Anne de Courcy

The many lives of George Weidenfeld, legendary publisher and ladies’ man

Born in a poor quarter of Vienna, the refugee took London by storm, married four times, survived financial ruin and died eulogised the world over

George Weidenfeld in his library. [Getty Images]

‘You can go ahead,’ said the voice at the other end of the telephone. ‘The DPP has decided not to prosecute.’ It was the call that allowed the publication of Lolita, one of the greatest gambles of George Weidenfeld’s career.

The moment George – it is impossible to think of him as anything other than George – had read this controversial book, available from the Olympia Press in Paris, known for its pornographic list, he had wanted to publish it himself; but as the law then stood, it would have been pulped immediately, owing to its story of a middle-aged professor who becomes obsessed with a 12-year-old girl and kidnaps and sexually abuses her. The only glimmer of hope was that a new obscenity bill was being piloted through parliament, which proposed that if a work could be proved to have literary merit, it could be published and sold freely.

Mick Jagger’s ghosted autobiography, with its £2million advance,
never made it into print

Finally, in August 1959, it was passed, and 20,000 copies of Lolita were printed and shelved to await the verdict of the Director of Public Prosecutions. Would there be a prosecution and, if so, who would win the court case? The DPP remained silent, the copies stayed on the shelves and the uncertainty was agonising. Finally, in November, came the fateful telephone call, and seemingly within minutes all 20,000 copies had flown out of the bookshops, to be followed by edition after sell-out edition. The thumping profit set the fledgling firm of Weidenfeld & Nicolson on a secure financial footing as well as being a personal triumph for George.

He was in every way an extraordinary man. Clever, ambitious, steel-willed, ferociously energetic, idiosyncratic and so gregarious that one of his four wives later complained that they only had two tête-à-tête evenings during their marriage.

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