Lord Weidenfeld may be nearly 90 years old but he is still a man in a hurry. He is squeezing in our interview before rushing home to pack for an important trip to Israel. This in no way takes away from the warmth of the welcome. His eyes twinkle, his smile is genuine and he gives the impression that this meeting is the highlight of his day — perhaps of his week.
But then, Weidenfeld is one of the world’s great shmoozers, a man who has the reputation of being able to charm more or less anyone. He has worked with presidents, prime ministers, a pope and just about every significant Israeli politician since the birth of the state.
Charm is one aspect of his success, but energy is another significant factor. Weidenfeld still overflows with enthusiasm for new projects (at one point breaking off the conversation to take a phone call about an important but still top-secret scheme).
Then there is the little matter of this week’s Israel trip — to accept the Teddy Kollek prize for lifetime achievement, awarded by the Jerusalem Foundation, a philanthropic organisation with which he has had an association for many years. The fact that the award is named after Kollek — who was mayor of Jerusalem for almost 30 years — makes it doubly poignant for Weidenfeld. “Kollek is one of the most interesting figures in the history of Israel and that is why I am so proud to be able to rest on his laurels,” he says.
If anyone is qualified to comment on Kollek, it is George Weidenfeld, who first met him 70 years ago in Vienna. They both belonged to a duelling corps at the city’s university. This prompts an account, delivered with some relish, of how Weidenfeld, who was Viennese by birth, participated in the last duel to take place before the Anschluss.
In an accent barely modified by his seven decades in Britain, he recalls the sword fight with a Nazi student. “It was a draw. I was small and he was much taller. But I was left handed, so it was very awkward for him. According to protocol I didn’t have to disclose my left handedness until half an hour before the contest.
“I managed to leave Austria soon after the Germans arrived [in 1938] but my father was in jail — in fact, I was very lucky to get him out. During this period a Nazi in a brown uniform came around to speak to my mother. He asked: ‘How is your son? Please give him my best wishes.’ It was the man I duelled with. I saw him once again, when I was in Austria with the BBC after the war. I looked him up in the phone directory and we shared a salami sandwich. He had been terribly injured on the Russian front.”
Journalist Quentin Letts once wrote that if Weidenfeld was a character in fiction, he would work best as a baddie, “the bulbous eyed, mittel European Herr Fixit who dabbles around power, enjoys the company of lithe legged lovelies and knows the Pope”.
Actually, in his younger days, Weidenfeld could have been the hero of a John Buchan novel — the fearless, dashing refugee who at 19 became the BBC’s youngest journalist, who started his own publishing house before he was 30 and almost simultaneously became political adviser and chief of cabinet to Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann.
He credits Kollek with getting him the job. He recalls: “I got to know Weizmann in London during the war. At that point he was an isolated man with time on his hands so I got to see rather a lot of him. We would sit and shmooze.
“When he became president I received a social invitation to spend a fortnight’s holiday with him. There was a split between Weizmann supporters and supporters of [Prime Minister] David Ben-Gurion. Teddy was a Ben-Gurion man. He said: ‘George, we need you there to establish contact between Weizmann and Ben-Gurion.’ So they offered me the job. Mrs Weizmann, who was very status conscious, insisted that her husband’s chief of staff must have at least the same rank as the highest civil servant. So I found myself without much Hebrew and at a very young age, with the equivalent rank as the head of the civil service.”
It should have been a dream appointment. But the young Weidenfeld had not only been shmoozing with Weizmann during his spell at the BBC. He had also been getting to know diplomat and politician Harold Nicolson, whom he told of his desire to open a publishing house. Nicolson was interested in funding it because his son, Nigel, wanted to stand for Parliament and needed a part- time job. Publishing, he thought, would be ideal.
So Weidenfeld had a dilemma: “I nearly had a nervous breakdown deciding what to do. After all, I had started the publishing firm with someone else’s money. Then [Harold] Nicolson called me up with a solution. He told me to go to Israel, but just for a year, because if I didn’t return, the company would go mehullah. I accepted. It turned out to be a formative year in my life.”
Indeed. Not only did Weidenfeld participate in the decision-making process of the fledgling state — it was 1949, a year after the war of independence — he also, as was his wont, made contacts that would result in a great many book deals in the years that followed.
“I retained an interest and a contact with these people,” he says. “I can say without exaggeration that I published just about every Israeli memoir that’s ever been done. I published Rabin, Peres, Golda Meir, Shamir and, of course, Kollek.”
Weidenfeld has had some very interesting conversations with some very powerful people. He recalls one with United States President Lyndon B Johnson. He says: “America was very hostile to Israel in the first 20 years of its existence — I know these things because I published Johnson. I spent a weekend at his ranch after he resigned. People talk about the Cuban missile crisis, but the real one was the 1967 Six-Day War. Johnson told [Israeli foreign minister] Abba Eban that America would not let Israel go under even at the risk of the Soviet Union intervening. So there was a risk of global war.”
Of all the Israelis he has published, he rates former Prime Minister Golda Meir’s memoirs as “very professional”, ex-deputy Prime Minister Yigael Yadin’s Masada as “a brilliant, trail blazing book”, and Shimon Peres’s autobiography as “very strong”.
He adds: “Most of them were ghosted but they were all pretty good. [Ex-Prime Minister] Yitzhak Shamir was a wonderful man to work with. He was completely honest with money. He told me: ‘I don’t want to see the contract, I trust you.’” And through publishing their books, Weidenfeld feels he managed to get a pretty good insight into the characters of his clients. “Napoleon said that no-one knows you as well as your valet. I say that no one knows you as well as your publisher.”
It is not just prominent Israelis who Weidenfeld is close to. He has, after all, sat in the House of Lords since 1976 and he has plenty of powerful friends in this country, too. So does he see himself as an establishment figure?
“I do not consider myself part of the British establishment. I am very grateful to this country for what I have been able to achieve, and I have contacts here. But I do not wear plus-fours or go shooting. It was possibly an advantage not to be part of the British class system.”
He is keen to add that his contact book is not confined to Westminster but also stretches to the US and the Continent. “I know Hillary Clinton, I know Barbara Walters and I am very friendly with the Germans. I had a personal friendship with [ex-Chancellor] Helmut Kohl and also with Angela Merkel.”
At this, the grand old man of publishing looks at his watch, raises himself from his chair and walks purposefully towards the door — the modern surroundings of his office at the Orion Publishing Group in London strangely out of keeping with his old-world Viennese charm. “I am afraid,” he says with that familiar twinkle in the eyes and a hint of shmooze, “that is where we must leave it for now, but there is much more we can talk about another time. Could I offer you a lift anywhere?”
EARLY LIFE: Born Vienna, September 13, 1938. Attended the University of Vienna. Left for London in 1938 after Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria.
CAREER: Initially worked for the BBC. By 1942, was a political commentator. In 1949, spent a year as political adviser to Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann. Founded the publishing firm Weidenfeld & Nicolson with Nigel Nicolson. Works published include Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, and memoirs by Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin. Was knighted in 1969 and made a life peer in 1976.
OTHER ACTIVITIES: Has served as governor of Tel Aviv University, trustee of the National Portrait Gallery in London and trustee of the Jerusalem Foundation.
FAMILY: Married to his fourth wife, Annabelle Whitestone, since 1992.