George Weidenfeld has just celebrated his ninetieth birthday. It is a pretty fine thing to be that age, and still partying at two in the morning among four hundred guests. We were some 20 miles outside Geneva deep in the Swiss countryside. The host of this occasion, Norman Foster, the eminent architect, lives out there but his house was deemed too small and for this occasion he had designed and built a special pavilion on stilts and with several apple trees growing on the hill-side incorporated into it. At one point there was a tremendous show of fireworks, and next morning I heard it said that people all those miles away in the center of Geneva had been able to catch sight of the rockets and whatnots.
And who is George Weidenfeld? Everyone with an interest in books on either side of the Atlantic will agree that he is the most eminent of publishers in London. His is a wonderful story. Born in Vienna in 1919, he was still a teenager when the Nazis took over Austria. He managed to get himself on a scholarship to England, and to save his parents just in time. Sheer chance must have played its part, I suppose, but he’s an example of how courage and intelligence can win out in the end. After the war he built his firm, bringing to the public a range of writers, among them the best in the United States and Europe, altogether enlarging the parochialism of English life and letters. As you’d expect, he was never afraid of taking a risk. This extraordinary career adorns the times, and it is probably unrepeatable.
I was still a teenager when I first met him. My father had taken me to the Bayreuth festival, and George — a devout fan of Wagner’s music — joined us to call on Frau Winifred Wagner, widow of the composer’s descendant Siegfried. This woman had originally been Miss Williams from a Welsh valley not so far from the one the Pryce-Joneses come from, I am sorry to say. Framed and autographed photographs of Hitler and Goebbels stood on her desk, and she started telling us what great men they were, so fond of music, so generous in subsidising Bayreuth, and how much she missed them. I caught George’s eye, and we have been friends ever since.
All 400 guests at the party sat down for dinner at a single table that snaked inventively around on itself. When it was George’s turn to make a speech, he told the guests to note in their diaries the date ten years ahead for the party when he’d be a hundred. That’s his character in a nut-shell.