wealth allowed him to support (massively) liberal organisations such as Amnesty International, Chiswick Women’s Aid and the Prison Reform Trust (he was the most celebrated champion of the murderess Myra Hindley after Lord Longford).
He tried to tame his personal demons through psychoanalysis. Every morning his chauffeur ferried him to Hampstead for an hour’s therapy at the Anna Freud centre. (His sense of entitlement never really disappeared.) At one stage, his driver was Ethiopian — an example of an Afrophilia which had no particular genesis, apart from his admiration for the anti-apartheid priest Michael Scott and his reaction against his overpowering mother, who, after meeting the Observer’s Africa correspondent, Colin Legum, declared, ‘So this is the man you have hired to turn our paper into a Coon Gazette?’
Never able to overcome his anxieties, Astor was prescribed lithium and, later, Prozac. Lewis goes easy on some personal details, including his subject’s liaison with the black American jazz singer Elisabeth Welch. But he masters several complex strands of material, writing confidently and entertainingly, while leaving Astor’s halo justifiably intact.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £21.00. Tel: 08430 600033. Andrew Lycett has written biographies of Rudyard Kipling, Wilkie Collins, Ian Fleming, Dylan Thomas and Arthur Conan Doyle.