Publishing is a mysterious business. What do editors really do all day? Why is one manuscript accepted and another rejected? Do companies ever recoup the insane amounts they pay for the memoirs of a politician or a rock star? Is the publisher designated on the firm’s masthead simply the person who approves the finances and hosts cocktail parties? Some of these questions are clarified in such recent books as Robert Gottlieb’s “Avid Reader,” a memoir by the most celebrated American book editor since Max Perkins, and Boris Kachka’s “Hothouse,” which tracks the often steamy history of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. The most recent example of this tiny but often captivating subgenre is Thomas Harding’s “The Maverick: George Weidenfeld and the Golden Age of Publishing.”

Born in Vienna in 1919 to a Jewish family of modest means, Arthur George Weidenfeld escaped the growing Nazi persecution by making his way to England in 1938. He had little money but did possess a flair for languages, so after the outbreak of World War II he landed a job with the BBC’s propaganda section, writing commentary and broadcasting to Europe. He’d often lunch with his colleague George Orwell.

Weidenfeld was also a people person, gifted with irrepressible bonhomie and considerable personal charm. After the war, he decided to found a literary-cultural magazine — eventually named Contact — and managed to attract both well-heeled investors and well-known contributors (though he shortsightedly rejected Orwell’s seminal essay “Politics and the English Language”). In due course, the magazine morphed into a small publishing house, largely underwritten by the personal savings of Weidenfeld’s new business partner, Nigel Nicolson, son of writers Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson. Soon thereafter, the former Austrian refugee married his first wife — there would be four — whose wealthy family poured additional funds into Weidenfeld & Nicolson, as the company was now called.

At this point, “The Maverick” abandons conventional biography. Instead, Harding recounts his subject’s personal and professional life by examining a dozen or so of the more than 6,000 titles Weidenfeld brought out before his death at age 96 in 2016. These include Isaiah Berlin’s “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” Mary McCarthy’s “The Group,” Saul Bellow’s “Herzog,” James D. Watson’s “The Double Helix” and Albert Speer’s “Inside the Third Reich.” That last may come as a surprise, but Weidenfeld, an ardent Zionist in his youth and an unwavering supporter of Israel throughout his life, regularly acquired memoirs by former Nazis, maintaining that it was essential to understand the mind-set that led to Hitler and the Holocaust.

He also issued and championed many books about Israel, most of them by its leading political figures. But not all. As Harding shows in a surprising chapter, one of those books was journalist Max Hastings’s “Yoni: Hero of Entebbe,” a life of Yonatan Netanyahu, the only commando killed during a successful Israeli operation to free the passengers of a hijacked airliner. If Yoni’s last name sounds familiar, it’s because he was the older brother of the current prime minister of Israel. After agreeing to the project, the Netanyahu family naturally wanted and expected a work of heroic hagiography, but Hastings discovered, among other matters, that Yoni was much disliked by those under his command. Bowing to pressure from the Netanyahus and the Israeli establishment, Weidenfeld failed to stand by his author and instead censored, bowdlerized and cut the text. The young Hastings, needing money, was forced to accept this highhanded treatment, but as late as 2021, Sir Max — as he now is — could still say of his former publisher: “I thought George in every way a loathsome human being.”

And there, in a nutshell, is the central problem that emerges from this entertaining biography: How should we view George Weidenfeld? Harding makes clear that the former refugee possessed “a bottomless appetite for social engagement” and loved hobnobbing with the rich, powerful and aristocratic. He also allocated to himself an astronomical salary, callously outmaneuvered and humiliated his strangely complaisant partner Nicolson, hosted lavish receptions two or three times a week in his Thames-side mansion (a wedding gift from the wealthy family of his third wife), and tried to hook up with every attractive young woman who caught his fancy, his only rule being that they had to be older than his daughter. After Weidenfeld & Nicolson grew seriously cash-strapped, he even coaxed millions of dollars from his friend (and possible lover) Ann Getty to keep the company solvent in the wake of his imprudent business decisions. When, in 1976, the publisher was raised to the peerage, that honor was widely denigrated as a bit of quid pro quo, a parting gift from retiring prime minister Harold Wilson, whose dry-as-dust books the new Baron Weidenfeld of Chelsea had faithfully brought out ever since the first, “New Deal for Coal.”

It was also commonly believed that Weidenfeld — who couldn’t stand solitude — never actually read the books he published, though his secretary denied the rumor. Whatever the case, the waspish historian Hugh Trevor-Roper asserted — in a letter to art historian Bernard Berenson — that “George” had absolutely “no literary judgment. … He is, alas, quite illiterate, and doesn’t know how to begin to distinguish good from bad.”

According to Harding, Weidenfeld’s real gift was for “building bridges.” He managed to become a cultural power broker, a global influencer whose Rolodex contained the personal contact information for princes and presidents, not just writers. His living admirers — quoted throughout this book — include Henry Kissinger, Arianna Huffington, Antonia Fraser and Mathias Döpfner (chief executive of Axel Springer, which owns Politico, among much else), as well as several former employees of Weidenfeld & Nicolson. They all speak of “George” with the deepest affection and devotion. A friend of mine — himself once a major player in British publishing — privately described Weidenfeld to me as a “great man” but pointedly added that “as a publisher he was only as good as his best editors.”

However you may come to regard Weidenfeld or, quite possibly, question the fairness of Harding’s depiction of the man, “The Maverick” is packed with fascinating accounts of book deals and debacles during the “golden age of publishing,” as well as plenty of high-society gossip. Even Donald Trump, displaying his usual ignorance, puts in an appearance. What’s more, if you don’t skip the endnotes, which no wise reader ever does, you will also learn the secret behind the unprepossessing Weidenfeld’s shocking success as a Don Juan.

George Weidenfeld and the Golden Age of Publishing

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