Commentary Magazine


Remembering My Good Friends, by George Weidenfeld

Peer of the Realm

Remembering My Good Friends.
by George Weidenfeld.
HarperCollins. 483 pp. $30.00.

To the world at large, George Weidenfeld is best known as a publisher, the co-founder and head of a famous London-based firm. In a somewhat smaller world, he is no less renowned for the dizzying range of his social connections. These aspects of his life naturally occupy a leading place in his newly published memoirs. But they are far from being the whole story: the book also contains a great deal of broad historical interest—and of Jewish interest in particular.

Weidenfeld was born in Vienna in 1919. His father, who came from a small town in Galicia, was a frustrated academic with an abiding passion for Latin who eventually prospered as the director of an insurance company. On his mother’s side, he was descended from the Horovitzes, a celebrated rabbinical dynasty.

It was a tangled background, and its complexity makes nonsense of simple either/or stereotypes. Weidenfeld’s family was Central European, but it still had living links with Eastern Europe; its members were secular, but still close to religion; they were profoundly Jewish, but deeply Austrian. And of course Vienna itself was an enormously complicated city, with ethnic groups, classes, political factions, and subcultures chafing against one another.

Weidenfeld evokes all this as it impinged on his childhood and upbringing. He does not just evoke, he also anatomizes and analyzes. He gives a brief, illuminating account, for example, of the gradations of Viennese Jewry, especially in its upper reaches. At the top came a small group who had mostly abandoned Judaism and who were completely “acceptable” (under the Hapsburgs, they had been received at court). But even at that stratospheric level there were subdivisions: some became Catholics, others chose the “halfway house” of Protestantism. And at the top of the top came the Rothschilds, who still belonged to synagogues and subscribed to Jewish charities but who remained rigidly aloof from the middle ranks of the community. (When, Weidenfeld recounts, one Hapsburg grandee was asked why he declined to receive the Rothschilds in his palace, he replied, “Well, they don’t invite Jews to their parties, either.”)

Growing up, Weidenfeld developed a keen sense of social codes and strategies, one that was sharpened still further by the worsening political warfare of Austria in the 30’s. It was a period in which party allegiances made themselves known in a dozen different ways: through styles of dress, catch phrases, methods of greeting. The socialists and Communists used the clenched fist, “though there were subtle nuances in the angle of your forearm and its distance from your face”; supporters of the Catholic party raised their arms and crooked their fingers in a gesture of benediction; local nationalists favored the fascist salute, arms shooting out at 90 degrees from the body.

And beyond that there were the rituals of Nazism—an object of horror for the young Weidenfeld, but also an object of study. “I always wanted to find out as much as possible about an adversary,” he writes, “to learn his ‘secret language,’ study his traits, manners, and mores and match my perception of the ‘other side’ with a clinical appraisal of how it sees itself.” Later, as a wartime specialist in German propaganda, he was able to pursue this research systematically.

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In 1938, immediately after the Nazi takeover of Austria, Weidenfeld left for England. (His parents joined him there the following year, but only after his father had spent fifteen months in a Nazi jail.) At first, alone in London, he led a floating refugee existence, centered mainly in the lobbies of West End hotels. Then, just before the outbreak of war, his linguistic skills won him a job with the new BBC monitoring service, and he found himself quartered in a country house near Evesham, a small town in Worcestershire.

He was a long way from Vienna; and now it was not only England he had to adapt to, but the special world of the BBC. In those days, as he says, the Corporation had a very strong internal culture; and “just as any imperial society leaves its most distinctive traces in outlying garrisons,” the BBC ethos could be felt more powerfully in provincial Evesham than in London. Nonetheless, he soon won the confidence of his superiors—his prowess at impersonating Hitler on the air was an undoubted asset—and in 1942 he was transferred to London and a new post. He became “a one-man script factory,” churning out talks and features on occupied Europe.

Weidenfeld has some interesting pages on London in this period, and on the impact of the Allied governments in exile that were based there; he also writes amusingly about his first forays into English literary or literary-cum-social life. Well before the end of the war he had conceived the idea of a magazine bridging the cultural divide between Britain and the rest of Europe, to be called Contact, and in 1946, after much travail, the first issue was finally published.

Contact failed to stay the course, but one consequence was that Weidenfeld branched out into book publishing. First came Contact Books, then Weidenfeld & Nicolson. (“Nicolson” was Nigel Nicolson, the son of Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West, as in Vita and Virginia.) Everything seemed to bode well for a conventional publishing career. And then an old friend named Flora Solomon, a mentor and mother-figure he found it hard to disregard, told Weidenfeld that it was time he “did his bit” for what was soon to be the state of Israel.

His Zionist links went back to his school days, when he had joined a junior Zionist fraternity and his mother had taken him on a brief visit to Palestine. In London, too, before joining the BBC, he had done translation work at the headquarters of the Zionist Organization and glimpsed many of its leading personalities. Later, he had become an intimate of the Marks and Sieff families, retailing tycoons and a dominant force in British Zionism.

Flora Solomon found Weidenfeld a job—a very special one. Soon after the establishment of the state, he was appointed principal personal aide (the official title was chef de cabinet) to Chaim Weizmann. Now in his early seventies, the great Zionist leader had been named President of Israel. His health, however, was failing, his eyesight was poor, and he was embittered by the thought that all the real power in the new state lay with the Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion. At the same time, Weizmann’s enormous prestige and his international links made him much more than a mere figurehead.

Working for him, Weidenfeld got to know many leading Israeli personalities and rising stars (to say nothing of visiting celebrities: Jascha Heifetz and Leonard Bernstein are singled out as among the most vainglorious). His account of the experience provides some striking insights into Weizmann himself, but it is equally worth reading for its picture of an emerging Israeli elite.

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Weidenfeld returned to London toward the end of 1950. But ever since his days with Weizmann he has remained closely involved with Israel as a publisher, a friend, a publicist, and a contact man. Moving in many different social worlds, he has never been afraid to show his sympathies in circles where Israel has not necessarily been popular, or—this too calls for a kind of courage—where it is regarded as less than chic.

But Israel hardly exhausts Weidenfeld’s political interests. In Britain, thanks principally to his friendship with the former Labor Prime Minister Harold Wilson (who ultimately made him a peer of the realm), he has spent a good deal of time on the edge of active politics; his publishing connections have enabled him to observe leading American and European statesmen at close quarters; and he has played an intermittent but lively part in cultural politics. One of his best chapters is devoted to a notorious milestone of the cold war, the conference “In Defense of Culture” which took place at Wroclaw, Poland in 1948. It contains a finely sardonic account of the Soviet delegates and their acolytes in full blast, of the British delegates (or at least some of them) mounting a protest against Communist machinations, and of wavering fellow-travelers being softened up and whipped back into line.

Weidenfeld’s chapters on publishing are a good deal more entertaining than such things usually are, containing some lively reminiscences of authors—Vladimir Nabokov above all, but many less-well-known figures, too. I particularly cherish the portrait of the Austrian historian Friedrich Heer, a “self-propelling rocket” whose torrential German monologues were punctuated with scraps of imperfectly grasped English: “Every three minutes he would use the phrase, ‘Don’t fence me in,’ without really knowing what it meant. But he was brilliant.”

As the book progresses, the social and sociable Weidenfeld is increasingly in evidence. For his friends (and I must own, or rather lay claim, to being one of them), knowing him is rather like having a special channel on your television set: whenever you turn to it, something interesting is bound to be going on. But the pleasures of the dinner party and intimate gossip are not always easy to capture on paper, and I think it must be conceded that in these later chapters there is a certain falling-off, a tendency to list names and settle for safe compliments. This is not to say that they fail to contain much that is enjoyable, including plenty of amiable anecdotes and shrewd observations. Still, it is in the earlier sections of the book that most of its value lies, and that value is a permanent one.

About the Author

John Gross is the editor most recently of The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes. His “Mr. Virginia Woolf” appeared in the December 2006 COMMENTARY.




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